BRUCE THOMASON

Having worked in Antarctica, Russia, the Philippines and Japan, among other countries, Bruce is a chef well-travelled.

“In the last five years, I’ve been travelling a lot. From 2011 until 2014, I was working for Heritage Expeditions out of Christchurch on their ice-strengthened expedition ship for adventure tourists. We would travel to the islands south of New Zealand plus two trips a year to Antarctica followed by a trip across the Pacific Islands to Japan, looking at birds and wildlife. After that it would do a five-month expedition around the Russian Far East,” said Thomason. “Working with Russian chefs, and getting great experience in logistics and buying supplies around the world, was a great adventure, plus seeing animals in their natural habitat (from orcas, grey whales, penguins, polar bears, walrus, and many species of birds) was all great to do.”

After 2014 he went to Executive Chef at Amanpulo in the Philippines managing 54 chefs and five food outlets. Responsible for a Thai Restaurant, A Spanish tapas restaurant, A pizza restaurant on the beach, a fine dining European restaurant and a Philippine restaurant, he certainly had his work cut out for him. “The Philippine restaurant was more of a learning experience as the cuisine was not something I was familiar with. Amanpulo was a real eye opener as far as getting ingredients to the island was concerned, they only came by plane twice a day of by ship every six weeks. As far as guests were concerned, there was nothing they couldn’t have, and if they asked for it, we endeavoured to do our best to get it in. It was a real paradise.”

But it was eating and cooking at home as a child where his real culinary journey began. “My mother’s chocolate mousse recipe was so good that my brother and I would eat it with the smallest utensil we could find to make it last as long as we could. I now have the recipe!” Thomason told us, “I chose to become a chef when I was around 14, and took the appropriate subjects at school, Home Economics and so on. I guess I started baking a home as a teenager and decided that that would be my vocation for later in life. It was either that or driving trucks.”

As a young chef he was inspired by another chef that was smoking, not just seafood, but a broad range of vegetables as well as using different spices in the smoking rubs. “It was enlightening how different temperatures and heats evolved different flavours,” he added. “In the past, I have been known to make smoked potato purees, smoked pumpkin soups, adding smoked onion to tomato relishes and so on. It’s important that the smoke flavour enhances a dish rather than overpowers it.”

Starting cooking in restaurants in Auckland in 1985, dishes were classic French where he worked. “In the late 80s, we saw a lot of seafood served with avocado as it was a new thing then. Then we started opening restaurants for breakfast, and I got a lot of training from my Swiss chef on hash browns. We also started serving fruit with our main courses like apricot chicken and fried cheeses with berry coulis. In the 90s we started piling food up as high as we could so waiters had to be acrobats to carry the food to the customer. At the time we were writing menus with words like ‘stacked upon’ and ‘layered with.’ Then in the new century, we started drizzling sauces around the plate which at the time was much easier than carefully knapping a sauce over the food. Then in early 2001, I saw a book called El Bulli which brought a new phase of food to the country, the world of molecular gastronomy. This is where we still are with a lot of things. Lots of foams, dehydrated foods, sous vide, smoke guns, edible seaweeds, gels and so on.”

At the same time, Thomason added, chefs have become more determined about where their food originates from, more interested in sustainability and growing their own produce, as well as in hunting and gathering and being keener about farm to plate concepts. "What the animal goes through from farm to table and how important it is that the animal is not stressed during its life, as well as what it eats, and how it is treated at the abattoir, all makes a big difference to how it will taste,” he said.

“I owned my own restaurant when I was 35, which was great for me at the time. I enjoyed being my own boss, and I have many happy memories from the experience, and I still keep in contact with a few staff from back then. It’s a tough industry, and now that I’ve had my own place I really understand how hard it can sometimes be, and the overheads involved. When you think about retail, you have a product on the shelf to sell and a profit margin. In a restaurant, you have a product to sell with a very short shelf life that you have to sell or it’s money lost. You have to buy carefully ensuring the products is at its freshest and always serve the best you can. If you don’t do that and try to take shortcuts, it will show in your food and that’s not acceptable.”

Influenced by a lot of different chefs over the years (such as Marco Pierre White, The Roux brothers, Raymond Blanc, Heston Blumenthal, to name a few) he says he is also influenced by the chefs he has worked with, as long as they are passionate. These days he uses the internet a lot to see what chefs are doing overseas as well as here in New Zealand, and he reads Cookery books from acclaimed chefs to stay on top of trends. “I’m always looking for new dishes, new trends and products all the time. I keep in touch with chefs working overseas for new products or cooking styles.

“A cooking technique which has been about for a long time but has recently been brought back to the limelight would be ‘sous vide’. This involves vacuum packing food and cooking it at exact temperatures so as to soften muscle fibres without overcooking or to cook food to a safe temperature without changing its colour. I have a beef short-rib dish on the menu which has a spice rub on it for 12 hours and then hot smoked for one hour, then sous vide at 60c for 48 hours. It’s very tender, without the greying of overcooked meat and with the smoked spices permeating the rib as well. It’s finished to order in the oven for 10mins and has become a staple favourite at the restaurant,” Thomason explained. “My Favourite cooking technique is braising as I love slow cooked food. I like the way slow cooking brings a lot of flavours to a dish at the same time as rendering a sometimes tougher cut of meat to something meltingly tender.”

Having recently returned to New Zealand, and finally having a family, he is now happy to be back in his own home working at Bistro 1284 in Rotorua. “It’s great as the owner has been very supportive of allowing me to write menus and steer the food in the direction which I think would be attractive to the public and tourism in Rotorua. I see every dish that is sent out to the customers. One of the first things that was changed at Bistro was a bigger service counter to serve more plates on so I can inspect every dish before it goes to the customer and also to help the wait staff lift the food from the counter without toppling the food.”

“I’m doing a lot of dishes that I enjoy serving while at the same time being as creative as I can. I look forward to going into the kitchen every day. It’s easy for chefs to get stale by serving the same dish over and over but here at Bistro, I change the menu every 12 weeks or seasonally to keep produce as fresh as possible while serving what is in season. I have great support from my suppliers here and always get phoned when new products become available,” he said.

“We are very fortunate in the Bay of Plenty to get a good, varied degree of fresh produce, but something I’m seeing a lot more of lately is the improved quality of meat from the beef and lamb industry. I use Merino lamb from Canterbury and Wagyu beef from New Zealand, which has been very good as I’ve not seen it on the market here before. In the Philippines, I would get all my meats from America or Japan or parts of Europe. I did have a supplier in Manila import a tonne of Merino lamb for me as I couldn’t find lamb that was as good as the New Zealand product.”

As the weather gets colder, he’s looking to use more root vegetables, cuts of beef and lamb suitable for slow cooking, as well as more hearty dishes with a bit more starch. “I’m now running two soups on the menu for winter, one is a deconstructed seafood chowder so the guest can see what’s in the soup before the veloute is poured at the table.” He’s also possibly looking into opening another restaurant in the area in the near future with a different style of cooking.