At just 25, Janet Gray was given the chance to run her own kitchen. Already an intimidating prospect, it was made all the more daunting by the fact that the contemporary chefs in Wellington at the time consisted of culinary big guns like Al Brown, Rex Morgan and Chris Green. “Nothing to be afraid of,” she said. “With the opportunity, I networked and had the support of these fellow chefs, some of which I’m still in contact with to this day, which is fantastic.” Gray still lists Chris Green and Al Brown as her influences, as well as Peter Gordon. “I did an event with Peter in my earlier chef days and learnt so much from him, both techniques and attitudes.”
Despite initial aspirations to be a vet, Gray eventually followed her passion for cooking; a passion nurtured through hours of helping her mother in the kitchen with preserving. “I pursued the cooking direction, studied, trained, completed my apprenticeship and never looked back.” As a young chef, the paua ravioli at Logan Brown was a revelation, something which Gray says has evolved and changed over the years.
Her culinary journey has seen her work in Wellington at Dockside, Boulcott Street Bistro, Copita Eatery and The Tasting Room and Palmerston North at Aberdeen and now The Fat Farmer. For all her culinary adventures, Gray thinks that the one dish that will follow her where she goes will be her duck confit, shiitake mushroom and kumara ravioli. Although there will always be a common touch from dish to dish. “My favourite ingredient is lemon or lime. I love the bright colour, and it is a great seasoning ingredient, adding a splash of acid to so much and changing a dish successfully with just one squeeze. The uses are endless and versatile.”
Gray can’t decide on a favourite cooking technique, tossing up between pan searing and roasting. “Pan searing I like as you see, feel and dictate the cooking for how long and what the result will be,” explained Gray. “Roasting I like as time goes on it gets better- with short and sharp cooking or long and slow. What you add to it creates a wonderful masterpiece of flavour and how it changes.” Gray was also ahead of the current sous vide trend, although has never had a sous vide machine, rather opting to use a water bath with a manual temperature control.
The Fat Farmer is currently undergoing a menu change, which is keeping Gray busy, and she took part in the Plate of Origin series earlier this year as part of AgriBusiness Week in Manawatu. Every year Gray tries to travel around New Zealand and look into the dining scene, particularly Auckland and Wellington. The kitchen at the Fat Farmer is tight – “small, functional and operational,” said Gray. “We have a small team and we make it work.” Gray works on a philosophy of “taste taste taste and check check check,” involving herself in all levels of the kitchen to oversee and maintain quality controls.
Gray is always willing to share her passion and experience and has taken on a number of charges. “One apprentice I trained on the new apprentice scheme. It took a while for him to grasp hospitality but he persevered and completed the apprenticeship. He moved up the ranks in the team and finally moved on, he’s currently in London and has been in Europe and doing well for himself,” said Gray. “Another was a commis I trained at a gastro pub in Wellington. He moved up in the kitchen and got to sous chef for me, went to Melbourne and is now running restaurants there – so proud!”