Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Ben Bayly over lunch, just a few weeks after the opening of his latest restaurant venture, Aosta in Arrowtown (and about a decade since my last visit to the area). He spoke passionately about his years in the northern Italian valley where Aosta borders Switzerland and France. He was inspired by the simple, seasonal cuisine showcasing the regional produce and leapt at the chance to join with Michael Hill in creating a similar goal with Aosta. Remarkably, Arrowtown and the northern Italian region share an almost identical latitude (in opposite hemispheres), and the parallels between the regions’ terrains are striking.
Since arriving in Otago three months ago, Ben has fallen in love with the area – finding the mountains, endearing township and clean air invigorating. He has played a big part in the transformation of the restaurant (previously Saffron), which whilst uber-smart, retains a casual, accessible vibe, perfectly appealing to the local clientele and international visitors alike. The night I dined there the fire was crackling, and the staff, clearly visible in the open kitchen, cooked, plated and finished dishes at lightning speed. Unsurprisingly given Ben’s history with The Grove, Baduzzi and The Grounds (not to mention his role as one of the judges on My Kitchen Rules), the food was spectacular. The standout for me was the Kina Pappardelle Shaved Paua pasta with Fried Leeks and Terra Sancta Yolk closely followed by the Deer Milk ‘Mozzarella’ with Green Apple Granita – but quite frankly it’s a bit like trying to choose a favourite child (impossible), as it was all outstanding. Ben spoke about how simple the menu is (for him maybe!), and explained one of his latest experiments for a straightforward pasta made with kale that involved boiling the kale until it split into a kale water and intense kale paste. It sounded anything but straightforward, but utterly delicious. He clearly likes to experiment and enjoys the company of like-minded innovators, citing executive chef of neighbouring restaurant Amisfield, Vaughan Mabee, as one of his most inspirational colleagues.
I was interested to know whether this new project is going to be an entire lifestyle change for Ben, his wife and three young children, but currently the plan is to stay put in their Titirangi, west Auckland home, with Ben flying down for one week a month to keep his finger on the pulse of Aosta. This while still keeping his interests in Baduzzi (one of my all-time Auckland favourites) and the family-oriented The Grounds in west Auckland’s Henderson, which is also home to ticketed music events and private functions.
"The cuisine of Aosta is inspired by the cooking techniques of Northern Italy, paired with ingredients carefully selected from growers, breeders, suppliers and wine grown on the land of Central Otago."
You would think Ben has more than enough to keep him occupied, but it seems the high-energy Auckland chef has more on the to-do list, with his Fan-Tan Kitchen and Bar in Arrowtown coming under some scrutiny. And if his business manager in the area has any sway, there is much more to come. So where does one start – I imagine having Ben giving you the once-over in the restaurant kitchen could be very intimidating. He says that starting with the basics is the key for any cook or chef – great, seasonal ingredients; sharp knives; and starting recipes from scratch. And don’t be thinking of salting your food too late in the piece if you’re serving up dinner; it’s one of Ben’s pet peeves – “all you taste is salt!”.
I feel there is zero chance of that in any dish Ben has been involved in – and I am left hoping it won’t be another 10 years before I make it back to Arrowtown for round two at Aosta.