When he was a child, Sam Clark would wake up at 4 am and accompany his grandfather on a whitebaiting mission. “We’d tramp for hours to reach the perfect spot riverside,” he told Restaurant & Café magazine. “We’d head back home with a bucket load, giving most of it away before my Gran would cook the greatest whitebait fritters.”

While this formative food experience is a fond memory, being a chef was never a specific aim for Clark. Growing up around an abundance of fresh produce certainly helped, however, and after falling into a kitchen after finishing school it soon became his calling. Now working at The Lula Inn in Auckland’s Viaduct, Clark’s career has seen him work at Cable Bay and Clooney, where he worked with Des Harris.

The influence of fresh produce on Clark’s dishes is obvious. He lists his favourite ingredient as the carrot (“Or maybe a fresh kahawai!”) and made use of the wide range of winter citrus – Poor Man’s Grapefruit, kumquats, yuzu, Buddha's Hand and lemonade fruit. Trend-wise, Clark is embracing fermented food items. “We do a few lacto fermented pickles,” he said. “It really adds a good bite and balance to dishes.”

“I try and avoid taking ideas from social media now,” Clark admitted. “There’s a kind of homogenising of restaurant food that I don’t want to follow.” However, sometimes an interesting technique or presentation style might create a new dish. “I’ll get inspiration from that and see how it works with my overall vision or menu,” he said. An example of this is the Zero Waste Fish Burger, which was used as a promotion earlier this year. The burger was made from snapper and kahawai head and wing meat mixed with mustard and horseradish. “It was super yum and used a more sustainable approach,” said Clark.

Rather than policing every dish that leaves his kitchen, Clark tries to create an environment where his chefs self-critique, one of hard work and constant training. “I give them my trust and believe in them to meet the expectations.”

Within the next few years Clark plans to open his own place – a bistro focused on New Zealand seafood. At some point he would like to work in Asia. “Singapore is an incredible food destination, but really New Zealand is home and Auckland is an amazing city to cook in. I’m happy cooking simple food that reflects New Zealand.”