Beyond the Pass – Lani Lemaua

Denise Irvine grills some local chefs about their work and their love of hospitality.

Lani Lemaua

About: I run Sage Kitchen at Craft, on Hood St, Hamilton. Craft bar is part of the Gothenburg stable. At Sage, we’ve created our own little pocket, we do everything from scratch, and there is just me and one other staff member. We’re coming up for our third birthday here in May.  I’ve previously worked with chef Cam Farmilo at Chim Choo Ree (under the original Chim ownership), and also in the kitchen at Gothenburg. I did my formal training at Wintec and then went to Brisbane where I really earned my stripes. I was fortunate to work with some good people and learn some good tricks.

First job?

It was at (long gone) Granite Restaurant on Victoria St, in Hamilton, in the early 2000s. Granite wasn’t cutting edge but it was a little bit fancy. I was aged about 15; it was an after-school job doing dishes, peeling potatoes, prepping vegetables. It led to me going to Wintec and doing my training.

Best thing about being a chef?

It ticks a lot of boxes for me. I like the creativity and the pressure, and also working as a team, a unit, there is a good buzz around that.

Cooking style?

I like to hide my techniques, plate things in a way that are approachable for customers but at my end I can slip in all the techniques. So my dishes might look simple but they involve many techniques and I like to harness big flavours, present them in packages so that customers can just enjoy them. An example of this would be my beef tartare, which at a glance could be meat with a dressing. But there is heaps of detail in the selection and treatment of the meat, how it is dressed, combining the flavours and textures. It all comes together in a beautiful dish that looks straightforward but has lots of depth and layers to it. That’s my style.

Key life lesson?

Take the opportunity to learn from everyone in the kitchen, at all levels, from the head chef to the dishy. Everyone has a story behind them, and something to offer. When it’s my turn, I can show others a few things.

Favourite Waikato ingredients?

I love Cilantro goats’ curd. It’s a bit hard to come by but when it’s in stock I grab it. I do a throwback goats’ curd tortellini that we used to do at Chim Choo Ree with a date puree, toasted pinenuts and sage brown butter. It is sweet, nutty and savoury. Another thing, I know it’s not Waikato, but we’re loving fish from Leigh Fisheries (Northland), they have amazing, super-fresh products.

Eating out?

I’m obsessed with the smash burgers at Last Place Bar on Collingwood St. They’re so good, a weekly treat for me and my partner. And there’s a good selection of drinks.

How are you doing in the pandemic?

I’m taking it one day at a time. It’s tough out there but it will bounce back, things will get better.