For chef Nate Houpapa, few culinary experiences rival that of seriously good barbecue and a cold beer. Following his appointment as Cafe Hanoi's new executive chef, we catch up with Nate to talk all things Vietnamese dining, what he's learnt growing up in the hospo industry and why his daughter Stella is the most important food critic of all.
How did you get your start in the food industry?
"My father worked in hospitality, owning various businesses – cafes, takeaways and caterers – so as a child I spent a lot of time hanging around kitchens. I started my career at the Hermitage Hotel in Mt Cook when I was 16.
I began as a kitchenhand then moved up to vege prep-hand, then staff cook and finally made it to commis chef. It was great to start out in that manner because I can appreciate the role of the kitchen-hand – the hardest working, least appreciated role in the kitchen."
What do you think sets the culinary and hospitality industry apart here in New Zealand?
"The passion and drive to be the best. The hardworking, highly skilled, multicultural workforce that drives the hospitality industry in this country. We have so many world-class bars and eateries in New Zealand, and that keeps you on your toes and pushes us all to do better. I love it."
In your opinion, what sets Cafe Hanoi apart from other Asian-fusion eateries in Auckland?
"We don’t really see our food as Asian-fusion cuisine. We try very hard to stay true to the fundamentals of Vietnamese cooking, finding the balance between bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and spicy, while using the fantastic produce that is available to us here in New Zealand."
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received, when coming up through the ranks?
"Always taste your food."
What advice would you offer a young Kiwi chef starting out in the industry?
"You can learn something from every person in every kitchen you ever work in. From the kitchenhand to the executive chef, everyone can teach you a new technique, or a smarter way to cook or prepare a dish. That’s the thing I love most about working in kitchens. Constant development."
What’s your favourite dish to cook and why?
"Anything cooked low and slow on my charcoal BBQ. I am a huge fan of barbecue and spend as much of my free time as possible tending to the coals and nursing a crappy old slab of meat into melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. Not to mention a few cold beers along the way.
Who is your favourite person to cook for and why?
"My beautiful daughter Stella. She is a real challenge to cook for because she’s so fussy. But it’s great to see her experience new flavours – and to find the odd one that she would try again."
Describe your love of food in three words:
"Passion. Balance. Innovation."
Best street food you’ve ever experienced?
"Banh Mi from a local street vendor in Hoi An (Vietnam). Packed with flavour and texture, and the rice flour baguette is the best bread in the world."
Best fine dining experience?
"The degustation menu at Merediths. An unbelievable experience from one of the best chefs in New Zealand."
What typifies a culinary experience in your kitchen?
"Ordering a raft of dishes to share with your table is how you will get the best experience at Café Hanoi. Balance is a very important aspect of Vietnamese cuisine so putting a few different dishes together is the best way to achieve this. Sharing your food makes for a closer, more intimate experience, and gives you the opportunity to try more dishes."
To celebrate Cafe Hanoi's new chef, Nate Houpapa, this week we're giving one lucky Dish reader the chance to win a restaurant experience for two. To be in to win this beautiful dining experience, simply enter your details right here.
"You can learn something from every person in every kitchen you ever work in. From the kitchenhand to the executive chef, everyone can teach you a new technique, or a smarter way to cook or prepare a dish." – Nate Houpapa.