Tom Tilbury wants local and organic produce to be a feature for diners at his restaurant.

There’s no doubt Vaughan Mabee has ticked off some impressive bucket-list experiences in the chef sphere. From time spent at Spain’s Restaurant Martín Berasategui, in the town of Lasarte-Oria to working under René Redzepi at Copenhagen’s Noma – it’s quite the culinary passport.

But after spending time cooking abroad, Vaughan is now home in New Zealand adding another accolade to his list as Executive Chef for Amisfield Bistro in Central Otago.

A love for the unique, quality produce found in New Zealand is one of the many reasons for his return. It’s this love that now drives his menu, which gives a respectful nod to product and true sense of place.

Amisfield is known for its pinot noir and aromatic whites.
Amisfield is known for its pinot noir and aromatic whites.

When did you realise cooking was something you wanted to pursue professionally?

Cooking and food has always been a huge thing in my family. I was interested in food from a young age, and spent time cooking, fishing, picking mushrooms on our farm and baking with my mother.

Before I knew I was going to be a chef, I was already cooking a lot at home and it really moulded my upbringing and my childhood. I started working in a kitchen in my teens, washing dishes and peeling potatoes at a restaurant in Auckland. While I was there, I worked with a bunch of cool chefs and I found myself really inspired by what they were doing, and it pushed me to get myself into the kitchen as chef.

Growing up you spent a lot of time on the ocean, has this resulted in a love for cooking seafood?

A lot of my menu revolves around seafood for sure. What I love about using local New Zealand seafood, whether it’s our blackfoot abalone (paua) or blue cod, is that it’s a product that only lives in the waters here. I also think a lot of the stuff like whitebait and seafood that my parents cooked and the way they made it back then inspired me to do that kind of cuisine again. I now interpret those dishes in a different way and cook them with a different angle at Amisfield Bistro. It’s like a way to show people where I come from.

The bistro and winery are located near Lake Hayes.
The bistro and winery are located near Lake Hayes.

How would you describe the philosophy behind your menu at Amisfield Bistro, and what experience do you hope to create for guests?

Central Otago is a great place to be as a chef; it’s like a huge melting pot of so many amazing wild ingredients which really inspires us in the kitchen. The food philosophy emulates the wine philosophy in the region and is very much climate-driven. We focus on using hyper-local produce and products endemic to New Zealand, and making them the real star of the show by not putting a lot of other ingredients with them. Our menu is always changing, it doesn’t stay the same for more than a day, as it’s really directed and inspired by what’s going on around us. That includes what fish has been caught that day to what pops up in our garnish garden that morning. Sometimes we don’t change the menu because we want to, but because we have to.

My philosophy comes from the land around me, and over the years, I have tried to inspire my team to think the same way that I do so we can all work together to create an experience that can only be found here and nowhere else in the world. When people come and dine in the restaurant, we really try to showcase what’s here and now in the area, and give them something that they can only get here in Central Otago. It gives them a memory of their time here at Amisfield Bistro because the produce we are using is the kind of stuff that is grown here.

The dishes at Amisfield Bistro are presented beautifully. Is there any inspiration behind your presentation?

A lot of the story behind the presentation for my dishes comes from things that I see in the wild. For example, a few years ago I hunted a hare that had been eating raspberries and then died on top of moss beneath a walnut tree. So for that dish on the menu, we created wild hare served with a raspberry leaf, plated up on a mossy ground surface with walnut shells and raspberries. So we try and recreate what is going on with the product around us, to show what was happening with that wild animal in the region and recreate that setting.

With your menu holding a strong focus on land and season, is there any time of year that you particularly enjoy for cooking?

I love autumn. I find it a great time to cook because I like foods that are very bold and strong in flavour, and it’s a chance to cook more gamey dishes heading into cooler weather. With our Amisfield Bistro menu using produce from around us, another favourite season of mine is spring. It’s when the menu has the most drastic change, with the new flowers, vegetables and spring lambs coming out after the cold. Winter can be quite rough down here though, and by the end of it it’s almost dark and depressing and it shows in the food but in a good way – like a really well-trained devil is cooking for you. Then it rolls into spring and the menu sees a new light, freshness and colour, and it kind of changes my mood into the new year.

The autumn menu is a time for strong, gamey flavours.
The autumn menu is a time for strong, gamey flavours.

Your career has taken you across the world, working in famed venues such as Copehangen’s Noma and Spain’s Restaurant Martín Berasategui. Can you tell me about those experiences?

My time in Spain was huge inspiration for me. When I look back on it, a lot of what I do today has been inspired by what I was doing over there. For example, we used a lot of products that had been hunted in-season and came straight into the kitchen, as well as using products that were growing on the farms around us.

Noma was also an influential experience for me. The team there had a real drive and passion for what they did, and that really reflected on me.

During my time there, Noma was at the forefront of Nordic cuisine, so I was using a lot of ingredients and foraged herbs I’d never heard of before. I used to make little books, like a mini encyclopedia, and stick the foraged herbs into the book with clear tape so I could see them and write down their names – it was hard to learn all the specific names.

This dessert makes the most of the humble kumara, aka sweet potato.
This dessert makes the most of the humble kumara, aka sweet potato.

‘The Kumara’

Preparation time: 50 minutes
Cooking time: 4-8 minutes
Freezing time: 3-6 hours + 12 hours

Kumara dough
125g flour
15g sugar
1 tsp salt
Pinch cinnamon powder
7g fresh yeast
12ml warm water
150g kumara mashed/pureed (we used orange and purple sweet potato)
1 small egg

Kumara iced parfait
2 egg yolk
100g sugar
200g kumara mashed/pureed
50ml milk
112ml cream
10g gelatine leaf, soaked in cold water
625ml cream

Kumara syrup
300g dark brown sugar
300ml water
100g kumara

1 Mix flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon powder.

2 Mix warm water with yeast and allow to begin to activate.

3 Add yeast and water to kumara puree, add beaten egg. Then mix wet ingredients into dry ingredients until the dough becomes smooth and starts to come away from the bowl. Put into a greased container and cover with cling film.

4 Allow this to prove at room temperature. Once doubled, knock the dough down, and put in fridge for at least 12 hours.

5 Preheat fryer to 180°C. Take dough from the fridge and shape it into an oval. Place gently into oil and cook on both sides for around 2 minutes. Remove and drain off excess oil.

6 Line a tray 10x15cm and at least 1cm deep with baking paper.

7 Mix egg yolks, sugar and kumara puree. Heat milk and cream, and add to the kumara. Return to the pan and cook till the mixture has thickened but do not boil. Drain gelatine, add to the mixture and mix well. Strain into a clean bowl, put the bowl on ice and stir until cool.

8 Whip cream into soft peaks, then fold cream into cooled kumara mixture.

9 Pour into tray and place in the freezer. When hard, cut into rectangles 2cm x 10cm and place back into the freezer.

10 For the syrup, peel and chop the kumara into small pieces. Bring to boil in a pan with water and sugar.

11 Reduce heat. When the kumara is cooked, remove the lid and reduce the syrup by around two-thirds.

12 Pass the cooked kumara mixture through a sieve and mix until smooth.

13 Allow to cool slightly before serving.

14 To assemble: Reheat kumara dough in the fryer or in the oven until warm. Cut a small slit in one end and insert parfait log. Drizzle kumara syrup over the filled dough. Serve immediately.