Rata - Back to the Roots
The short answer, and probably not far from the truth, is this chef, Josh Emett, loves to ski and go fishing, inherent to Queenstown and the Otago region where he and front of house veteran, Fleur Caulton, have established Rātā, a game-changer in New Zealand provincial dining.
In reality, the answer is more likely to be Emett succumbed to that yearning for home; to go back to ones roots, a predisposition that most wandering New Zealanders have in their genes.
One needs to comprehend that for Kiwi’s, the allure of the big wide world out there is strong— that’s literally everything to the north as there’s only Antarctica if you head south—with a innate craving to explore, to further ones skills abroad, the aspirations and ambition that in reality cannot be achieved in the remoteness and sparse population of this young island nation, one of the last major land masses settled by humans.
Emett actually grew up on a farm in Ngahinapouri, outside Hamilton in the North Island region of Waikato. He may not have realised it at the time, but this country-outdoors life and summers spent fishing with his grandfather, “Learning how to fillet fish and smoke fish”, instilled a profound awareness of nature’s bounty and an instinctive grasp of the land and its seasonal produce.
Farm life also meant Emett had to fend for himself at an early age starting to cook at 9 years-old and building a natural affinity with produce and foraging, nurturing an ingrained inquisitiveness.
I first met Emett in Melbourne, back in the mid-90s at Est Est Est restaurant where he worked (doggedly) with Donovan Cooke, one of the toughest chefs I know and a Roux brothers disciple and also doing (hard) time with Marco Pierre White. Cooke was in partnership with my long time friend and Australia’s best Maitre d’, Frank Heaney. It was the restaurant of the time, at the cutting-edge of Australian dining and Emett was right there, at the hot-press day and night.
I have an affinity with Emett’s trajectory, having also spent much of my formative years in Hamilton, some of it down on the farm in Te Awamutu and hunting and fishing throughout the Waikato and beaches on both coasts. My stepfather was something of a bushman, a hunter gatherer and he taught me how live off the land; it was not sport and you only catch or kill what you were going to eat.
And like Emett, I too left New Zealand for Melbourne, as a young Sommelier full of ambition and destined to explore, only I got stuck in Melbourne, for 15 years. At least Emett had the good sense to move on, to more challenging shores and obviously developed his skills to become an exceptionally talented chef.
Indeed, Emett has trained with the very best; chefs like Marcus Wareing and the notorious Gordon Ramsey and has certainly earned his Michelin stripes. Having run the kitchens at Ramsey’s most acclaimed restaurants in London and New York we can all envisage what he went through; the gruelling physical and mental grounding that has lead Emett full-circle to be back in his homeland, at the forefront of the contemporary dining movement of seasonally fresh, local produce cooked with precision simplicity.
No more molecular, no more foam; the universal trend is now back to the roots of provenance and wholesome cooking. But ask any top chef and they will tell you, simplicity in cooking is the most difficult of all to achieve; you have to be control freak and it’s not just a question of technique, it is a deep understanding and respect of the raw ingredients itself that is essential.
And this is what is so exciting about Rātā; a chef of Emett’s extraordinary skill and talent in his element with a boundless resource of amazing produce—I cannot think of many other places on this earth with such diversity and natural abundance within such close proximity—the potential is gastronomically mind-blowing.
Emett is already making full use of local wild game—deer, pigs and rabbits from the mountainous high country—free-ranging duck, lamb and beef from the pastoral valleys and wild, unspoilt coastal hinterlands. Then there’s fresh seafood from the coldest, most pristine waters in the world— crayfish from the icy-depths of Milford Sound, mussels and clams from rugged, uninhabited coastline, line-caught fish from the southern ocean on the table within hours—piping fresh oysters and fabulous King Salmon from the Marlborough Sounds.
Reading through the Rātā menu, as concise as it is, deciding on what to have is almost maddeningly difficult, it all sounds so good—perhaps one could just start at the top at their ‘Bites’ and keep going though the entire menu until satiated. But what impressed me most was Emett’s uninhibited approach to the menu design and flow, it oozes confidence and maturity, especially ‘Feasts – larger cuts for the whole table’ unabashedly wholesome, no fuss, communally-sized dishes; like it should be when your gathered at a table with friends for a feast and your host is cooking to maximum effect with fantastic produce.
‘Whole baked red snapper’ or Roast crispy skin Canter Valley duck, or ‘Braised coastal spring lamb shoulder’. Get the picture. Simple huh…but when was the last time you tried to cook a whole snapper and got it right, or a whole duck; I know people who are frightened at the thought of cooking a duck or have no idea anyhow.
This is where it is easy to underestimate a restaurant that aims for simplicity in its cuisine even though there are many diners and gourmands who go to restaurants with the express expectation of experiencing something they could not cook themselves at home. And I don’t care how obsessive a BBQ cook you are, this man has run the Savoy Grill, and there’s a disciplined artistry in timing of cooking that can bring out the very best in a piece of meat or completely murder it.
You could say, that with such exemplary produce and prowess of cooking that the dining space could be irrelevant, but the fact is, we ultimately go out to have fun; well least in New Zealand and more so a place like Queenstown with an energy level off the Richter scale.
I am somewhat reluctant to delineate Rātā as casual dining as much as the proprietors want to avoid any connotations of fine dining, there is much more going on here to be ‘casual’; with such contemporary, innovative food and the prosperous hum of diners. That said it is open all day, from 12pm to 11pm so it is a venue for impromptu dining.
There is certainly an obvious congeniality about the place, a good balance between friendly informality and slick service, but don’t be surprised if your waiter is from Sweden or Germany; this is after all a ski town and there’s a constant flow of international, adventuring youth. From observation the front of house is subtly and very professionally coordinated by a duty manager who has the necessary mojo.
It is a lively, airy open-plan dining room with an engaging floor to ceiling picture of native New Zealand forest and Rata trees (hello) taken by photographer Daz Caulton. It certainly sets the tone; that everything is natural, pristine and largely local produce; well in the local sense of down the road, and in New Zealand the road can be a very long and winding road.
You could say it’s the cool place to dine, and yet there’s nothing really contrived or artificial about the place at all, indeed it seems far too genuine to be cool or pretentious—it is simply what it is—confident, natural, relaxed, fun dining to which I attribute and applaud Fleur Caulton’s front of house talents.
There is a snappy wine list with good local depth and plenty of wines by the glass. What am I saying, all this talk of produce when this is arguably the most exciting wine region in New Zealand with cornucopia of pinot noir and aromatic whites. Wine tourism is as popular as skiing here with the burgeoning growth of the wine industry and artisan vignerons collaborative to evolution of the regions restaurant scene.
Frankly, Emett could not have chosen a better location than Queenstown, a confluence of both indigenous and international adventurers and travellers with its year-round appeal. It is a very relaxed place, so don’t fight it, just run with it.
Using Singapore as a barometer, I have to say that the overall experience of Rātā is one of exceptionally good value. Actually I would go as far to say, considering the quality of produce and cooking, this is some of the best value eating on this planet.
Ok, it’s a long way to get there, but you really must visit New Zealand and the South Island at least once in your lifetime, especially Central Otago—a place of unparalleled contrasts and vertiginous spectacle against a backdrop of impossibly blue sky—it’s almost inconceivable until you have seen it yourself and instils a wanderlust, and a perception that everything (wine and food) has to taste good. Inspiration can be drawn from recent trip to New Zealand and article ‘Gone Fishing (for Pinot) in Middle Earth’
I do hope this gastronomic vanguard is not lost on the locals although it does seem that they have embraced Rātā and the place is brim full every night; and I could see myself being a regular and settling in here for a very long lunch on a wintery day.
It has to be said, Queenstown is very fortunate to have a chef of this calibre and talent, thankfully, as the old adage goes, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”
All that said and their early success aside, Rātā is only just approaching one years-old, and there is much work to be done—locally. There is now the onus on Emett, to do what all great chefs work towards in a rural-provincial location; that is to motivate, nurture, support and be actively involved in all facets of improving agriculture and artisan farming, and to encourage more organic dairy and free-range poultry in the region.
The potential of the Central Otago region is still relatively untapped and I am sure Emett knows this; he’s not just here for the skiing…and fishing.
Rata is located in Te Nuku, 43 Ballarat St, Queenstown,
Ph +64 3 442 9393