Gourmet Traveler: Eleven Madison Park’s Will Guidara Rediscovers the Meaning of Service at New Zealand Luxury Lodges
The award-winning New York restaurateur finds the art of serving is not lost at luxury lodges in New Zealand’s North Island.
Huka Lodge sits on the banks of a river just outside Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s biggest lake, and here, its waters are fast-running and clear, surrounded by dense bush. In the mornings, if you’re lucky, it’s shrouded in mist, giving it an ethereal feeling. There has been a guesthouse on these banks since 1924, when Alan Pye started a small, rustic fishing lodge. These days though, the environs are a little more sophisticated – a collection of beautifully worn wooden buildings surrounded by perfectly manicured gardens and hedges.
The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, meanwhile, is three hours’ drive away on the East Coast, a spectacular peninsula of steep cliffs and paddocks, 6000 acres of ranch with sheep and cattle. At its heart there is a modern lodge and cluster of cottages, designed by local architect Andrew Patterson to reinterpret traditional farmhouse elements: buildings wrought from reclaimed bridge timbers and stone, with high ceilings and an immediate sense of protection from the often wild weather that can rush off the Pacific Ocean.
They are spectacular properties, where world-beating food and wine and a particular brand of hospitality make for an unforgettable experience. “Somehow I’ve found the ability to relax and just be where I am,” says Will Guidara, co-owner of Eleven Madison Park and Nomad in New York, recipient of a combined four Michelin stars in the 2015 guide – a man who, as you would expect, is notorious for focusing on the small but important details.
Guidara first heard about New Zealand’s luxury lodges through the Relais & Chateaux guides, of which both Kidnappers and Huka are members, along with Eleven Madison Park. “It kind of celebrates the spirit of authenticity and connection and family, and people who derive significant and genuine pleasure out of bestowing hospitality on others,” he says. “That's certainly something I’ve felt since I’ve been here.”
At Kidnappers, Guidara explored the farm, marvelling at the station’s rawness – as well as its gannet colony, reached down a rickety little track from a paddock – before playing a round of golf on the course, one of the world’s top 10 outside the United States. Afterwards, he and his friends – including partner, Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar fame, and friends, Seattle restaurateur Brian Canlis and his wife Mackenzie – retired to the main lodge, all huge timber beams and stone and stunning modern art, for dinner. The multi-course meal incorporated local Hawke’s Bay wines and food gathered from the surrounding districts, served within a wooded turret with flagstone floors and a blazing fire.
At Huka Lodge, he got up early one morning to go fishing with a guide on the Hinemaiaia Stream, renowned for its rainbow trout, its cold clear waters fed by the Kaimanawa Ranges. It was peaceful: there was the swish-swizz of Guidara casting into the shallow river in the middle of a conservation area, surrounded by dense native forest. Afterwards, he and his companions were served local trout, just barely cooked over charcoal and served with a modern salad, mustard sauce and puréed sunflower seeds and tiny pieces of fennel and herbs, delicately plated up by Huka chef Paul Froggatt. Simple food, beautifully presented and cleanly flavoured, washed down with a sensational dry Valli riesling from Central Otago. “There’s something special about eating and drinking things sourced from close to where you are,” Guidara says. “There are few things that can replace that.”
And yet, throughout his time in New Zealand lodges, it was the service and the genuine hospitality that made its mark. “There are so many things coming about through this culinary revolution right now,” he says. “But sometimes I find myself disappointed at a restaurant or hotel’s inability to remember why we exist, which is the nobility of serving others.”
At Cape Kidnappers, it was the welcome from the staff and the inventive “build your own sandwich” lunch menu, and the sense that head chef James Honore would cook you anything you wanted at any time of the day. At Huka Lodge, there was a feeling of warmth and enclosure and 90 years of history; one of the best things to do there is simply sit by the fire in the main lodge after dinner, surrounded by tartan and fishing memorabilia, and drink whisky and gin and play cards until you fall asleep.
“I’ve been astounded by the level of hospitality throughout the entire country,” says Guidara. Each place he visited has a particular approach to food and wine, but the guests always come first – and if a guest wants a burger rather than the five-course degustation on offer, then that’s what they get. “And they’re going to cook it with just as much passion as the food they want to serve you. That’s special. I love that.”
For more information visit www.newzealand.com/luxury