Marc Soper is Executive Chef at Wharekauhau Country Estate, a farm and luxury lodge about two hours from Wellington, on the southernmost tip of New Zealand’s North Island.
Marlborough-born Marc has worked in Australia, Fiji, Tonga, USA, Canada, Germany and Switzerland, spending time in some of Europe’s finest Michelin restaurants. He has worked in Residenz Heinz Winkler in Germany and Taggenberg in Switzerland, as well as two of California’s top ranked restaurants – Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco and the acclaimed French Laundry by Chef Thomas Keller in Napa Valley.
This talented chef was twice crowned New Zealand Chef of the Nation, and won the title of Chef of the Capital three times. He won the Ōra King NZ best dish award twice and was in 2015 NZ Beef and Lamb ambassador. He’s now on the Chefs National Team.
We sit down with Chef Marc to talk about the wonderful range of ingredients he uses in the kitchen, and how to get more young and talented cooks into the profession.
So, Chef Marc, what are some of the unusual ingredients you use?
Chilean guava berry, small berries in the guava family, which you can use powdered and dried, a bit like sumac. Pineapple sage – you can eat the flowers, they are really unique with a beautiful floral scent and a sweet flavour. Silver beet, or chard, I use to wrap up lamb shank, like dolmades.
And stinging nettles, which we forage for, I use to make pine nut and stinging nettle ravioli. You can use pine needles to make oil, or dry them out, put them in a pan, set fire to them, put chicken in a nest in the middle and put them in the oven – the essence of pine permeates through the chicken.
You do a lot of foraging – what are some of the other plants you use?
We forage every day. A big one is wild-growing watercress – this is usually on the menu. If it’s raining, I send the apprentice, it’s character building for them! I’m just joking, if it’s raining then I don’t send the guys out. But a lot of people are very envious of the watercress here, people are always wanting it in town, and here it’s growing in abundance. It’s so fresh tasting.
We also forage for coastal spinach. We pick an area, when it finishes, we leave it and come back when it has regrown. The root system of the plants underground is vast; you can pick it all and next season it will have grown back, so there’s no problem with depleting a species.
We also pick chickweed, which grows everywhere, and I sometimes sprinkle it on risotto. Elephant ear fungi we dry out and use in summer, and we pickle lichen, or tree moss, are use it sparingly in dishes – it’s quite bitter.
You also use indigenous plants – can you tell us about those?
Yes, I try to use as much as I can. Kawa kawa, or New Zealand bush basil – I like to pickle the flower pods and serve them with pork or fish. Horopita, or NZ bush pepper, is another local ingredient I use a lot, it’s very peppery.
And indigenous abalone – paua – appears on your menu regularly, too …
Yes, sometimes we forage for paua on the rocks down at the coastline in front of the farm. I personally don’t do this foraging, I’m afraid of the water … or what else swims in the ocean – where there is paua, there is kelp, and often sharks! I’m lucky enough to get other people to gather it for me when we require it, but always only taking what we need.
Do you rely on a supplier for the extra paua, and fish, you need?
Yes. I work closely with my fish supplier and get sustainably sourced paua from a company called Yellow Brick Road. They are based in Wellington and are really great. Most of what we use is sourced by them, but when guests hear the story, they often want to see some of the recreational divers go out and see first-hand how people gather their own.
Have you had any disasters using unusual ingredients?
You can supposedly make drinks from the New Zealand Christmas tree, or pōhutukawa, which grow on our property, but I tried and it was terrible. I also tried to make nectarine blossom water, but it did not work at all.
You grow a lot of flowers in the lodge’s gardens. Do you work with these in the kitchen?
Yes, absolutely. We grow lavender, and I put the open flowers, with egg white and sugar, in a dehydrator, which crisps them up. I use them as a garnish.
Nasturtium leaves are fibrous but we blanch them down and make a nice nasturtium oil. The flowers we use for garnish, especially on white plates, and with pale ingredients, like chicken, cod, or snapper, then they show up really well.
As long as we are incorporating the flavour dynamics into the dish. I don’t believe something should just be put on the plate, it should have a purpose and meaning for it being there. I get frustrated with fanciful ingredients – if you can’t eat it, it shouldn’t be there.
Your food at Wharekauhau is excellent, and the staff are very friendly and professional – they certainly look happy. Are they?
Certainly the F&B staff get on well, we have fun. The professionalism is still there, but in kitchens you have to keep it attractive for staff to want to join, and stay in, the profession. There’s such a huge loss in hospitality worldwide. In New Zealand we complain, but in Facebook chat groups I see a huge worldwide shortage of not just kitchen staff but hospitality staff in general. To make it more attractive, we must make it more fun, and let staff spend less time in the kitchen. We need to make sure their wellbeing is taken care of.
How many do you have in your team?
We have 5 full-time in the team, although in peak season in summer we have a core team of 7, with local kids washing dishes at night and in the morning. We need relationships with the locals as we’re off the beaten track. We need to be able to access kids when they’re off from school over weekends or during holidays, and they can earn a bit of pocket money.
I come in for breakfast, the sous chef handles it at night, or we do a double at night if necessary. Someone comes in at 7am, and if we’re busy then another one at 8am too, till 1.30pm/2pm. Another one starts 12 and then 1pm. We try not to have a shift that’s longer than 10 hours.
That seems a healthy and progressive approach …
Before it was normal to do 16, 17, or 18 hour days, but the new generation doesn’t want to work such long hours – the mindset of 20 years ago has to change. The whole attitude has done a 180-degree turn now, which is good and we’re working in the right direction. We’ve got to get younger ones interested in cooking. I have my own views on cookery shows, it makes it look so fun but then the reality isn’t the same. But it’s a fun profession, I get to travel all over the world, and it’s full of creativity, so it’s great.
Thanks very much, Marc, and all the best with your adventurous plant foraging and avoiding those sharks!
Want to cook like Marc does? Here’s his recipe for wild venison loin with mushrooms, pumpkin and root vegetables.