Jackson Mehlhopt has to be one of New Zealand’s youngest head chefs. At 21, he’s just picked up his first head chef gig at Gin Gin, a recently relocated gin bar on New Regent Street, Christchurch. Luke Dawkins, Gin Gin’s owner, had worked with Jackson on some pop-ups, and with Jackson wanting to move back to Christchurch to be nearer to his partner, the timing was perfect. But Luke wasn’t the only one to spot the potential of this chef. Very early in Jackson’s career, Giulio Sturla of Roots (Cuisine Chef of the Year in 2018) gave him a high degree of trust and responsibility and also taught him the power of saying no. “People are always trying to influence you, so saying no to letting yourself be influenced by others and following your own path is so important,” says Jackson.

Jackson has also worked with Vaughan Mabee at Amisfield (Cuisine Chef of the Year in 2019) and did a stint at Relæ in Copenhagen, a former regular on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. He is incredibly grateful for these opportunities and to the chefs who have taken the time to teach him.

Jackson pays homage to Ryan Henley, formerly of Christchurch restaurant Pescatore, whom he met when dining at the restaurant. “Ryan has not only helped me with job opportunities, however also as a mentor in life itself. I knew that he was trying to do something a little more creative and interesting with his food. I hadn’t seen that standard in New Zealand before dining at Pescatore.”

Being dyslexic, Jackson was homeschooled and early on he discovered that cooking gave him a way of fitting in and expressing himself. “Cooking came naturally to me as a way of creating and being part of the learning experience. Mum definitely sparked the interest in cooking when I was young. Right from the beginning this whole grow/catch your own food I was always attracted to; it felt natural and raw.”

This interest grew while working at Amisfield with Vaughan Mabee, who took him hunting and showed him how to make the most of Central Otago produce. Vaughan helped the young chef in myriad other ways, even giving him a place to live when he first got to Queenstown, introducing him to suppliers, helping build his relationships and keeping him on at Amisfield after the downturn caused by COVID-19, when many others in the hospitality industry were losing their jobs. “Inside of work he showed me you can be as open-minded as you want when it comes to food, there are no boundaries,” Jackson says.

“I believe that what we’re trying to achieve at Gin Gin is an elevated level of that: going foraging to get our own herbs; working with people that have sustainability at the forefront of what they do; [choosing] producers that take the most care and respect. Customers are starting to look for it.”

Humbled by the opportunity to lead the team at Gin Gin, he’s thankful to be able to work with producers and people who give as much care and respect to the food as he does. “We’ve got some amazing suppliers – such as Black Origin, Gravity Fishing and Tora Collective – who really care about the produce they’re providing and are truly inspirational.” Having been out fishing with Nate from Gravity Fishing he feels a greater connection to the food. “Nate’s really awesome, teaching people about his fish and getting them excited about what he does. Being open to having a good conversation and being super transparent is key.”

After learning from so many great people we asked him what would be his advice for others. “It’s a great career but hard and takes a personal sacrifice. If you can accept that, you can have the most amazing career ever. Being a chef has come a long way. It’s what you want it to be, not just about knife skills. Be open to new experiences. It’s about relationships and people in general and what you can learn from them to create a holistic experience, for example, learning how wine is made. It’s about so much more about life and the journey you are on.” gingin.co.nz

Follow @jacksonjame on Instagram to keep up to date with the dishes he’s creating at Gin Gin and their inspiration.