Feasting with the Maori Gods

William Sitwell overcomes his aversion to tasting menus in spectacular fashion

By William Sitwell

July 5 2023

I drove into Queenstown on a Monday afternoon. The shores of Lake Wakatipu on the South Island of New Zealand are a regular base for travellers of an adventurous bent. But having spent the morning on a local farm and the previous days travelling hard around the Central Otago meeting sheep farmers, wine makers, cherry producers and lapping up the unforgettable lake, river and mountain scenery from Glenorchy to Paradise, I was looking for a quiet evening, a light dinner and an early night.

A piece of luck had come my way. Originally my itinerary had threatened dinner in a local restaurant. Sounds harmless, but in fact not. The place was a notorious tasting-menu promulgator. And not an old tasting menu. Not your modest six, twelve or eighteen courses. No, a 23-dish extravaganza to wreck the digestion of even the most seasoned restaurant critic.

Red deer skull topped with red deer-milk ice cream ‘antlers’ and ‘deer-milk’ caramel sauce
Red deer skull topped with red deer-milk ice cream ‘antlers’ and ‘deer-milk’ caramel sauce

I struggle with tasting menus and have written of my adverse opinion of them often. If I only ate out just a few times a year, that might be alright. But wherever I go in the world, establishments drag me across their thresholds and subject me to course after course of cheffy egocentricity, with every morsel, smear, foam, drizzle and scattering accompanied by an exhausting autobiographical essay that makes me want to leave, screaming, my stomach shredded, acid rising in my throat like lava.

The place was called Amisfield, its overlord a man called Vaughan Mabee, his mission to shove the 23 tasting courses down our throats. I shuddered when the idea was first mooted back in the UK. But now in New Zealand, now that I was traversing the ancient land of Aotearoa, sipping, tasting, sniffing, and appreciating the produce of this great and beautiful country, how, once in Queenstown, could I say no? I physically struggle with such prospects. And, worse, my natural greed often overrules my body. I plunge in. My body later seeks and achieves a hideous riposte.

Crayfish and crispy lamb sweetbreads in chilli broth
Crayfish and crispy lamb sweetbreads in chilli broth

But then, it appeared that a stroke of luck had been handed to me by the gods of Maori, the deities of the indigenous Polynesian people.

A gift of Haumiatiketike, the god of uncultivated food; of Tūmatauenga, god of hunting, fishing and cooking? Or more likely Rehua, the god with the power of healing. Yes! Amisfield was closed on a Monday night. So, in the offing came the prospect of a walk by the lake, a glass of local Chardonnay, a little salad and an early night.

But then Whaitiri, the goddess of thunder, pitched up. A message from Amisfield. “Chef Vaughan hears you are in town, and it would be his pleasure if you dined at the restaurant tonight.” It was like a summons to the palace. No RSVP was offered, instead simply a car at my hotel at 7pm.

Amisfield emerged in the darkness like some Spanish fort. A vast stone-clad building lit as if by torches with a huge staircase leading to the door.

Inside, the dining room winds around a central fireplace and chimney, logs ablaze. May in New Zealand is autumn, the nights are cold.

Sea tulip in Pinot Noir batter;
Sea tulip in Pinot Noir batter;

I was immediately greeted by the man himself. Vaughan Mabee is a giant Viking of a man who came to work at Amisfield 12 years ago after cooking and travelling the world – across the US via Barcelona and Copenhagen – to eventually become head chef and a partner in the business. The restaurant sits among the vines of Amisfield, an award-winning winery creating sensational Pinot Noir.

“We’ve set you a table for one,” said Vaughan, showing me a place close to the fire before introducing me to two female members of staff, one who is also his partner and another the sommelier. “I hear you’re not a fan of tasting menus,” he said. “But don’t worry. We can create a pared-down version, some nine to twelve dishes just to give you an idea of the place.”

I looked around me, taking in distinctive Gothic Transylvanian vibes. “Would you like to have a look around?” he suggested. We toured the place, a private room upstairs with vast, ancient beams, the basement below where he stores his wines and dried produce and where he plans to create a new dining space. And the kitchen.

Four poor souls had been dragged in to work on their day off. To cook for just me. I was almost beginning to feel guilty. Almost. “Would you like me to join you?” he asked. “For God’s sake, yes please,” I said. And so he did, nipping back to the kitchen from time to time and orchestrating some of the theatre that would unfold.

The sips in my glass were all Amisfield (a winery first planted in 1999 and now a modern facility that won a coveted Organic Vineyard of the Year Award in 2020 and 2022) and those sips danced between aromatic Sauvignon Blanc, a bone-dry Riesling and a light but seriously flavourful Pinot Noir.

In the ensuing hours Vaughan and his team cradled me in the arms of warm and entertaining hospitality. Yes, his dishes were laced with biographical details, but Lord, did I forgive him for it. “What I love is to plan and cook and create dishes that reflect my experiences in life but that I hope and believe include combinations of food that no one has had before,” Vaughan said. “We have unique and indigenous produce here, so I have a head start on that and I also avoid traditional cuts of meat.”

He also avoids traditional meats. “I’ve cooked beef in every way possible, every cut or every part of the animal and frankly I’m bored of it,” he said. “So I don’t serve chicken, or pork or beef. And I would add lamb to that list, but I make an exception.”

Executive Chef Vaughan Mabee (far left) and four chefs dragged in to work on their day off for one lucky food critic
Executive Chef Vaughan Mabee (far left) and four chefs dragged in to work on their day off for one lucky food critic

That exception is the lamb farmed by his friend and co-presenter on MasterChef New Zealand, Nadia Lim. “She has an abattoir on her farm. It’s completely unique. No farmer has that these days. She knows the complete journey of the animal. So I’m happy and privileged to cook it.”

Tonight, lamb features as sweetbreads in what might have been a fifth course – I wasn’t counting. It was an accompaniment to cray fish cooked in emulsified butter and served in a fermented chilli broth (please see the opening page).

At the end of dinner Nadia would swing by for a drink along with her husband and farming partner Carlos. But I had some work to do first. Across the night came a cascade of dramatic, novel, extraordinary, witty, complex and downright bonkers dishes. And there were indeed new combinations, new flavours and new sensations.

Nursed by great wine, wonderful conversation and immaculate service, I was a modern-day, somewhat luxurious explorer, crashing onto the shores of a very distant, remote and unknown territory. I sampled Sea Tulip, a sort of scallop-meets- oyster creature fried in a batter of Pinot Noir (see previous page). It is native to New Zealand and a revelation to me. I had the apparent salami of a native bird called Pūkeko, boned and re-stuffed with its own meat, which was fermented for a year with penicillin. Why and how I’ve no idea. It was pretty good salami.

Wild duck foot cooked in aged duck fat
Wild duck foot cooked in aged duck fat

And there was wild duck foot. Vaughan debones a duck, cooks it in aged duck fat, then somehow reforms it in the shape of a duck foot. It looks horrible. It tastes like the best crackling you ever had.

And there was “red deer”; the strangest, weirdest, most intriguing, most confusing, most horribly wonderful dish I have eaten for a long time. It’s simply ice cream made using deer milk served
with a deer-blood caramel sauce. Except the ice cream is served as an antler on the skull of a deer, identical in form and colour as the real thing. There are two antlers, one real, one your pudding. You pick the ice cream and then they bring the sauce. There is no deer blood in the sauce, but it’s made with the berries the deer might have eaten and it has the consistency of blood. It seemed, it felt, I could have sworn it actually was deer blood poured over the ice cream. Seriously, I could taste the beast, smell its rich fur, sense even the whiff of its dying breath. But there was nothing in it save berries and sugar and other stuff, but not a shred of anything animal. It was extraordinary. The cleverest thing I have eaten in a long time; a rare show of proper cheffing genius.

I was still spluttering about this as Nadia and Carlos joined us to talk long into the night about their country, their food, their work and the wonderful adventure they all have doing it.

I gather a table at Amisfield can be impossible to book. But if you’re heading for Queenstown, you could walk in like some fancy globetrotting restaurant, know-it-all-critic and wing one. Then don’t be a pussy. Make yourself comfortable, go for all 23 courses and spend the rest of your life talking about them to a disbelieving audience.

Amisfield, 10 Lake Hayes Road, RD 1, Queenstown 9371, New Zealand; amisfield.co.nz