May is a big month for Ben Batterbury. Fresh from designing and preparing the menu for Central Otago winery Domaine Thomson’s ‘Big Day Out’, Batterbury is serving as a mentor in the Ora King Salmon Next Gen programme.
If that doesn’t already seem like a big enough workload, this all has to fit around the refurbishment of the True South Dining Room at The Rees Hotel in Queenstown, where Batterbury serves as executive chef. He is also planning a collaboration with Cromwell winery Misha’s Vineyard, and he also just built a house.
Born in Bristol, becoming a chef seemed like a natural progression after how much Batterbury enjoyed home economics while at school. He worked at a range of boutique luxury lodges around the UK and Europe, including Homeward Park and Studley Priory in England, Casa do Palheiro in Madeira and Cameron House, a luxury spa on the banks of Loch Lomond in Scotland. While at Cameron House he achieved three AA rosettes, the highest rating level in one of the most well respected and comprehensive guides in the UK.
“As a young chef I used to really admire Gary Rhodes for his quirky reinventions of British classics and bringing British food back,” he said. “As an older chef I had and still do admire Heston Blumenthal – one of the best all-time food experiences I have had would include dining at Fat Duck.” Molecular gastronomy was a source of fascination for Batterbury, also dining at cult restaurant WD50 in New York before it closed in 2014. “Both had the right elements of fun and quirkiness yet delivered super high-quality food.”
Since then, Batterbury has changed his approach to food. “The biggest difference is that I’ve consciously stripped the dishes back, simplified them and focussed on the individual ingredients a bit more. It puts more emphasis on the taste first and foremost.” Simplicity and nostalgia have always played a role for Batterbury, with dishes like apple pie and stuffed roast lamb by his mother and grandmother serving as inspiration for the chef when he was younger. Living in Central Otago, the fruit bowl of New Zealand, has also had an impact.
“Since the inception of True South Dining Room we have always tried to source local produce,” he explained. “We have quite an established epicurean trail to call on – right now we have fantastic local heritage tomatoes that are outstanding for flavour and Bluff oysters which are the finest in the world. Next up will be Jerusalem Artichokes, winter vegetables and scallop season. Then it’ll asparagus time, followed by summer with its bounty of fruit.”
Batterbury also cites the influence of Noma in True South’s approach to foraging. “We seasonally forage for giant puffball mushrooms, birch bolete, watercress, miner’s lettuce, elderberries. At True South we try not to repeat dishes each year and instead look forward to creating with the flavours.” Sourcing good quality, local ingredients is of utmost importance, which is then followed by thorough testing of each recipe and dish before it makes it onto the menu.
Active tasting and testing in the field are important. “I hone in on inspiring ideas on the internet to see what is going on and of course eat out which is important,” although the latter is now all the more challenging with two small children. Apart from his mum’s cooking, Batterbury has a few weaknesses – sushi, Caesar salad, ice cream and nachos among them. “I’m a simple eater, so a good roast is very satisfying, yet I must confess that apple pie would be my all-time favourite!”
If there were any place in the world that Batterbury could work it would be Japan – I have massive respect for their food culture, commitment to simple foods and how serious they are about the basics,” – but at the moment he has his hands full in Queenstown. True South Dining Room holds regular culinary events throughout the year. The next one is the collaboration with Misha’s Vineyard, which will be followed in August by a collaboration with Quartz Reef, another Cromwell-based wine producer. Despite the levels of stress one would expect from such a busy schedule, Batterbury manages to run a tight ship. “We try to keep it fun but professional,” he said. “Our goal is to consistently create an excellent product.”
Food trends come and go and while Batterbury’s approach to food has developed over time, one thing remains the same. “Good food will always be trendy, because it’s good food.”