John Pickens just wanted to learn how to cook. “It wasn’t until I was at culinary school that things got set in motion,” he told Restaurant and Café, “and once I got my first job on a yacht I knew I’d found my calling.” After spending the best part of a decade working on yachts around Europe, the Caribbean and America, Pickens and wife Debbie settled in Queenstown.
Spotting a gap in the market for caterers to high end events, private functions and weddings, they established Artisan. Born out of a vision to offer boutique private chef experiences, Artisan quickly grew and was soon catering events with up to 1000 guests, with John and Debbie constantly asked when they would take their food to the public. The opportunity presented itself in late 2016, when Artisan was approached by Bannockburn winery Akarua. The venture took over the iconic Walnut Cottage on the outskirts of Arrowtown and opened in December 2016.
Pickens’ background in catering has influenced the way he prepares his dishes. “Our goal with the catering has always been to create complex dishes that you would normally only be able to serve to ten guests and serve them to 200 people,” he explained. This means that he and his staff often have to get creative and collaborate – “We love a good bit of research and development!”
Research can include anything as simple as social media (“Instagram is epic, it can get addictive!”) to holidays in Japan with his wife (“Our holidays often revolve around eating out, we love it!”). Pickens also made the most of his younger European adventures. “The seafood and produce markets, especially in the south of France, were amazing for a young chef abroad. The truffle festival in Tuscany was a good day out!”
So what’s hot in the Artisan kitchen right now? Black ingredients. “We use squid ink, fermented black garlic and charcoal,” Pickens explained. “It looks epic, and you can do so much with those items.” Pickens is also a fan of the sous vide, primarily for convenience. “For small events in private homes I take a small one when I know I don’t have much room.” On the other end of the scale is his dehydrator, which is also “working around the clock – anything from meringues, olives, poultry and pork skins, tomatoes, grape vines.”
For now, Pickens is just enjoying the chance to share his food with a wider audience, something he rates as his biggest accomplishment. “Having been a private chef for a long time and then on to our catering company, people would either need to book me or be at one of our events.” He plans to keep a nice balanced life, “and heading back to Europe with my wife and son would be nice too!”