When I asked Conor McDonald which chef, if any, inspires him, he was unequivocal: Andy Doubrava.

I had never heard of Andy but the way Conor spoke of him made me feel that maybe I should have. With a quick check I discovered that Andy Doubrava owns Slow Burn, a ‘travelling restaurant’ in the US that is focussed on delivering ingredient-centred meals while reducing food waste. It turns out that before Slow Burn, he had been on the stoves as executive chef at Rustic Canyon, which has a reputation for its high-level sustainability ethos and a menu stuffed full of preserved, fermented and cured foods. When I put together this intel about Andy Doubrava and Rustic Canyon, a clearer impression of Conor McDonald’s food world began to form.

Conor is a quietly-spoken, unassuming bloke and not an easy read. I first came across him when he contributed to a collab dinner at leading Auckland restaurant Paris Butter. His dishes, while fascinating, were not as structured as some of the others and this made them stand apart. “When I eventually get a place of my own I want the menu to be small plates of casual, unfussy food. I like seasonality on a menu and I like multi-course tastings that allow me to include fermented and cured foods, pickles and locally harvested ingredients.”

This is totally in the style of Andy Doubrava and it’s also why Atlas in Wellington, where Conor is acting head chef, is a comfortable fit. “I totally feel at home in the Atlas kitchen. The menu features all the elements I like: smoked, cured, fermented foods plus seasonal ingredients including high- quality meat and line-caught fish.”

However, changes are afoot. Conor reveals, “We will be launching a new offering at the space that currently houses Atlas – a more casual, fun atmosphere and food offering, a wine-bar style with an extensive list. It’s due to go live in early August, no name finalised yet. I am very excited to head up the kitchen, working closely with our group executive chef James Pask.”

Twenty-nine-year-old Conor travelled a circuitous route from his home in Ireland to Aotearoa. “I came here about four years ago. I left Ireland in 2017 and headed to Vancouver for a working holiday. I stayed about two years before deciding to come on down to New Zealand. Soon after I arrived I did a trial at Ortega here in Wellington but it wasn’t the fit I was looking for. Teresa [Pert] knew Jimmy Pask who was opening Atlas and so I went to see him. Here I am.”

Conor has also cooked at a Michelin- starred restaurant in New York, a little surprising for someone with no formal training. “I never went to culinary school. In fact, I was at Dublin University studying English Literature. But I always knew I wanted to cook. I moved to New York for the summer to finish an element of my degree and ended up cooking as a commis in mid-town restaurant Betony which at the time had a Michelin star. It didn’t pay well but I loved it. It was run by a really clever guy, Bryce Shuman. The sous chef there, and someone I had a bit to do with, was Kenneth Foong who is now head chef at Noma.” Not bad for an Irish academic who likes to cook.

Another facet that distinguishes Conor from other chefs is that he runs marathons, recently completing the Christchurch marathon in a highly creditable 3 hours 37 minutes. He also takes the time to eat out.

“I am very impressed with New Zealand. It has a good-sized population and it’s hard to match it for great fish and world-class meat. The wine and beer here is also really good quality.

“But I believe high-end restaurants will continue to struggle, especially post-COVID. I see the market for more casual, shared-plates tasting menus as being really strong, which suits me to the ground.” Without playing favourites, Conor rates the new-ish Wellington eatery Margot and names a meal at Ed Verner’s Pasture as one of his more memorable. I am not surprised about that. I see shades of Ed Verner in Conor, which in itself makes him one to watch. atlas-wellington.co.nz