What happens when you combine three champion chefs, six courses, elements of smoke, earth and water, exquisite Waikato produce, indigenous Māori ingredients, bottles of Mahi wine and an intimate Camarosa setting? The Waikato Food Inc’s 2020 Matariki Champions Dinner. Taking place on a crisp mid-winter evening in Newstead, on the outskirts of the Hamilton, 80 avid eaters came together to #supportlocal and indulge in what transpired to be the ultimate Matariki feast.
True to 2020 form, Waikato Food Inc redirected what would have been the sixth-year of their Matariki Dish Challenge, to instead bring the previous challenge winners together to acknowledge the Māori New Year and champion Waikato food. The intention behind the Matariki challenge has always been to shine lights on local chefs, eateries and the abundance of produce within the Waikato region, while simultaneously providing a platform to learn more about Māori culture, food, customs and the stories they weave.
This year, the previous Matariki Dish Champions took the course of collaboration over competition, with each chef designated two courses in a bid to win the appetites and appreciation of diners. Head chef of Camarosa, Andrew Clarke won the inaugural Matariki Dish challenge back in 2015, taking it out again in 2016, when we was head chef of Victoria Street Bistro. Chef Harry Williams, (who tutored Andrew when he was just 17 years old) took out the trophy in 2019 whilst he was head chef at Alpha Street Bar & Kitchen, and to complete the trio was Mat McLean, owner and head chef of Palate. A man no stranger to awards, Mat wrestled the challenge from Andrew’s grasp back in 2017.
The meal was opened by a beautiful karakia timatanga from Matua Hori Kingi. He spoke to the significance of Matariki and took a special moment to honour those who were no longer with us. As we embarked on the six course Matariki journey, we were guided with wit and warmth by the effervescent Julia Clark, (Andrew’s wife), an upcoming mover and shaker in the Waikato food scene and one of few who could legitimately reference a certain “hot chef”. Each dish was matched with a Mahi wine (plus a few guest friends), thanks to competent direction from wine connoisseur and Red + White Cellar Sales Manager Rachel Baillie. With their dishes in mind, the chefs went through a tasting and together they chose a pairing based on flavour, texture and overall balance. I was fortunate to be sat next to a handful of Hamilton’s finest female hospitality royalty (of which Rachel was one) and it was a real joy to soak up the knowledge and contagious adoration they possessed for all things wine and Waikato food.
Tio Repe was the first course, a briny, fresh mouthful of the sea. Designed by chef Harry Williams, the dish involved a single plump, pacific rock oyster served in shell, topped with vibrant green rimurimu (seaweed) and pop-in-your mouth pearls of horopito oil. It was matched with a Mahi 2018 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, which Rachel described as having “a heap of texture in the mid palate and beautiful fine acid, making it a lovely wine to match with food. Sauvignon in particular can be really hard to match to food.”
Titi Hāngi came in next. A garden encasing the saltiest bird in the sky. Chef Andrew spent the better part of his day individually and painstakingly hand rolling 80 nasturtium parcels of smoky, salty, shredded South Island Muttonbird. He hid the revered anchovy-tasting bird, within each deep green forgaed leaf, perching them next to violet mounds of smoked moemoe potato mash, kawakawa oil, white enoki mushrooms and a single stained-glass window shard of purple potato. Bold, beautiful and utterly delicious. Renowned for his shy nature off the plate, Andrew’s adoration for tītī shone through in buckets in this dish. Alongside Rachel’s wine pairing wizardy the Mahi match held strong, where an oak-aged 2015 Boundary Farm Sauvignon Blanc, swiftly became the sauvignon for people who think they don’t like sauvignon – of which my empty glass could attest.
Then there was Hua Heihei. An unexpected favourite from many at our end of the communal table. Self-described by Mat as an ‘ugly’ dish, it involved comfort, indulgence, familiarity and surprise. Serving 80 perfectly poached free range eggs on any day is a triumph, but to do it alongside soft truffle-laced polenta, aged Meyer gouda cheese, a tapioca crisp, kōkihi (native NZ) spinach and shavings of fresh local truffle…was, in a word – sensational. A truly grounded dish that matched beautifully with the sense of savouriness in the 2018 Mahi Chardonnay.
Pārera was the fourth course, involving Cambridge duck confit, mission fig, roast yam, burnt raglan honey and fennel pollen. Artfully balancing what could have been an overly sweet dish, Mat managed enough depth, salinity and a touch of floral to cut through the richness. Paired with a light and plump Marlborough Pinot Noir 2018, which leant closer to a Rosé than a Syrah, and was a heavenly match with the succulent confit duck.
Fifth in line was Reme. Where chef Harry introduced the unlikely combination of lamb rib, Jerusalem artichoke and smoked eel on the same plate. A rich tender rib, clevery paired with artichoke presented three ways, hot roasted, puréed and chipped. Subtle piles of intense smoked eel lay next to juicy succulents – a surprise element that took the dish to undiscovered and fascinating depths. But it was a humble Redmetal Hawkes Bay Syrah 2018 that stood up to the salinity, with ‘balanced plum, cherry and berries with a hint of pepper’ as Rachel shared ‘and a strong match with red meat’.