This week we got the opportunity of chatting to Kermadec’s new head chef Anton Leyland after trying his menu personally at Kermadec Fine’s Eat & Tweet event. Sunnies gracing his head with the sun basking through Kermadec Fine on a Saturday afternoon, he makes it seem easy as the head chef of such a respected restaurant.
We find out how Anton’s travels defined his signature dishes and the reaction when he presented “soil” on the plate to his diners.
What’s the biggest difference you’ve felt between working at One Tree Grill, and coming to Kermadec?
It’s different coming from a sous chef or senior sous chef position – Now it’s 100% my menu whereas on average it was only about 20-25%. It’s a completely different feeling, it a real buzz..now it’s me actually getting authentic recognition for it.
Kermadec’s given me a lot of support here and total autonomy. They’ve given me a lot of room to develop and I feel I have rewarded them for trusting in me for the type of food I wanted to create. I felt that at One Tree Grill, there were beginning to be some restrictions on what I wanted to do – my style of food was evolving into a more avant-garde and technically challenging style than what One Tree Grill was perhaps looking for. So naturally it was time to decide to start looking for somewhere else that better suited what I had become.
On the Kermadec website it says you want to influence NZ Cuisine – How?
I think NZ cuisine is still evolving – being a young country – and it’s still trying to find its place in the world in terms of the global image of what it actually is. It’s quite linked to Australia in regards to what they’re doing with the cultures there. We have a very similar ethnic make up. They do have more of a Mediterranean/Arabic influence over there, but we certainly have the Asian influence, plus Polynesian which I’m quite keen on melting together. I think NZ is just looking for chefs to define what NZ cuisine is and I think potentially I could be part of that natural progression. So I look at this job as not just a job, but also an opportunity to define what NZ cuisine is and showcase it on a global scale- and that’s exciting
From wanting to influence NZ cuisine, have you tried experiencing with any Maori style cuisine yet?
Funny you should say that, I’ve just put on the menu a lamb loin dish, served with sheep’s milk, sorrel, malt, and earth baked urenikas – so I believe- to my knowledge we’re the first high end restaurant in Auckland to use that particular technique! Instead of using basic potatoes I decided to take it a step further by using urenika potato – which is the Maori potato (purple potato) and pair it with beautiful NZ lamb loin. The technique we use is pretty innovative where the urenikas don’t actually touch the dirt during the cooking process at all, and the end result is the closest you’ll come to having a hangi in fine dining restaurant!
What’s a dish that everyone should try at Kermadec?
Pretty keen to see the feedback on the lamb dish – it’s a little bit out there. But certainly out of the tried & tested ones it seems to be my pork belly dish which is the crowd pleaser. The dish takes at least 84 hours to make it, including a 2 day brine cure. We then break it down and sous vide it for 36 hours (cooked slowly in a water bath). This really breaks down that fat in the pork and makes it super tender. And then when we serve that with cinnamon, apple, bison grass extract (comes from Polish Vodka) – gives a flavour of apple pie & vanilla, which we infuse into an apple reduction. This goes with a little bit of date chutney, some compressed apple cubes, and a prawn. It’s a nice transition to the dessert courses on our degustation because it’s quite sweet. We also serve it with kasha – a Polish buckwheat groat. So there’s a bit of a Polish thing going on there – I guess you could say a sort of a dedication to my beautiful wife since she’s Polish – and I’ll be getting some bonus points for mentioning this!
Photo courtesy of Kermadec by Kate Wilson Photography
Have you ever doubted yourself or been put off being a chef before from working in such a high-pressure environment?
Yeah, I was almost put off on a couple of occasions – especially when I first started – working at the Hyatt Hotel (Pullmans now). Had a guy who was a horrible, horrible man. Big man. Every time he came around the corner at the beginning of his shift I’d cringe. I’d hate going to work when he was there. He would embarrass you in front of everyone, shout at you; and you’d be too scared to actually do anything, you’d just freeze. He would palm you out of the way, throw pots at you – it was quite physical. He was truly intimidating- and he loved it! He sat me down in the dry goods room one day with another senior chef and just sort of said to me: “Do you really want to be a chef Anton? Really, you just don’t have it in you- you’re seriously not cut out for this industry.”
Luckily another really good chef came out from Switzerland, and he took me under his wing. He was the senior sous chef, and obviously saw something in me that the other guy didn’t. He was very much how I am now – I guess he was one of my mentors in my life. And I just blossomed and started enjoying cooking again.
Why and what did you do in the Middle East?
I was at a stage where I was burnt out a bit; doing 70-80 hours a week, and no social life – partying a bit hard and I guess you could say losing my direction. I did a bit of contracting and cafe work for 6 months then I just felt like this is crap. I need to do something with my life. And then one of the guys I was working with was going off to the Middle East to do this job, and he said: “Mate do you want to come do it? Quite a few mates over there, earning lots of money, traveling the world, would be a good break” I was just like, why not? Yeah! So I went to the interview, suited up, and the guy conducting the interview process said: “You’re a natural mate, you’ll love it over here” and I got the job
In the Middle East I was actually working for an airline as an inflight chef working in first class – which is quite a cool job, so it involved tons of traveling. We were based in Bahrain, and we travelled to South East Asia, South Africa, Australia, and to Europe. I loved it as I got to see a lot of the world and the culture and food that went along with it. So it was a cool time of my life for 3 years. There was some very good food produced inflight – Gulf Air at the time, took out the Sky Trax Award for the best Online Food in the World.
After coming back from overseas, did you notice any changed in the Auckland scene?
Oh yeah! I remember going out to town on the first night on K road, at this karaoke bar, and across the street I wanted to get a kebab (there wasn’t many kebab shops when I left Auckland). I was away for about 6 years in total (3 years Bahrain, 3 years Sydney). Anyway, there were a group of people sitting outside this kebab place smoking shisha, and it blew me a away, I was like WTF – It was popular in Bahrain, and it was the first time I had ever seen something like it over there. It only took 6 years (or less) and that idea had come back to NZ while I was away. It just shows you how quickly the world changes.
What inspires you to create new dishes?
I’ll get two or three different flavours that may work together and I’ll think how I can change those flavours or textures, or physical structure. I don’t like to bomb the plate with too many different flavours. Sometimes I just hit a brick wall with my ideas, and I just take my son for a walk in Cornwall Park, then all these ideas just start coming and I’m just like… where’s a pen & paper when I need one – gotta get home to write this down A-SAP!
I do get inspiration from reading other innovative chef’s cookbooks. Usually guys that have the top restaurants in the world – I’ll go to the library and pre-order a book that no one else in Auckland has and I’ll just go through it. One thing I’ve noticed in the last year from reading some of the Top 50 in the world restaurant books is that they’re definitely moving toward using the natural food of their immediate environment, the flora and fauna; and bringing it into the kitchen. The pioneers out there are redefining what exotic is, and now is doesn’t have to come from some province in France, it can be some undiscovered botanical that comes from the woods at the edge of the town, the coastline or even the backyard.
Do you cook at home?
Yep! I like to, when I have the time or not too tired – I’ll throw something together. My wife’s actually a very good cook as well (laughs) – she was actually a good cook before I met her – I think she inherited in from her mamma; she’s a champion in the kitchen. Every time we go to Poland she cooks up a storm- her apron stays on from morning to night, and I always put on a few kilos by the time we leave for NZ. I guess it helps that she married a chef also!
What’s one thing that you wish you knew when you first started as a chef?
I just wish I knew it was going to get better, was going to get easier, and I was going to meet some decent people. Because for a few years I kind of gave up because of the dickheads I had as my seniors- I just wondered where I’d be if I was 100% committed in my career as a chef from the beginning to where I am now, and there were moments where I wasn’t committed – asking questions about the industry. I guess the 3 years in the Middle East (don’t get me wrong, it was a great job), but I wasn’t really focusing on improving my skill level as a chef. I just wish I had the right mentors. I think the Industry has some really good chefs, but not necessarily good people. Potentially a lot of chefs will leave the industry because they didn’t have the right people looking after them, and they may have ended being amazingly talented chefs. Yeah, I think maybe the industry needs a bit of a shakeup in that regard.
What big plans do you have for Kermadec?
Definitely try to get Kermadec Fine back into the Metro Top 50, get it recognized again – get the buzz back for Kermadec. My plan is to be one of the best restaurants in Auckland, and maybe have a chance at going for the restaurant of the year perhaps. I think we can do that with my ideas and the crew that I have in the kitchen – they are a great bunch of lads and have worked at some of the best restaurants in the city, but they just haven’t had a decent mentor or leader to look after them. I’m more of nurturing kind of person, think Heston Blumenthal not Ramsay – I mean I’m definitely firm when need arises… but fair at the same time. I also want to help some of these younger guys get into some competitions as well; they are keen-so I’m keen to help them. I’m actually going to do the Monteiths Wild Food Challenge – it’s a good opportunity with my philosophies on food, to showcase some natural habitat based cuisine so I think I’ve got a pretty good shot at it. But at the end of the day if I can leave a legacy for the younger guys in the kitchen – and make them proud to be a part of what I stand for and what I’m trying to achieve then I go a happy cheffy each night.
So there you have it, words of wisdom from the new head chef of Kermadec – if you’re struggling out there, don’t give up! Our experience with Kermadec’s new menu with fellow foodies will be coming very soon too, so stay tuned. And of course, the Little and Friday competition – Enter (if you haven’t already!) to go into the draw to win Kim Evan’s Cookbook! I can sense some very exciting things happening with Kermadec, so definitely worth dropping in to join the excitement.Kermadec Restaurant & Bar 204 Quay St
(Level 1, Viaduct Quay Building)