By Cuisine4 Minutes
September 3, 2021By Cuisine

Fermenting has been around since Adam was a lad, but Auckland chef Russell Holder has claimed this artful science as his own.

Russell Holder is a planner and a thinker. He likes order and structure. But he’s also insatiably curious, which is why he’s found a happy niche in the funky world of ferments. “It’s like a deep dive down a rabbit hole,” the Auckland chef says. “The more you do it, the more it draws you in.”

The ancient process of fermentation is as old as food, an exercise that’s both deceptively simple science and mind-blowingly complex artform. Russell says it’s a crucial element in creating dishes with an undefinable je ne sais quoi, a literal ‘secret sauce’. “Ferments have an underlying flavour note; people can’t put their finger on it, but they know it tastes better,” he says.

In Russell’s hands even a simple ferment can play a part in something multi-storied and magical. Take his eggs Benedict, for example, which features hollandaise made from shio koji, yellow corn masa miso and nutty brown butter, red onion pickled in chilli, nasturtium and pear vinegar, and pickled nasturtium capers.

Another example: a zero-waste project aimed at using up 5kg of organic lemons turned into a nine-month odyssey that resulted in an intense lemon-skin barley miso and citrus koshu (plus quite a lot of lemon curd and dehydrated lemon-skin powder). “Sometimes I think of the dish and work backwards; sometimes it’s the other way around,” Russell says. “I’ll think about things for a while but with fermentation there’s always an end point – I’m making them to be used in a dish. It’s part of my armament of how I build up flavours.”

Russell has been a chef for a little over a decade. He got into the game later in life, after a career making surgical instruments. He came to New Zealand from his native UK 17 years ago (“my wife and I came here for a three-week holiday, then we went home, packed up everything and came back”) and decided what he really wanted to do was cook. He got his first chance in a sole-charge job in a New Plymouth café and bakery and was hooked from the start. Since then, he’s worked in a variety of cheffing jobs here and in Australia, including running his own place and working for coffee roasters, corporate caterers and Farro Fresh. He’s currently working with Red Rabbit Coffee Co., with a few projects in the pipeline. “I’m really inquisitive and I do a lot of research, through books and online, and I’m constantly trying out new dishes and flavour combinations,” he says. He’s one of those chefs who cooks all day and comes home to keep doing it. “I guess I’m stupidly addicted to food and making things. I one hundred per cent love what I do now.” LUCY CORRY

NOTE Fermentation is an exacting process. Make sure your measuring jugs and weigh scales are properly calibrated, and stick to the ingredient list like a pedant. The best way to sterilise jars is to run them through the dishwasher and then allow to air dry.