Jean-Michel Poulot found his way into cooking through an unexpected avenue – fly fishing.
“I used to wander along beautiful rivers collecting wild food such as berries and mushrooms, crayfish, eels, and herbs,” he told Restaurant & Café. “The most memorable thing I collected was a black truffle, which is where my passion of cooking started; wild foods, foraging, looking for new herbs and unknown ingredients just for the fun of it.”
Earlier this month, Poulot started as the new executive chef at Te Waonui Forest Retreat at Franz Josef. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his introduction to the trade, Poulot puts great emphasis on local, organic ingredients – something of which the West Coast has an abundance. Knowing where his ingredients comes from is very important, and he doesn’t like to cook anything he wouldn’t eat himself. At Te Waonui, he plans to develop a menu with organic foods, and a strong focus on local ingredients, game meats and seafood with Maori flavours, derived from wild herbs and plants from the forest.
Despite his strict requirements for ingredients, Poulot finds that simplicity is the best route. “I don’t like to mess around too much with the food – just respect the ingredients.” It’s an approach which has worked well so far, with Poulot having worked at a number of Michelin-starred restaurants including Hotel Roslap, La Cheneaudière and Relais & Châteaux. His crowning achievement, however, came during his time as head chef at Conrad Gallagher’s acclaimed restaurant Peacock Alley, where he achieved his own Michelin star. He admits that it is always a team effort.
“All the chefs will be involved in designing the new menu, sharing ideas and cooking techniques, with a direction and planning focus on quality and consistency,” he said. “Working with me is pretty easy.” From start to finish, Poulot makes sure that he buys the best ingredients, uses proper cooking techniques and guides the team to ensure the best result for the customer.
Poulot has frequently moved to new restaurants where the clientele is different, or he may be in a different country entirely. As a result, there are no specific dishes which have followed him throughout his career. “Some dishes on the menu will be similar flavours but have a completely different presentation,” he said. “All establishments are different and you can’t do the same menu or dishes everywhere.” However, there is one dish that stands above all else as his favourite: seared duck foie gras, celeriac puree, caramelised green apples, black truffle shaving and sherry veal jus.
Poulot has plied his trade all around the world, and is looking forward to settling into his role at Te Waonui. There is the West Coast, with its wild scenery and unpredictable rivers, make for the ideal fly-fishing spot, and the isolation of Te Waonui makes it the perfect location for Poulot to continue to develop his own style.
“My cooking is very personal and don’t want to do the same as everybody else,” he explained. “I do keep an eye on some of them, not necessarily apply to my cooking, but just keeping in touch with what happening out there.”