It took travelling to the other side of the world for Max Gordy to realise that New Zealand had a style of food. “At the Musket Room in New York, which was probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my whole life, Matt Lambert kind of opened my eyes to what New Zealand cooking was. I had a real simple dish, which was chicken with a bread soubise, which was just like a Sunday roast back home but made me think about food differently. It doesn’t sound super-Kiwi but when I ate it, it took me back to the Sunday roasts we used to do at Matterhorn.”

Max has gained much of his inspiration from his extensive travels. He’s worked and eaten at a lot of places such as Naha in Chicago (where Kyle Street of Culprit fame had been working some weeks before Max started) and i Latina in Argentina where Pablo Rivero, owner of Don Julio (The Best Restaurant in Argentina on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list), offered valuable advice about different cuts of beef, cattle breeds and cooking techniques. “I didn’t realize how awesome it was at the time,” says Max. “It’s just lucky I took heaps of notes.” Experiences such as this helped open his eyes and influenced him as a chef today. “There’s a certain confidence that you can sense from people’s cuisine,” he says. “That ultimately helps me be more confident with what I’m serving.”

The history of human migration – how we got to where we are – also interests Max and he finds the similarities between South American and Māori cuisine fascinating. “As I worked my way down South America’s different cultures through museums and galleries, the more similar to Māori art it became. I love how a lot of indigenous cultures through South America are celebrated and their cuisine has blended into more modern palates. Spending a month in Chile helped me to see the similarities in cultures of the Mapuche people and that of our Māori culture.”

Originally hailing from Chicago, Max moved to New Zealand when he was 14. After failing high school, his first job was at Hummingbird Eatery and Bar in Wellington where he started washing dishes. A short stint at WelTec showed studying cookery wasn’t to be, however it’s a conversation starter when talking to guests today; they can’t believe he doesn’t have a formal education, so he must be doing something right. Before travelling, he worked at some well-known Wellington restaurants including Shed 5 and Matterhorn for a couple of years under James Pask and Sean Marshall.

Now back in New Zealand, Max has made Wellington’s Hillside Kitchen and Cellar his home for the last three years. “Hillside is one of the longest roles I’ve held. It’s creatively challenging, which is what I was after. I’m learning more of the management side of staff and making sure customers have a good time, and learning how to serve people as well. The chefs serve the customers and get a sense of the food; the thought process of how we create it was really important to me. It comes across in the food when you can explain to the customer where the idea came from.”

“It’s so important to know where your food comes from: if you don’t know, then why are you serving it? I want to see my cooking evolve into the more sustainable fishing side of things. We’re an island nation yet some fish and chip shops might not be getting their fish from New Zealand, just whatever is cheapest, which I understand, but we need to celebrate our kai moana and do it right.”

By the time you read this he will no longer be at Hillside. Max is working on some personal projects – pops-ups, cooking demos showcasing the use of foraged goods and some collabs around New Zealand, as well as his work with Eat NZ as their kaitaki – before opening his own space. No date for an opening just yet as he and his wife Christina Persen want to find the perfect spot.

What can you expect from the new opening? Think wine shop and restaurant, a community-focussed eatery; the sort of place you can wander down to, sit back and relax, drink nice wine and eat nice food. Ideally with zero waste and a living wage for all of his staff. CATHERINE GEORGE