Fleur Sullivan | Restauranter & writer
Moeraki, North Otago, New Zealand, March 2013
‘It’s a long way to come for a bit of fish on a plate its got to be good, its got to be a whole experience - this is what we do, this is it.’”... more words below images
Coming from Clyde in Central Otago with its predictable and defined seasons over to the east coast of Otago, Moeraki was a new voyage of food discovery!
As I rambled around the first few months ‘everything’ kept growing, seeding, growing and producing again. I found a continuous supply of wild herbs, free range potatoes (dating back to Captain Cook, sealers and whalers etc.), banana passion fruit, apples mushrooms, puff balls, fennel, native spinach, pears quince, Japonica apples…The reefs and rocks had all the paua, mussels and seaweeds you could ever want and creeks and ponds provided the sweet koura, eels and water cress.
Then I met the fishermen, went out on their boats and that was the end of me. The fillets were of no interest to me - just the frames, livers, roe, the odd conger eel and, where a woman on a fishing boat with just a smidgeon of privacy could go to, the toilet.
The high on a hill land my house sits on pretty much had no sail. My dad always said ‘never buy land you can’t grow stuff on’. My mother always made her compost in a medium to large black bin bag, so with the addition of seaweed to the bin bag I have done the same.
As a chef I appreciate anyone who is growing produce, right down to those roadside stalls. There were no supermarkets when I was a child, my great aunts divided looking after the cows, the turkeys, the calves etc. and did the gardening. Dad grew big squares of vegetable garden but he also grew big squares of flower which mum used to growl about! It was a life where the family of nine brothers and sisters and their families stayed in the same area. It used to worry mum that as children we would see a cow get killed and hung up and stripped and all that sort of stuff but it made us completely practical. When I was nine or ten I could drive the car up the river road with dad on the running board shooting rabbits – it was just stuff you did!
I remember the great big apple and plum trees that mum had and the joy of picking those fruit and preparing and cooking them. Every house that I ever went to as a kid after school there would be some different smell and some different thing happening in the kitchen – cabbage, roast meat… This showed me how everybody liked different things and it kindled a curiosity in me. I remember when I was five seeing the nuns in the convent and there was a big kitchen with a big, big wooden table and the nuns had their habits and aprons tucked up and they were making bread or scones or something and I looked in there and I thought it was like one of those golden books you read as a kid, the big ovens, the big tables it was like a Walt Disney movie – only it was real!
For me being a chef involves loving what you have cooked and loving the fact that someone has come all this way to eat it. I live and breath this and I’d climb up a big tree to get the juicy thing off the top to bring here and put it on the table. I am not doing this for any other reason other than the bounty of it all, the giving and all of that side of it - that’s the only way that you can enjoy doing this. During the Rugby World Cup we had a crowd of 14 Argentinian supporters arrive at 4.00pm just as we were finishing up our lunch service, I went in and told the kitchen and they were not happy at all so I said ‘ Okay, make up your mind, if this meal isn’t cooked for these guys the restaurant is closed for ever. I was quite surprised at myself but I felt that if had had to go outside and say ‘sorry they are all on break for two hours’ then I don’t want to have a restaurant.
A lot of what motivates me is not letting myself down, I am exactly the same when I come to work as I am at midnight – exactly the same standard.
Some people get upset if there’s a worm in their salad, I can hardly keep a straight face! I look at them and I’m thinking ‘yeah because nothing’s been sprayed’ When you come here you are likely to get a slug in your salad and I’m proud of that. We are often missing the joy of living, the joy of giving and accepting - for me there is perfection in imperfection. The fish comes up the wharf from the boat on a trolley and is weighed. I can then take that fish to a table and say ‘choose your fish’ and some will say ‘oh I don’t want to see their eyes, I don’t want to see their head’ – not many do thank goodness! The fishermen got up at five o’clock this morning to catch that, a young girl filleted it in the freezing cold.
The lovely thing for me is that most people are no longer comparing me to the sorts of restaurants you get in Auckland’s Viaduct. I just say to people ‘this is what we do’, we work hard to get the fish on a plate and it’s a long way for people to come for a bit of fish on a plate. They deserve acknowledgement, good manners, being well looked after. I like to make sure everybody here is focusing on that - its got to be good, its got to be a whole experience.