Archive for August, 2012

Last week I ate at the White House restaurant in Wellington. It was a family birthday and we ordered the winning Visa Wellington on a Plate menu. It was the second time in one week that I’d eaten the chef’s rabbit pie with Otaki carrots. The grower would have cried tears of joy to see how brilliantly his humble root vegetable was prepared – not just boiled but also dried, powdered and sous vide – it was a mini degustation of carrot. It goes without saying that the rabbit was excellent too; Chef Paul Hoather is into the detail. He even makes his own butter from cream he’s cultured himself. And that brings me to the funky dessert which was not on the Wellington on a Plate menu but it did contain cultured cream. He thought I should try it because he’d read my blog post on the edible condom I ate in Hong Kong (scroll down to Sex on the Beach). I think he was suggesting I wash my mouth out with soap.

Milk Curd, Pistachio Sponge Cake and Honey at the White House

Paul’s soap was a gloriously rich chilled down, dense version of crème anglaise, tasty because it was made with his own cultured crème fraiche. The bubble foam was somehow infused with honey and the loofah was pistachio. It was the most difficult part to create but it made the dish with its contrasting texture and undeniable wit. It’s on the degustation menu.

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It’s said a picture is worth a thousand words but when it comes to food I’d much rather describe the experience in words. Food photography is an incredibly difficult field. I’ve tried and I’ve always failed to convey the flavour and appetite I’ve felt when presented with a plate of something delicious. I mean, how do you photograph taste?

I’ve worked with some professionals who manage to do just that: photographers who make me want to eat the images they create. I’ve always wondered how they do it, so when food photographer Murray Lloyd and food writer Ruth Pretty offered a food photography workshop as part of Wellington on a Plate, I was one of the first to sign up.

Food photography workshop with Murray Lloyd (right).

Ruth and Murray have collaborated on five cookbooks over the past few years and created hundreds of photographs. Each one takes several hours to produce, beginning with a brainstorming session to define the sort of look they want to achieve. The workshop took us through the process from concept to shoot. We learnt how each dish is styled, what props are used, how it’s lit and how it’s composed in the frame. Murray prefers to work with natural light and the only trickery Ruth uses is a paintbrush and a little oil to make the food glow.

Chicken and Cranberry Pies

Our first assignment was pastry. We had half an hour to style and photograph a group of small pies using a choice of plates, fabrics, cutlery and coloured card backdrops. We had to consider light, composition, texture, colour etc. It was quite a lot to think about. We were also advised that an uneven number of pies would look best on the plate, which meant I had to eat one of mine. It was really nice: chicken and cranberry. Anyway, after much rearranging of props I managed to get everything in frame. This is my picture of Ruth’s chicken pies.

Notice how I have used an S shaped composition and also repeated the circular forms of the pies in my choice of material. I was rather pleased with my effort but the pies still look flat  and lifeless – I blame the natural light, which naturally hid behind a cloud just as I was ready to shoot.

Next up was poached salmon with pesto and micro greens. The dishes were plated by Ruth’s sous chef Kirk and they were supposed to be photographed as if in a restaurant, which was good practice for me because this is the sort of situation where I do sometimes have to get a shot that’s fit for publication.


I’m not sure that my salmon photo cuts it but I did like the artful positioning of the fork in my salad closeup (below).

The main course was slow braised pork shoulder with apricots, prunes, lima beans and cavalo nero. It tasted fabulous but it was really tricky to photograph on account of the cavalo nero which looked limp, wet and much too black.

Braised Pork Shoulder

Interestingly, Murray picked this shot out, kindly illustrating the clever way in which I had positioned the orange chair in the background to echo the orange of the carrot on the plate. I could see how this did make the colours “sing” but I hadn’t planned it that way. And therein lies the difference: a real food photographer would have left nothing to chance; my success was entirely accidental.

And unlike a professional shoot, where you really don’t want to eat the food that’s been fiddled with for hours, we polished off the lot. In fact, it all looked so good that by lunchtime my creativity lost the battle with my appetite; after a cursory effort I swapped my camera for knife, fork and napkin.

So what did I learn? If in doubt, zoom in close; and if the food looks lifeless, toss in a few flowers. But seriously, I have a new appreciation of  just how much work goes into making food look so good on the page. A slide show of some of the photographs from Ruth’s new book – one or two of which were the same dishes we’d struggled to compose earlier in the day – served to illustrate the point: we really do eat with our eyes. Here’s a sneak preview of the front cover. Ruth Pretty Cooks at Home is due out in October, RRP $65, published by Penguin. Photos by Murray Lloyd.




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I’m a sucker for lemons. Lemon sorbet, lemons with gin, lemon juice on fresh snapper, lemon roasted chicken, lemon mayonnaise, lemon syrup cake. You get my drift. Lemons go with just about everything; they are an essentlal ingredient. I once got stranded on a North Island beach with no money and no transport. My friend and I had a tent and a bag of lemons. For two days we ate tuatuas: mostly raw. The lemons made all the difference.

My friend Mary Biggs is of the same mind. She’s a great cook (Cordon Bleu trained) and she loves lemons so much she’s created an entire range of products around that one essential ingredient. Her brand Lavender’s Green includes lemon cordials, lemon jelly, preserves pickles, mustard, chutneys and curds. My favourite is the roasted lemon chutney. I’ve recently written it into a recipe for Moroccan lamb sliders – my little burgers would be nothing without it.

I’ve just eaten that same chutney with Mark Limacher’s potted rabbit. It was part of a five-course Wellington on a Plate lunch in which Mary’s products added depth or zing to every dish on the menu at the Ortega Fish Shack.

Roast Duck and Smoked Warehou Salad

A beetroot and feta combination was spiked with a lively lemon pickle and the lemon mustard was a great addition to the salsa that accompanied the beef. My favourite course combined duck and softly smoked warehou on a crunchy juliened salad with tamarind and preserved lemon dressing.

We finished with lemon tarts that were good because they were simple – just fresh lemon curd spooned into individual pastry cases. Unfortunately they were accompanied by the only thing I really don’t like – liquorice. It looked great – whipped into ice cream and served with mini allsorts – but taste is such a personal thing. I’ve tried but I can’t do it. I know I’ll never learn to like liquorice, not even when it’s partnered with lemons.


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