Guanaja water ganache with yuzu custard, calamansi & honey tuile

Think of those meant-to-be dessert combinations: strawberries and cream; lemon and lime; chocolate, salt and caramel; mango and curry. What? Curry on dessert? We’re talking mango and yellow curry sorbet with coconut panna cotta, caramelised pineapple and lacto-fermented pineapple water – that’s what Kenji Yoshitsuka wowed diners with when he was invited to take part in Paris Butter’s Next Generation collaboration, a series at which some of New Zealand’s up-and-coming chefs collaborate and share their creative power.

“We really brought ourselves into the menu,” says Kenji. “They said, ‘Put yourself on the table. Let [the diners] get to know you.’ We were all from different backgrounds and my usual flavour combinations are different to other people’s.”

So on that night, diners got a hint of Kenji’s “interesting” childhood spent in the Philippines, Japan and the USA, laced with the Kiwi flavours he has learned since coming here, chasing international experience to expand his skills. “Putting these influences together is something I try to do. The flavour profiles I use match what I grew up with, but I don’t cross the line.”

Just take a look at the exquisite plates he’s creating in his role as executive pastry chef at Good Group Hospitality, which encompasses Auckland’s Harbourside and Botswana Butchery among other venues. Clever flavours marry with a presentational flair that references Kenji’s skills in art, painting and sculpture and his photography hobby fills an Instagram feed that elicits all the cliches of ‘too good to eat’ and ‘pretty as a picture’. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that Kenji names edible artist/pastry chef/chocolatier Janice Wong as inspiration. It was a visit to the Janice Wong Dessert Bar in Tokyo that first had Kenji fired up. “I told myself, ‘I think I know what I want to do in future.’”

Still only 26 years of age, Kenji started cooking in Japan aged 17, where his mentor at culinary school introduced him for a role at Aquavit, the Tokyo outpost of the famed New York restaurant. When it was time to broaden his experience he headed to New Zealand and within two weeks of landing he’d secured a position at Clooney. There he worked very briefly with Des Harris, with renowned Japanese-American chef Jacob Kear – who further developed Kenji’s skills in the Scandinavian style he himself had learned from René Redzepi at Noma – and with Nobu Lee. It was a big jump for Kenji: his first real pastry chef role (a leap for someone who admits he had never even heard of sourdough until then); his first encounter with Kiwi flavours such as tamarillo and feijoa in place of the tropical flavours he knew.

That’s a high-voltage start, but Kenji doesn’t big-note himself. “I’m still trying to find my niche,” he says. “I’m working on my identity as a chef, and exploring to see what else I can do. The people I work with inspire me to do better. At Clooney there was a mix of really incredible chefs, many with Michelin experience, and I was so lucky to have that early in my career.”

Kenji took up the role at Good Group around 18 months ago. As a next step, the executive pastry chef position should be a chance for building a team, spending more time on recipe development and letting his imagination soar. Mindful that it is his first time taking a role with such responsibility, he has embarked on a lot of personal studies, research and training, and he has become adept at subtly balancing the traditional, more conservative, Kiwi desserts beloved by the restaurants’ clientele with the more innovative demands of fine-dining and his own creativity. Yet Kenji admits that the industry-wide staff shortages plaguing hospitality have so far kept him hands-on with the day-to-day service across the restaurants. But as a young chef brimming with creativity and inspiration he won’t let this hold him back. “I’ve got so much more to learn and so many more things I want to explore. This is a good place to put myself to be a bit playful and be a bit more out there.” TRACY WHITMEY