Co-lab cook-off at Palate

The restaurant is cool and dim, everything tidy and set up for another busy evening tonight. But for now Mat McLean, executive chef and owner of Palate Restaurant in Hamilton, and Michael Coughlin, chef ambassador for Provenance Lamb, it’s a chance to sit down and chat about cheffing, lamb, life.

Last night Palate hosted a winemaker’s evening featuring  Quartz Reef wines from Central Otago. Mat arranged a tasting menu to match the wines and invited Michael to cook the main dish of Provenance Lamb which the restaurant features in its offering.

The restaurant had been full for the winemaker’s dinner and award winning winemaker, Rudi Bauer, was an informative MC as he discussed the wine match with each course. All of the wines came from Quartz Reef vineyards in Bendigo in Central Otago. Given Quartz Reef’s biodynamic certification, pairing with bio-farmed Provenance lamb promised something special for the evening. We weren’t disappointed. The wines were well matched throughout with the buzz level rising as each course was served.

We started with Port Waikato whitebait, pomelo, crumpet and dill matched with Methode Traditionelle Brut NV and then moved onto trevally tartare, Cloudy Bay clams, mango, coconut and lime matched with single vineyard Gruner Veltiner 2017. Gruner Veltiner is a special white grape stock imported from Austria. The entrees were completed with a vitello tonnato, bell pepper mousse, white asparagus, black pudding, pickled garlic and strawberry matched to a single vineyard Pinot Rose 2018.


We paused for a breather before Michael offered a main course of Provenance lamb oyster shoulder with sage and fennel seed, roasted heirloom carrots, cherry gastrique, lamb belly bacon, smoked white miso and cauliflower cream topped with a horseradish cracker. Two wines were offered with this – both single ferment Pinot Noir, 2011 and 2016. Michael said he used the miso to create a unami flavour to come through in the cauliflower puree which contrasted nicely with the fine texture of the shoulder and complemented its tenderness.

Dessert was a lemon and Thai basil custard with raspberry, lemon curd, meringues and sorrel matched to a Blanc de Blanc 2013. By then the restaurant patrons were very relaxed and enjoying good conversations around their tables.

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And now it’s the morning after the big event and the pause before work starts for another big event tonight at Palate. Time for a chat… Mat and Michael have known each other for a number of years as they are both ambassadors for Beef + Lamb New Zealand. Palate is Mat’s first restaurant (although the current one is a bigger version of the first) and he is working hard as he loves cooking but is also focussed on the business side of keeping a restaurant profitable. He says that the joy of food, new ingredients, locally sourced items and the excellent quality of them makes him excited about cooking and the taste experience.

He is complimentary about Provenance lamb describing it as a meat of quality, succulence and flavour. He thinks each cut has its own particular flavour which reflects the terroir and feed the lambs are getting, and these factors bestow unique flavours into the meat. The provenance of food products is also important to him and he likes the story of Provenance lamb which can be passed onto the diners.

Mat has worked overseas in Sydney, Melbourne, London and the south coast of England. He spent time with Eric Chavot in London and learned a lot from him, gaining huge respect for him. He said it was like watching a highly trained athlete when Eric cooked and he was just so much better than anybody else. Mat commented that he’s only seen a chef of this calibre a couple of times in his travels, adding that Eric was just born for it. He said for himself it’s hard work and tenacity, rather than just being able to rely on talent alone.

The current trend in food is moving away from sharing plates, Mat believes. He is happy about this as preparing several items for small plates is time consuming and he doesn’t believe that diners get a broad sample of different tastes and textures. Plating it can be difficult when there are a lot of diners and time is pressured.

He believes discerning diners now want to know where their food comes from, and how it was raised or grown. He puts a lot of effort into relationships with his suppliers, even visiting their farms or boats to appreciate the work that has gone into a superb product. These relationships keep him interested in food and planning menus. Being a family man as well as a business owner keeps him fully occupied with less time these days for dining out, reading cook books and following trends but his staff contribute ideas and even Google helps finding local cottage industries and new suppliers. He believes organic farming is important and that the wine industry in New Zealand is well ahead of agriculture and it’s important that it catches up with the movement for fresh, local, sustainable and responsible food production. His current favourite book is Source New Zealand by Gerhard and Henriette Egger with stories of people, food and land.

So what would he do with some time off? Head off to a remote part of the Coromandel and, with a hamper of wine and food, enjoy some fishing and conversation with like-minded people. He would introduce them to different food and wine and invite feedback, especially if it is a new taste experience for the person. Mat likes the challenge of playing with different foods and cooking methods especially when he doesn’t have his chef kitchen on hand.

The last word came from Michael who commented that between the two of them they had a lot of years of experience and were inspired by the New Zealand pantry which produces so much more of the food for the chef’s kitchen these days. “For chefs, cooking is no longer imported fusion, it’s inspired food”. Certainly the menu last night lived up to this claim. Saying our goodbyes and thanks to Mat and Michael we left them to continue talking and catching up.