We catch up with Georgia van Prehn, a young chef who is getting noticed.
It was two weeks into her first head chef role at Scotch restaurant in Blenheim and Georgia van Prehn got the jitters. Throwing out the original plan to gradually introduce her own food onto the menu, she had decided to switch to her own dishes almost straight away, but the anxiety levels were high and, nervous that she wasn’t doing a good job and worried that no one would like her food, she had nightmares that she’d forgotten how to cook. Then Al Brown came for dinner… and he liked it. Liked it so much that he phoned Cuisine editor Kelli Brett and told her about this young woman who was doing great things with local produce. It was dishes such as roasted and dehydrated beetroot – sliced into thin rounds to create a ravioli stuffed with smoked yoghurt and served with a whey butter sauce – that impressed. As luck would have it, some members of the Cuisine team were in Blenheim and Kelli sent them in to check out the menu that very night.
Looking back on that Georgia says, “I think when Al Brown came in, that really gave me confidence that if some people like my food, that’s enough. Not to say it’s never been a dream to get hats and think about accolades: I definitely have. I think it was just the last thing on my mind when I moved here. I was focussed on doing my job.” And doing that job so well that Scotch was awarded one hat in the 2019 Cuisine Good Food Awards.
A year and a half later, though the Cuisine hat is clearly a ‘nice to have’, that’s not what drives her to work every day. After dipping her toe into the waters of hairdressing and front of house, she had that ‘yes’ moment after putting up her hand to fill a kitchen staff shortage at the restaurant at which she was waitressing. “The moment I got into the kitchen I knew that’s where I wanted to be. I just love cooking and love making people happy with food and wine. I remember that first service back [after lockdown]. I was so happy. I love service, I just find it so much fun. I don’t want to be anywhere other than a restaurant and I really really missed that over lockdown.”
Born in Hong Kong, with a childhood spent in Singapore and teenage years in New Zealand, once cooking had captured her she headed to the restaurant meccas of Melbourne and London. Sadly it was the suicide of a close friend, also a chef, that drew her back home. “The idea of working in really gruelling kitchens over there – because kitchen work can be loads of hours and really shitty work-life balance – changed things and probably led me to move back to New Zealand and be around close friends. It led me to Blenheim because there is a bit more work-life balance here than in a big city.”
Now in charge of her own kitchen, she aims for a nurturing relationship with her team, an approach she developed after trial periods in old-school restaurants with kitchens running on fear. “A lot of the places I’ve worked have had really lovely chefs who weren’t drill sergeants and weren’t trying to put fear into you. They taught me that you can actually be nice to someone and still get what you want. In saying that, you do get results from being a drill sergeant, I’ve definitely learned that from being in those environments. It is effective but whether it’s right… there’s got to be another way.”
Georgia says that she’s always been a firm believer that you should follow your heart and do what you want. As in life, so with food: “I cook food that I want to eat myself. I think that’s the only real way you can cook because I think if you try to cook for other people, that’s when seasonings and flavours get lost because you’re not cooking to your palate. So I think, as selfish as it sounds, as much as I really like making other people’s nights happy, I get a real kick out of it for myself.
“I’m so happy when I eat a good meal, I’m really disappointed when I eat a shit one. I love eating food and I love cooking food. I think it’s a huge part of culture and it’s something you do every day of your life; I wholeheartedly believe that you should make every meal you eat delicious.”
Making every meal delicious will still be her aim now that she’s leaving Scotch to plan her own venture, leaving the kitchen in the very capable hands of Mark Diu. ■ Interview by Matthew Patrick, words by Tracy Whitmey