Masterton, yes Masterton, may well be the incubator for this country’s most dedicated chefs. Evidence? Lizzie Rogers.

Lizzie is a 22-year-old chef de partie currently working at Koji in Wellington. And, by all accounts, she is doing an extraordinary job.

Koji, in Majoribanks Street, is the uber- popular love child of co-owners Johnon MacDonald and Kat Strand and is where they dish up Asian-inspired shared plates built around local ingredients given a fresh spin and some non-traditional twists.

Johnon describes Lizzie as, “incredibly passionate, one of the most enthusiastic chefs I have ever worked with.” To back up his contention he tells the story, which perhaps should not be shared, that when planning the roster for this coming Christmas, Lizzie requested that she be given that day’s service to look after. “Lizzie’s family may not be impressed, but this young chef can’t get enough work. She just soaks up every experience and loves the challenge.”

There’s clearly a whole lot of mutual respect going on here. Lizzie thinks Johnon is the ‘bee’s knees’. “I just love Johnon. Honest to God, he’s the best. He’s one of the most inspirational bosses I’ve worked with. He’s so passionate and he listens to you. He’s super- interested in what you have to say and that’s so motivating. And he’s from Masterton.”

Johnon is not Lizzie’s only inspiration. “I’ve been wanting to cook for always. Mum and Dad love food and are good cooks. Dad is an Ottolenghi fanatic. My uncle was a bartender and when he told me about his job, I thought it sounded like the coolest job in the whole world and I knew I wanted to work in hospo. He is, as it happens, also from Masterton.”

Lizzie’s formal introduction to the kitchen came early. “It was after my Year 12 Christmas holidays, my first day back at school and I knew I didn’t want to be there, so I left. I was 16. I did a few things but then got a job at Portlander, a restaurant-café at Rydges. I loved it. I worked with this super-motivated chef, Dane Andersen. He was amazing and is perhaps, up until now, the chef I look up to most. He moved to Australia and at one stage I considered moving to Melbourne to work with him, but Covid intervened. He’s incredible and he’s from Masterton.”

High on a tall list of credits that Lizzie values is the support of her family. “There were a few mixed reactions at first, especially about leaving school, but they have backed me all the way. It’s a really nice feeling especially when they come into the restaurant and say, ‘You’re doing a good job, Lizzie.’ They still live in Masterton.”

For a few months Lizzie worked at Paris Butter in Auckland. “Paris Butter was amazing super fun. I really enjoyed it there but when Covid came along I felt like I needed to be closer to home, closer to family. So, I came back to Wellington and worked at Hippo from 2019 to 2021 with Jiwon Do who opened my eyes to Asian and French food. I learnt so much from him. Then I found Koji and this is where I feel really at home. The team is super, super supportive and kind and I just want to keep on learning.”

While on-the-job experience has been instrumental for Lizzie’s progress, she credits her time at WELTEC as also being essential in her development.

“Everyone at tech was brilliant. I remember coming home after my first day at cooking school and crying my eyes out. I was just so excited about being around twenty other students who all felt the same passion for food and cooking as I did. And Wellington has such a beautiful food culture. We, the Koji team, went to Margot a while ago. It was so epic to find a place full of hospo people on a Tuesday night. So many people I knew.”

For now, Lizzie is content to remain at Koji, soaking up the food culture and adding to her skill set. “I am really enjoying the grill but I am working on developing my pastry knowledge as well. I want to learn it all.”

As for the future, owning her place is a distinct possibility. “I feel that, eventually, I’d like to open somewhere small and local. I’m sure Dad would come in every day. Especially if it is in Masterton.” KERRY TYACK