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Lauraine Jacobs on where Kiwi cuisine fits in global food trends

Informal cooking school: demonstrating pasta making at home in the 80s. Photo/Jacobs family collection

Quality Kiwi cuisine is a passion for our well-connected food columnist Lauraine Jacobs, who has a new cookbook out now.

Lauraine Jacobs thinks about food all the time. It’s her life, her work, her passion. If she’s not writing about food, she’s testing out new ideas in the kitchen or travelling the country to meet chefs and producers who are pushing the boundaries of New Zealand cuisine.

As well as developing a global network of foodie friends and contacts, she has also acquired an extensive library of food-related books.

Jacobs’ collection has outgrown the shelves installed in each room of her large home. New arrivals are creeping up the staircase.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Auckland-raised Jacobs and her engineer husband, Murray, bought their old wooden Remuera home 42 years ago and it’s been foodie central ever since. It’s where the couple raised their now-adult children, Katie and Scott, where Cordon Bleu-trained Jacobs ran an informal cooking school for a few years, and where she now writes her long-running Listener food column.

Jacobs has just released Always Delicious, a collection of 100 recipes taken from the 700-plus recipes she’s created for Listener readers over seven years. She is a passionate, ambitious advocate for New Zealand food.

When you started at the Listener, who did you have in mind with your columns and recipes?

The job of any writer is to know your audience. If you don’t, you won’t capture them. I talked to Pamela [Stirling, the editor] about the Listener audience and discovered there is probably not another magazine in the country with such an intelligent audience. The magazine engages with New Zealanders, and that suits me down to the ground, because I am passionate about the New Zealand food scene. I am there to tell you about good things to eat and how to prepare them.

Jacobs at her 35th birthday with children Katie and Scott. Photo/Jacobs family collection

Your library of food-related books is vast. Can you talk me through some of your favourites, both old and new?

I have one of the better collections of literary food books, and I don’t think I have ever been as excited about a book as I have been about Bread is Gold by Massimo Bottura. He utilised all the food waste at Expo 2015 in Milan [where the theme was “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”] and cajoled his friends, top chefs from around the world, to help make thousands of meals in a pop-up charitable kitchen. It totally resonated with me for the sustainability, sense of community and Bottura’s leadership. I also learnt about Jessica Murphy, a Kiwi chef who is featured. She is from Wairoa and was recently named Best Chef in Ireland. It’s amazing how, by reading extensively, you can learn so much, even about your own world. I loved Jenny Linford’s The Missing Ingredient: The Curious Role of Time in Food and Flavour and it’s now waiting to be moved upstairs. It’s solid reading, with no recipes. The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy, by Justin Spring, is a really amusing book. Just look who it’s about: Julia Child, MFK Fisher, Alexis Lichine, AJ Liebling, Richard Olney and Alice B Toklas. I have all their books.

Laura Shapiro wrote What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories. Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, is one of them. My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki is a great novel, but really, it’s an exposé of feedlots. I was shocked recently when feedlots hit the news and it seemed a lot of food writers hadn’t any idea about them. It’s their job to know. Barbara Kingsolver, who writes beautifully about things that matter environmentally, is one of my favourite writers. The Poisonwood Bible changed the way I think about Africa.

Where does New Zealand sit in relation to global food and trends?

Al Brown says that with New Zealand food, every mouthful comes with a flavour bomb, and I am inclined to agree. But we don’t market ourselves enough internationally on the basis of our food. We have many top-end lodges in New Zealand, but their main focus is luxury and food is second, even if it is amazing. Murray and I have, on our travels, gone miles out of our way to go to places – where the accommodation is comfortable but not necessarily luxurious – for the food, which is outstanding. Tourism New Zealand has only just recently included food in “The New Zealand Story” [marketing videos on a range of topics].

With husband Murray, her mother and daughter Katie. Photo/Jacobs family collection

What’s the key selling point of New Zealand food?

One thing that no other country has is our connection to Māori. That element is coming at us very fast – people are learning te reo, hearing it on the radio, and people are so much more aware of the culture. We have some young Māori women who are doing amazing things. People will tell you that other countries have the same sort of food as us, and to an extent that is true. However, no other country produces as much food on farms where the air changes every day, where there are, in large part, farmers who really care for their animals, where there is amazing quality dairy and other food, and where there are some incredibly innovative chefs.

So who’s leading the charge in terms of the high-end Kiwi cuisine?

We are on the cusp of something wonderful. At the recent Wellington on a Plate, there was a most remarkable hāngī led by Wellington chef Monique Fiso. She had chefs there from Los Angeles, London and Australia, and together they nutted out a menu to put down at Shelly Bay. It was remarkable food. Instead of just chucking in cabbages, pieces of pork and chicken and potatoes, they beautifully styled and seasoned the food and they had the very best organic pork, amazing Māori potatoes, all sorts of other things. Monique is opening a restaurant in November, in the Wellington suburb of Mt Cook, and it is going to be all about gourmet Māori food. Other women you have to keep an eye on are Karena and Kasey Te Awa Bird, who won MasterChef New Zealand – they are working with indigenous New Zealand ingredients, including our wonderful seafood. They are looking to open a restaurant in Auckland and it will be top end.

Last year, the NZ Herald's Canvas magazine ran an article about you in which it quoted a range of people, including your former colleague Simon Wilson, who, more or less, called you a self-important big noter. How did you deal with that level of criticism?

I was on the board for eight years of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) in America and that was no mean feat – there’d be Julia Child, sitting next to me, chatting over lunch. Another friend is Ruth Reichl from New York. Because I am so well connected in the food world, these people are part of my life. It is not name-dropping – that is really unfair. Simon had been my editor at Cuisine, and I had helped him no end, so what he said was incredibly hurtful. But the icing on the cake was the huge support I got – the next time I saw him was at a soirée at the Auckland Art Gallery hosted by the French ambassador. When I walked in and saw Simon, I made a sharp turn right because I didn’t want to face him. Then the ambassador came up to me and said, “I want first to mention that article in the Herald – it did you such a disservice.” Even someone from overseas could read between the lines and see what was going on.

What’s your favourite food or dish and who would you most like as a dinner companion?

My mother is quarter-caste Tongan. She was born there, one of seven children. I have these wonderful memories of going with Mum to the wharves to sign off papers, because my grandmother had sent us cases of pineapples, coconuts and taro. One of my favourite dishes of all time is from her – she made it all the time and it is so simple. I get fresh fish after Murray’s been out on the boat, marinate it for an hour with lime or lemon juice and put coconut cream on it.

My ideal dinner companion? Nora Ephron; I love her. Even though she was a typical New Yorker, she knew how to push her food around on a plate. She was a real foodie.

This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.