dish: Tell us about a standout food memory…
Ben: Eating at The Square. In its time it was one of the most phenomenal Michelin-starred restaurants in London. I arrived in London – from Te Awamutu in the Waikato – when I was 24, and I had never seen food like that before. I went there to see about getting work, and I was on the pass with the executive chef, who showed me some dishes. It blew my mind. Not just the food, but there was a huge brigade of chefs working together. I wanted to work in that kitchen so bad! And I did end up working there. I remember having foie gras, which I’d never tasted before, with roasted pineapple and a bit of chilli and vanilla. Far out…
Describe to us your favourite part of New Zealand?
I love New Zealand’s wine regions. As Kiwis sometimes we take for granted how good our wineries here are. I always try to be mindful of that whenever I visit them. I believe we should be immensely proud of our viticulturists. We need to get out there and drink some of that awesome wine. Man O’ War on Waiheke has some of my favourite pinot gris in the country.
Where’s next on your New Zealand must-do list?
I would like to head down to Nelson, then drive down the west coast and finish up in Central Otago. I have three children and they all love road trips. We’ve just come back from a road trip up to the far north to see my mum.
What is something you are loving cooking with right now?
I’m always on the lookout for things. I’m loving working with seaweed at the moment. And the yummiest thing I had recently was water buffalo meat from Whangaripo near Matakana. That’s definitely going on the menu at Ahi [in Auckland’s Commercial Bay development]. You could compare it to beef in taste. It’s essentially a water cow.
What’s your go-to meal when friends come over?
Mine would have to be some good, quintessential Kiwi family food. This is what I love to cook and eat. Some grilled meats over charcoal, perhaps with a salsa verde or gremolata. I certainly don’t go fancy any more. I always try to buy the best-quality ingredients I can and treat them really simply. And I always go top shelf with wine.
What music do you listen to when you’re cooking?
We always have music on at work, but not during service. Sometimes right after service we’ll have an “hour of power”, techno or something. I have really eclectic music taste. At home sometimes I’ll put on some Erik Satie piano.
If you could invite someone for dinner, who would it be?
My grandparents. And I’d love to cook for the other two grandparents who are not around any more. But if it was someone famous, it’d be Obama.
What are you looking forward to cooking in the next few months?
I have got so many ideas in my head. For Ahi, I’m going to whiteboard it. When we have a new venue, we have a big whiteboard on which we write up the whole menu – about 20 or 30 dishes with all the ingredients. There are so many things from the show [A New Zealand Food Story] that I’ve picked up on. Ahi has been two-and-a-half years in the making and I just can’t wait to get in there.