It's Saturday night, and Hastings’ Taste Cornucopia is filled to the rafters. By day it's a popular organic café, with kermit-coloured walls, giant Godzilla posters and cabinets full of salads, pies and baking. It's not the sort of place you'd expect to go for a degustation, but then, James Beck is not the sort of chef you'd expect to run a provincial café.
After spending eight years cooking in top restaurants in Europe - including the Savoy Hotel in London, El Poblet in Valencia and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck - James returned to the Hawke's Bay in 2009 and opened Taste Cornucopia. His fresh and flavoursome café fare has been a hit with locals, but it's molecular gastronomy that really gets him excited. Tonight, as part of the Hawke's Bay Food and Wine Classic (F.A.W.C!) he's seizing the chance to dust off the sous-vide machine and show us what he's capable of.
Over six courses, James takes dishes we know and love and presents them to us in clever new ways. Lifting the lid on "BBQ at the Beach" evokes nostalgia, with a puff of woodfire smoke revealing tender pieces of seafood and crispy threads of potato 'kindling'. Later there's lamb, perfectly pink and juicy, amidst a garden of bright vegetables sprouting from earthy grains. My favourite dishes are the Pav ("deconstructed and slightly reconstructed"), and "Green Eggs and Ham" - an egg slow-poached in spinach, with braised pork fillet and a rich, fragrant broth.
Thoroughly impressed with my meal, I left wanting to know more about the talented young chef. Later, I followed up with a few questions.
When did you realise you wanted to be a chef?
I dropped out of law school as a young fella and took over the kitchen in the late night venue I was working at. At first I loved the rush of a busy service but I’ve since come to appreciate the alchemy that it is possible to create in the kitchen.
What was it like interning with Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck?
To be honest I only spent two weeks at the Fat Duck. Most of my learning and thinking on modern gastronomy occurred in Belgium and Spain where I was working in kitchens that were trying to a) work out what chefs like Heston and Ferran were doing and b) push the envelope as far as possible. Working at the Fat Duck was great as it helped confirm a lot of the ideas and techniques I had been using.
How has your experience cooking in fine dining restaurants in Europe influenced your cooking style now?
It's been an interesting challenge trying to meld the techniques and influence from my fine dining background to creating café food in Hastings! But where NZ might be behind other parts of the world in the fine dining stakes (with notable exceptions), I think our cafés and, of late, our bistros are up there with the best. Because of my background I can apply fine dining techniques (such as sous vide cookery) to lesser cuts of meat with sumptuous results. I think the modern kitchen (molecular gastronomy) sometimes gets a bad rap from chefs and food journalists, but if you see it as a series of techniques designed to get the best of a product and use it sparingly then you are on to a winner.
After cooking overseas, what bought you back to the Hawke's Bay?
I always knew that I would come home to NZ. Hawke's Bay appeals because of the climate, the outstanding wines and awesome produce available. Now, five years in to my first venture, I have a partner, a mortgage and four kids!
What's your favourite kind of food to cook?
I’ve just bought myself a Kamodo Joe ceramic BBQ so you can be sure that there’ll be plenty of smoky experimentation over the summer! Otherwise I love the 'nose to tail' style of eating where you use as much of the beast as possible. Even if it’s just a simple stock from the bones of the snapper I’ve just caught to flavour the asparagus I might be serving it with.
What did you want to achieve with your F.A.W.C! degustation menu?
Within the confines of staff and café kitchen the menu was designed to give my guests a hint of the possibilities of modern cuisine, without going so far as to make them uncomfortable. I judge the night a success when I can hear the guests questioning and discussing the food rather than the latest rugby score.
The F.A.W.C! concept has been great for me at Taste Cornucopia. It's allowed me to step out of my usual routine of modern café food and back towards the food I have cooked in the past. It means I can attract clients that may otherwise not make it into central Hastings.