Gourmet Traveler: Momofuku’s Sweet Queen Christina Tosi Dines at Some of New Zealand’s Top Luxury Lodges
The MasterChef star discovers remarkably fresh ingredients and a sophisticated approach to food in New Zealand.
“New Zealand has this mystique and this mystery about it,” says Christina Tosi, the owner and founder of the impossibly successful Momofuku Milk Bar and, as of this year, a judge on MasterChef. An award-wining pastry chef and writer, Tosi has conquered New York’s sweet tooth with her finely tuned sense of how to take the familiar and the everyday – and twist it into something at once comforting and wild. She has the sensibilities of a formally trained chef, and yet she delights in something as simple as a classic pumpkin pie.
“Until you arrive in New Zealand, you can’t possibly imagine how you’re going to fall in love with being here,” she says. “Then when you sit down for a meal, it’s like something you could never imagine or expect.” In recent years, New Zealand has developed a sophisticated food and wine scene in its restaurants and luxury lodges, combining a refreshing honesty in approach with a level of sophistication that’s often surprising. “It’s beautiful,” Tosi says. “It has an infinite number of resources and then there’s this dimension of integrity.”
The two main islands that make up New Zealand are almost self-sufficient in what they grow and how they grow it: even in the finest restaurants and in the most exclusive lodges, there are menus using produce from local growers and suppliers, combining techniques and trends from around the world with impossibly fresh ingredients.
During a few weeks in New Zealand Tosi, possibly predictably, also fell in love with a few things that New Zealanders might think commonplace. A bar of Whittaker’s Peanut Slab, for instance, was never far from her handbag, and she also came to love the strong black tea – the locals call it “gumboot” – that Kiwis drink several times a day. In New Zealand, it seems, everything is stronger: the eggs and butter more yellow, the cream thicker, the coffee higher-octane, and black and freshly roasted. “It’s insane,” she says. “And I’ve just fallen in love with manuka honey.”
Along the way – from Auckland to Queenstown in the Southern Alps and back to Cape Kidnappers and Taupo – the pastry queen kept an eagle eye on shop windows, bakeries and dessert menus. A few things were surprising: carrot cake is commonplace and New Zealanders’ love of citrus is in plain sight. “There’s this really interesting balance between being high-end and homely and fresh – made from scratch,” she says. “There’s something very highbrow but still nurturing and homemade about the desserts and baked goods here.”
Local ingredients play a big role in this – at The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, a luxury lodge on the east coast of the North Island, Tosi was impressed by the fact that the food she was eating – even in dessert courses – was largely sourced from the property and its extensive gardens: a passionfruit brûlée, for instance, or something as simple as homemade ice cream and sorbet using home-grown pears and blackberries. “It goes on for miles, literally as far as the eye can see,” she says. “Watching where everything is grown and how it’s harvested; to pluck something from the ground and walk it indoors to make something…If you poll nine out of 10 chefs, that's the dream: to watch an ingredient grow, then take it, and then be able to work with it and serve it from start to finish is one of the most inspiring things to do in the kitchen.”
At Huka Lodge just outside Taupo, meanwhile, Tosi and friends were served a beautiful guanaja, a chocolate mousse made from 70 percent dark chocolate, with passionfruit sorbet and cacao tuile: it was a thing of beauty, delicate and yet strong,. That was improved on – just – by the cheese course, served with local port in the lodge’s main lounge in front of a roaring fire. Much of the dairy produce came from Waikato, to the north of Huka Lodge, including a remarkable washed-rind cheese from the Over The Moon Dairy to rival anything as squidgy and runny from France. “The dairy scene in New Zealand is strong,” says Tosi. “I’ve eaten more cheese than…Phewf.”
The same was true of The French Café in Auckland, where cocktails are made using herbs from the restaurant’s kitchen garden, and the menus truly change with the seasons. It’s a fine-dining venue, but the dedication to honouring fresh produce even makes it here. “It’s incredible,” Tosi says. “No matter how high-end the restaurant, the dessert menus have this integrity when it comes to fresh ingredients and how they’re presented and treated – and how they’re served.”
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