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Before heading half way round the world to set up the kitchen at The
Oyster Inn on Waiheke Island, Anthony McNamara had been a private
chef at 10 Downing Street in London where he ran the functions for
the Prime Minister’s residence, Whitehall and Westminster. This is
McNamara’s 12th restaurant opening – he says he prefers to create
rather than curate. A keen angler, fisherman and writer too, his
philosophy as a chef comes from the French writer Antoine de Saint-
Exupery: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to
add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO NEW ZEALAND?
I’d just sold my restaurant, The Mill Tea & Dining in England, and
was waiting for another site when Jonathan [Rutherfurd Best] and
Andrew [Glenn] contacted me about getting involved with Oyster
Inn. I jumped at the chance.
YOU’VE COOKED FOR THE WORLD’S LEADING VIPs –
WERE THE BANQUETS ALWAYS STARCHY AFFAIRS?
State banquets are essentially working dinners and can be a bit
stiff. And more thought goes into what’s served at those gigs
than is apparent. There’s a list of do’s and don’ts if the Queen is
involved and dinners can get political, like the recent G8 summit
in Northern Ireland where we had to represent suppliers from
all over the region lest anyone felt left out and the menu had to
reflect recent Conservative Party austerity measures.
YOUR THOUGHTS ON NZ PRODUCE COMPARED TO THE UK?
It’s generally better quality, with less reliance on supermarkets and
more on quality producers. The oysters here on Waiheke from Te
Matuku are in my top four in the world; the quality of the grazing in
New Zealand makes an obvious difference to the meat reared here
and the relative good health of the oceans around make for some
serious world class seafood. I’d like to see New Zealand chefs make
more use of the wild larder around them though. Chefs should be
like sharks, exploring their surroundings with their mouths.
DO NEW ZEALAND CHEFS MAKE THE MOST OF OUR SEAFOOD?
For me, as a chef, it’s about respect. Respect for the guy who
risked his life out on the sea to get it, respect for the produce, and
for the customer who’s paying for it all. Everyone has to come out
of this transaction happy and that’s never going to happen if it’s
poorly handled, overpriced, overcooked or ruined with ill-conceived
accompaniments. Confident cooking comes with experience. I tell
my chefs to eat more and cook less, see what’s out there and make
up their own minds about what's really good. When they start raving
about clams that were simply steamed open in butter, a crayfish
that’s been boiled in seawater or kina served raw with absolutely
nothing done to them – I know I’ve got a keeper.
WHAT WAS THE VISION FOR THE MENU DIRECTION
AT OYSTER INN AND HAS IT CHANGED?
The Inn has always aimed to be a relaxed yet stylish, classic coastal
brasserie – every day and special at the same time. We’re open
all day and proudly have dishes such as Fish & Chips and Mac &
Cheese on the menu alongside more ‘elevated’ dishes. Initially it
was harder to sell more unusual types of fish, steering people away
from the ubiquitous snapper or on to fish on the bone, but now I
think our guests trust us more and we’re confidently serving smoked
eel brandade and species like lemon sole, ling or hake. For us it’s
about evolution, not revolution. We want the Inn to be the sort of
restaurant our locals come to week in week out and also stands up to
international visitors and special occasions - I think we’ve achieved
that now. There’s a balance to the menu that showcases the best,
most responsible seafood the country has to offer. We have our
classics but I get bored easily and need the menu to change regularly.
It keeps me happy, our loyal customers interested, allows us to
explore more suppliers and educate our staff.
AND DINING IN GENERAL?
Healthy competition has shaken up the restaurant scene and
customers are savvier as a result. I’d love to see that mirrored in
the supply chain that we work with, which seems much slower to
respond. It’s always a pleasure to sit in a restaurant that has great
service and atmosphere but if they can pair that with the skilful,
simple cooking of what the area has to offer, then that’s the holy
grail of restaurants. n
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