Amisfield, like a Spanish fort nestling between vines
Chef Vaughan Mabee, chef, hunter, viking...
The dining room wraps round the fireplace and chimney
Chef Vaughan and the boys dragged to work on their day off
Wild duck foot, looks horrible but the best crackling
ME AND MABEE; A RELUCTANT LOVE STORY
William Sitwell tries in vain to swerve a tasting menu marathon in New Zealand as he finds himself the wary, lone guest at what becomes one of the greatest dining nights of his life
I drove into Queenstown on a Monday afternoon. On the shores of Lake Wakatipu on the South Island of New Zealand it’s a regular base for travellers of an adventurous bent. You can bungee-jump off the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge, just a few minutes’ drive away. Or up to the peaks of The Remarkables (a mountain range, not a returning Hollywood animated series) to ski or to sky dive 15,000 feet above the town and enjoy an adrenaline rush like no other while lapping up, mid-freefall, the alpine scenery. But having spent the morning on a local farm and the previous days travelling hard around the Central Otago meeting sheep farmers, wine makers, cherry producers and lapping up the unforgettable lake, river and mountain scenery from Glenorchy to Paradise I was looking for a quiet evening, a light dinner and an early night.
A piece of luck had come my way. Originally my itinerary had threatened dinner in a local restaurant. Sounds harmless, but in fact not. The place was a notorious tasting menu promulgator. And not any old tasting menu. Not your modest six, twelve or eighteen courses. No, a 23-dish extravaganza to wreck the digestion of even the most seasoned restaurant critic.
I struggle with tasting menus and have written of my adverse opinion of them often. If I only ate out a few times a year that might be alright. But wherever I go, in every town, city and country across the world establishments drag me across their thresholds and subject me to course after course of cheffy egocentricity, with every morsel, smear, foam, drizzle and scattering accompanied by an exhausting autobiographical essay that leaves me wanting to leave the place screaming, my stomach shredded, the acid rising in my throat like lava about to erupt from Mount Etna. Or, I should say, Whakaari.
The place on my itinerary was called Amisfield, its overlord a man called Vaughan Mabee, his mission to shove as many 23 tasting courses down the throats of every passing human.
I shuddered when the idea was first mooted back in the UK. But now in New Zealand, now traversing the ancient land of Aotearoa, sipping, tasting, sniffing, appreciating the produce of this great and beautiful country how, once in Queenstown, could I say no? I physically struggle with such prospects. And, worse, my natural greed often overrules my body. I plunge in. My body later seeks and achieves a hideous repost. Then, what was this? A stroke of luck handed to me by the gods of Maori, the deities of the indigenous Polynesian people. A gift of Haumiatiketike, perhaps, the god of uncultivated food, of Tūmatauenga, god of hunting, fishing and cooking? Or more likely Rehua, the god with the power of healing. Yes. Amisfield was closed on a Monday night. So, in the offing came the prospect of a walk by the lake, a glass of local chardonnay, a little salad and an early night.
But then Whaitiri pitched up, the goddess of thunder. A message from Amisfield. ‘Chef Vaughan hears you are in town and it would be his pleasure if you dined at the restaurant tonight.’ It was like a summons to the palace. No RSVP was offered, instead simply a car at my hotel at 7pm.
So I took in a deep breath of the local, crisp, fresh mountain air and plunged in.
Amisfield emerged in the darkness like some Spanish fort. A vast stone-clad building lit as if by torches with a huge staircase leading to the door. Inside and the dining room winds around a central fireplace and chimney logs ablaze. May in NZ is autumn, the nights are cold.
I was greeted at once by the man himself. This is Vaughan Mabee, a giant viking of a man who came to work at Amisfield 12 years ago - after cooking and travelling the world, across the US then to Barcelona and Copenhagen - eventually becoming head chef and a partner in the business. The restaurant sits among the vines of Amisfield, an award-winning winery creating sensational Pinot Noir wines, the sight of the vines, of course, I could only imagine as it was pitch black outside.
‘We’ve set you a table for one,’ said Vaughan, showing me a place close to the fire before introducing me to two female members of staff, one who is also his partner and another the sommelier. ‘I hear you’re not a fan of tasting menus,’ he said. ‘But don’t worry. We can create a paired down version, some nine to twelve dishes just to give you a good idea of the place.’
I looked around me, taking in distinctive Gothic Transylvanian vibes. ‘Would you like to have a look around?’
We toured the place, a private room upstairs with vast, ancient beams, the basement below where he stores his wines and dried produce and where he plans to create a new dining space. And the kitchen. Four poor souls had been dragged into work on their days’ off. To cook for just me. I was almost beginning to feel guilty. Almost.
‘Would you like me to join you?’ he asked. ‘For God’s sake, yes please,’ I said. And so he would, nipping back to the kitchen from time to time and orchestrating some of the theatre that would unfold.
The sips in my glass were all Amisfield (a winery first planted in 1999 and now a modern facility that won a coveted Organic Vineyard of the Year Award in 2020 and 2022) and the sips danced between aromatic sauvignon blanc, dry riesling and a light but seriously flavourful pinot noir.
In the ensuing hours Vaughan and his team cradled me in the arms of warm and entertaining hospitality. Yes, his dishes were laced with biographical details, but God did I forgive him for that.
‘What I love is to plan and cook and create dishes that reflect my experiences in life but that I hope and believe include combinations of food that no one has had before,’ he said. ‘We have unique and indigenous produce here, so I have a head start on that and I also avoid traditional cuts of meat.’
He also avoids traditional meats. ‘I’ve cooked beef in every way possible, every cut or every part of the animal and frankly I’m bored of it,’ he said. ‘So I don’t serve chicken, or pork or beef. And I would add lamb to that list but I make an exception.’
That exception is the lamb farmed by his friend and co-presenter on New Zealand MasterChef, Nadia Lim.
‘She has an abattoir on her farm. It’s completely unique. No farmer has that these days. She knows the complete journey of the animal. So I’m happy and privileged to cook it.’
Tonight it features as sweetbreads in what might have been a fifth course, I wasn’t counting. It was an accompaniment to cray fish cooked in emulsified butter and served in a fermented chilli broth.
At the end of dinner Nadia would swing by for a drink along with her husband and farming partner Carlos.
But I had some work to do first. Across the night came a cascade of dramatic, novel, extraordinary, witty, complex and downright bonkers dishes. And there were indeed new combinations, new flavours and new sensations.
Nursed by great wine, wonderful conversation and immaculate service I was a modern day, somewhat luxurious, explorer, crashing onto the shores of a very distant, remote and unknown territory.
There was Sea Tulip, a sort of scallop meets oyster creature fried in a batter of Pinot Noir. Native to New Zealand and a revelation to me. I had the apparent salami of a native bird called Pūkeko, boned and re-stuffed with its own meat which was fermented for a year with penicillin. Why and how I’ve no idea. It was pretty good salami.
And there was wild duck foot. Vaughan debones a duck, cooks it in aged duck fat then somehow reforms it in the shape of a duck foot. It looks horrible. It tastes like the best crackling you ever had.
And there was ‘Red deer’; the strangest, weirdest, most intriguing, most confusing, most horribly wonderful dish I have eaten for a long time.
It’s simply ice cream made using deer milk served with a ‘deer blood’ caramel sauce. Except the ice cream is served as an antler on the skull of a deer, identical in form and colour as the real thing. There are two antlers, one real, one your pudding. You pick the ice cream and then they bring the sauce. There is no deer blood in the sauce, but its made with the berries the dear might have eaten and it has the consistency of blood. It seemed, it felt, I could have sworn it actually was deer blood poured over the ice cream. Seriously, I could taste the beast, smell its rich fur, sense even the whiff of its dying breath. But there was nothing in it save berries and sugar and other stuff, but not a shred of anything animal. It was extraordinary. The cleverest thing I have eaten in a long time; a rare show of proper cheffing genius.
I was still spluttering about this as Nadia and Carlos joined us to talk long into the night about their country, their food, their work and the wonderful adventure they all have doing it.
If you’re heading for Queenstown book a table. I gather they can be impossible to get. So you could just strut into town like some fancy globetrotting restaurant, know-it-all-critic and wing one. Then don’t be a pussy. Go for all 23 courses and spend the rest of your life talking about it.
Amisfield Restaurant and Cellar Door
10 Lake Hayes Road, RD 1,
PO Box 133, Arrowtown 9351
+64 3 442 0556