(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - If you're a hardcore foodie headed to New Zealand for the first time because you've heard how good the produce is, its national airline knows how impatient you can be. That's why Air New Zealand roped in top Kiwi chefs Peter Gordon and Michael Meredith to prepare inflight menus that give you a taste of Maori hospitality even before you touch down in its gourmet capital of Auckland.
What Auckland lacks in skyscrapers and urban sophistication, it makes up for with a cosmopolitan population and amazingly diverse food. For them, it's not just about eating: their food (kai) is also about whanau (family and friends) and oranga (health and wellness) - qualities you'll find in abundance here.
If you don't want to waste time, you can hit the dining ground running with Pasture, a 20-seat restaurant located in Pamell, helmed by Ed and Laura Verner and their enthusiastic chefs. Theirs is the epitome of New Zealand cuisine, with menus built around seasonality, giving equal weight to both meat and vegetables.
Chef Verner is an ardent practitioner of fermentation, immediately evident from the collection of food jars on proud display. Service is at an unhurried pace, leaving you plenty of time to marvel at the meticulous preparation, and the bounty of the local harvest.
Not to be missed is their sourdough bread, made with deliberately soured flours and hand-milled rye grains. Laura Verner, though not a trained mixologist, patiently pairs each dish with her expertly concocted juice creations or selected local wines.
A must-stop on any food tour is Giapo Haute Ice Cream, for a mind-bending dessert experience curated by Italian couple Giapo and Annarosa Petrucci. Step into the parlour where there's not an ice cream in sight. Just two mini counters and staff who patiently describe all the details you need to make your choice. Each creation is an elaborate, colourful and wacky visual treat, limited only by the imagination of its creator.
Hardcore ice cream addicts can take part in the Ice Cream Experience, led by the owners themselves in a space above the shop. Not just ice cream makers but artists, the couple believe that their work is in a continuous state of evolution. "Each design takes us months to realise," Giapo elaborates. "We even have to construct moulds from the most unexpected materials to bring some of our sketches to fruition." The 14-plus courses of ice cream are a non-stop spectacle, with some of the creations as surreal as a Dali masterpiece. Each Experience has room for 12 people at NZ$45 (S$42) each.
No visit to Auckland is complete without a meal at the top of the city's iconic Sky Tower. Perched on the 53rd floor of the needle-like structure, The Sugar Club belongs to internationally renowned chef Peter Gordon. The menu showcases seasonal ingredients from around the country presented with international influences. Sounds like fusion, but executive chef Neil Brazier doesn't think it's a bad thing. He says: "Fusion cooking is our speciality. It speaks of a constantly evolving process and the fact that we are constantly trying to improve and push ourselves." The interior of restaurant is inspired by Italian Art Deco of the 1930s and offers stunning views of Hauraki Gulf and the Tasman Sea.
For oenophiles keen on New Zealand wines and the opportunity to meet some of the most influential winemakers in the region, do not miss the F.A.W.C! Food and Wine Classic at Hawke's Bay, less than an hour's flight from Auckland. Already into its sixth year, this week-long culinary festival brings together the best-known industry personalities of the country in an event-packed extravaganza on Hawke's Bay, a region along the east coast of the North Island recognised for producing some of the best wines in New Zealand. Hawke's Bay is the oldest wine-growing region in the country and the second largest, with a climate similar to Bordeaux, France. The region's output is dominated by red wine, accounting for 88 per cent of the country's Merlot, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Chardonnay.
Great wines are the perfect company for great food and one restaurant which scores on both counts is Bistronomy. Winner of the Best Regional Restaurant with chef James Beck behind the stove, expect to be wowed by a mix of local and global gastronomic delights prepared with the best Hawke's Bay produce. Beck spent eight years cooking at two Michelin-starred restaurants in Belgium and Amsterdam before returning to his home turf. The restaurant's decor leans towards Nordic and Japanese influences, while the food is modern with a touch of the avant garde.
For a personal encounter with the indigenous Maori culture and its food, Hinewai Hawaikirangi and Cameron Ormsby, a husband and wife of Maori descent, make the most affable of ambassadors. They run a tour that takes visitors to the Ahuriri Estuary, a coastal region 15 minutes' drive from the city centre. As participants trek in supplied boots through the wooded riverside, they gain insights into the Maoris' prehistoric music and its instruments. Cameron Ormsby demonstrates the hunting of seafood in the river while Hinewai cooks the catch in traditional Maori fashion. Lunching under the trees on lobster, scallop, abalone and other riverine delicacies gives you a deeper appreciation of nature's wild bounty and the amazing pleasures of fresh, unadulterated flavours.
And finally for those who are tired of eating out, Nadia Lim has a delicious alternative - all you need is access to a kitchen. Chef Lim, winner of MasterChef New Zealand Season 2, is the brains behind My Food Bag, which delivers fresh local ingredients with easy-to-cook recipes right to your doorstep. Whether you're cooking a meal for just yourself or a family of five, each parcel comes complete with all the necessary meat, vegetables, herbs and spice mixtures that you will need. Even special dietary requirements are all catered for.
"After winning MasterChef, I went to working in a kitchen, but soon, I realised it was not my calling," chef Lim says about her very popular business. "My Food Bag, on other hand, is like home cooking with all the conveniences. Every recipe is carefully planned with the ingredients packed according to the number of people to be fed." What started as a "solo performance" is today an enterprise with more than 20 chefs contributing to the brand's recipe development.
But whether home or restaurant chef, Auckland is the larder that cooks the world over wish they had.
12 Gore Street, Auckland
235 Pamell Road, Pamell
The Sugar Club
Level 53 Sky Tower
Corner of Federal and Victoria Streets
40 Hastings Street, Napier
My Food Bag
Napier Maori Tours