Squelching through muddy bush tracks in Maraetai on a damp July day, it’s hard to believe there is anything remotely edible in this dappled green glade. But chef Ed Verner thinks differently. He’s frantically plucking leaves and offering tastings.
There are kawakawa leaves — hot, green and bitter. Further on in the clearing wild jasmine flowers — sweet and fragrant. Next, wood sorrel — lemony, tart and tasty. Hold on, gorse petals? Yes, that prickly farmers’ nemesis happens to have edible flowers. Bright yellow and snappy tasting, they too may just end up on a salad plate at Ed and his wife Laura’s new pastorally-inspired Parnell restaurant, aptly named, Pasture.
“We like to see plants that most people see as pests, as opportunities,” she explains while plucking an onion flower in a grassy Clevedon glade. It’s a fitting philosophy for a couple whose wedding pictures were taken in a field of wild carrot flowers. Indeed, the same flower also features on the business card for Pasture. This new age-old age, fine-dining restaurant is powered by open-fire cooking and draws on local organic ingredients, many of which are sourced from Clevedon Valley, where the couple have spent the past few years.
With our basket full of leafy bounty — we’ve also collected feijoa, fig, quince and lemon leaves, along with manuka, bottlebrush and citronella geranium — Ed explains how he may put these leaves to work.
“I’ll bruise, ferment, then air dry them; oxidisation produces interesting new flavours,” he explains. Some he’ll leave fermenting to use in vinegars — he’s already made an aromatic spruce needle vinegar that goes well with mushrooms — while the dried leaves can be used in preserves, juice concoctions or even as fragrant additions to the smoking tray above his kitchen fire. Ed’s also planning to make jasmine lemonades and aperitifs such as elderflower wine, fermented juices, shrub concoctions, kombucha and nut milk combinations.
Experimentation and creativity are big factors in Ed’s cooking. He and Laura had a taste of this approach while working at Kadeau — a Michelin-star restaurant in Copenhagen that spearheaded the new Nordic cuisine movement, which promotes local and seasonal produce. The idea is to transform the tastes and smells of the region into unusual culinary combinations: think fermented flowers and preserved berries suspended in honey.
Their experience at Kadeau — Ed worked in the kitchen and Laura in the extensive garden — had a marked impact on their vision for their own restaurant. But there have been many other sources of inspiration, through work in other restaurants in Europe, Australia and New Zealand and their world travels.
“I spent a lot of time in Japan and those miso flavours have really influenced my cooking,” says Ed. Japanese hospitality also had an impact. “After a meal, the chef would follow you outside and wave until you were gone. I love that.”
The idea of genuine service without pretension appeals to this low-key couple, who are determined to give diners not just a mouth-watering meal, but an experience to match.
And what an experience it will be. The custom-built restaurant on a quaint cobbled lane in Parnell is all wood and stone, with a focus on a crackling fire. The intimate dining space, with a capacity of 25, will be centred on three chefs, who will be accessible for conversations with diners — when they’re not wrestling with a roasting beast on a spit. The waiters won’t just be there to hustle plates, they’ll be storytellers, conversing with customers about the provenance of the food and wine, all of which will be local and organic.
This idea of using all parts of a product, whether it’s honey and beeswax or an entire animal, rather than 30 cuts of eye fillet, fits with Ed’s ideas for a sustainable restaurant.
“We have to think about our food as a valuable resource. You wouldn’t believe the amount of wastage in restaurants. If it’s not ordered, it’s thrown out. We aim to take one ingredient and put it through many processes.”
That means he may order an entire cattle beast and make different dishes from each part — for instance, scraping the bones for a beef miso soup and curing the more unusual parts, like the neck. As for vegetables, he may use the perfect cabbage leaf for fine-dining nights and make sauerkraut for their more casual and experimental Sunday bistros. A set menu also reduces wastage. But not creativity. At Pasture, six courses will be offered, along with organic wine or juice pairings. The menu will list only ingredients, the dish will be a surprise.
“I don’t think you can put us in a box,” Ed says. But if you could? Inside you’d find a crackling fire roasting something smoky and delicious, freshly baked bread, homemade preserves, organic wine and perhaps even the odd gorse flower.