MATTHEW PATRICK talks to a chef building a cult following.
PHILIPPINE-BORN Carlo Buenaventura always knew he would end up working with food. But to be doing it this early in his professional life, and mostly in the kitchen, still comes as a surprise. “I’d always had in the back of my mind that I’d love to own a restaurant. I thought I’d study to be a doctor and then later, when I had the means, open a restaurant. Cooking itself wasn’t something I had ever aspired to.” In hindsight, he admits, it seems inevitable that the young boy who would sit in his grandmother’s kitchen dissecting longanisa and quizzing her on its composition before helping to cook, would end up in food.
After initially pursuing pre-med and completing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Carlo knew that despite its reliability as a steady career path – an important factor to consider at home in the Philippines – his heart wasn’t in it. Following encouragement by a few astute friends, he hesitantly took a chance on culinary school and the gamble paid off. What he discovered was a profession that wove together all that he loved – creativity, good hospitality and hard work – and which made achieving his long-held goal of opening a restaurant all the more likely.
On completion of his programme in Manila he set out for New Zealand, landing in a hotel kitchen in Queenstown where he sharpened his skills under two French chefs before scoring a position working alongside head chef Dave Verheul at Wellington’s Matterhorn. A varied roster of two days on larder, two days on pastry and two days on hot garnish gave Carlo the opportunity to round out his skill set, while soaking up every morsel of advice Dave offered. “Being new to the country it was important for me to learn from someone who had grown up here and had a deep understanding of New Zealand food and New Zealand diners. Dave was my first Kiwi chef and he went beyond teaching me how to prepare and showcase New Zealand produce; he showed me how a restaurant team can work collaboratively and in support of one another.”
In this spirit of collaboration, Carlo teamed up with former Matterhorn colleague and pastry chef, Will Cook, to create The Cult Project, a pop-up restaurant they launched in 2016 after both completing stints at Orphan’s Kitchen. Most well known for their low waste ethos and one-of-a-kind popups, The Cult Project has gone from strength to strength and built itself, well, a cult following. With 40-plus pop-ups under his belt, Carlo now runs The Cult Project on his own and has taken the chance to showcase what it’s like to be a Filipino cooking in New Zealand. “It’s only recently that I’ve reconnected with my inner-Filipino and I like to think I’m Kiwi too,” he says. Drawing on his cultural background along with inspiration from New Zealand’s seasons and surroundings, he’s enjoying plating innovative cuisine that is truly personal to him. Whether The Cult Project will morph into his first restaurant, he’s unsure. For now he’s working on taking the pop-ups to new levels (next at UnserHaus on 20 October and 24 November) and will be soaking up even more inspiration during a summer at Nick Honeyman’s seasonal restaurant, Le Petit Léon, in the south of France.