I’ve been talking to Asher Boote (owner of Wellington restaurants Hillside, The Ramen Bar, BOL and Daisy’s) about burdock and it reminds me of dandelion and burdock, a soft drink from my childhood; a little Googling reveals that it is indeed made of the plant that Asher is so enthusiastic about. And it’s exactly this nostalgia, nudged by reference points of childhood memories, that defines Daisy’s mandate of Kiwi comfort food.

“Visionary or lucky? I’m not sure,” Asher says, though to be fair those were my words when discussing some of his bold choices in recent times. These include switching the menu at Hillside to be entirely plant based and closing down the well-known neighbourhood restaurant Tinakori Bistro, reimagining it as Daisy’s and opening in the middle of the COVID months with the hospo world in a state of flux.

It wasn’t meant to be like this – Asher bought the well-loved Thorndon eatery out of liquidation three years ago, aiming to rejuvenate the restaurant and make it buzz again, ready to sell on. And that’s exactly what he did, ticking all the boxes on the business plan when, with a buyer secured and contracts signed, COVID happened and killed the sale. It made him think: if he could make the restaurant into exactly what he wanted it to be, instead of sticking to the business plan, what would he do?

“I love neighbourhood restaurants – the sort of place where you feel welcome and they know you, a nice place to be and not too starchy. Somewhere where you know the food is really good and the place you go on the nights when you can’t be bothered to cook, but also where you choose for special occasions. I wanted a really special dining experience, because going to a restaurant is not just about eating.”

So, say hello to Daisy’s, named in homage to beloved radio personality Aunt Daisy who epitomises the eclectic, homely and honest food that Asher wants to cook.

The Daisy take on Kiwi comfort food has some of the traditional heritage you’d expect – think roast chicken with sage-and-onion stuffing and slow-cooked lamb with mint sauce – but also is a reflection of a cross-cultural New Zealand that embraces all aspects of our culinary past. “We’re elevating home food into a restaurant experience,” says Asher. Achieving such simplicity demands top-quality ingredients and Asher believes that knowing where food comes from makes it easy to celebrate high-quality, uncomplicated food.

With that in mind, another new project this year has been the transformation of a 1⁄4-acre block of land into a large garden which will eventually supply all the restaurants and perhaps grow ‘on request’ produce for other chefs. Having cleared the land of 21-years’ growth of head-high blackberries, Asher has got crops of beans in to improve the soil and has spent this first year testing out different crops to see what thrives. But it’s the prospect of growing heirloom tomatoes – and other crops, such as the burdock, that you can’t buy – that really excites him. “Although production is not as high, the flavour of outdoor heirloom tomatoes is unique, and you can’t get that flavour any other way than growing and picking them yourself, then getting them on the plate as soon as possible. It allows me to serve them in their absolute pristine condition. In the restaurant that means giving people something that they can’t get in a supermarket, and that adds so much to the restaurant experience. But, it’s not the easy way; I’ve never done things the easy way.” TRACY WHITMEY