And the Festival Dish Award goes to...
One of this year’s judges is Liz Egan, who is best known as a judge on both Australian and New Zealand versions of My Kitchen Rules. As a chef, Liz has received much acclaim during a career in food that spans more than 20 years.
This was Liz’s first visit to Wellington and despite the short stay she had plenty time to eat and drink her way around the city. She fell in love with Noble Rot (so much so that she went back a second time), was impressed by Charley Noble, and became one of Garage Project’s newest fans.
Liz and her fellow judges – Sarah Meikle (VWOAP Festival Director) and Lucy Corry (food writer and blogger) – visited the five finalists over two days to try their dishes. Liz admired how inventive the finalists were in showcasing local ingredients: “The five finalists are all big on local ingredients. It’s really great to see that pride in the local area.”
Liz is undoubtedly well experienced when it comes to judging food. Generally, she looks for cohesion on a plate – a reason for every ingredient to be there, not because chefs think they’ll impress. “I want to see that they’ve thought about how it looks on a plate, and of course how it tastes. Also, a balance of textures and flavours. If you’ve got some very smooth or soft textures, you have got to have some crunch in there as well. I need to see their thought process on the plate.”
So how did the dishes stack up?
Capitol Bistro’s festival dish consists of fish and produce sourced or foraged from within a 20 kilometre radius of Wellington. This limitation means needing to be creative with what’s available – for example, evaporating water from the harbour for salt. “A beautiful, clever dish,” says Liz.
Olive’s crumbed cashew vegan ‘mozzarella’ with broccolini and artichoke pesto surprised Liz, who normally doesn’t choose to eat vegan food. She admits that she didn’t expect to like it as much as she did, calling it “a really interesting dish”.
Liz’s eyes lit up when she started talking about The Larder’s “absolutely incredible” elk schnitzel, which was rolled in dried porcini (foraged locally) and elk felt. The dish was ceremoniously served on an elk shoulder blade, making it surprising in more ways than one.
Ti Kouka have taken a no-waste concept for their festival dish by using ingredients that aren’t normally valued or are the by-products of other dishes. Confit chicken wings (leftover meat from their Burger Wellington entry) are transformed into a mousse and served with the sautéed outer leaves of an iceberg lettuce, crackers made from leftover brioche, croutons from old bread, and an ailoi made with the oil from tinned sardines. “The thought behind the dish was fabulous.”
Jano Bistro’s unassuming description of their dish in the VWOAP programme does not reveal the inventiveness of what was served, which Liz said was unlike anything she’s ever eaten before. Sautéed red cabbage is encased in a prune tuile and served on a bed of hazelnuts and red cabbage marmalade and fondant. It’s topped off with a Parmesan mousse that Liz described as “fatty in all the good ways”. If that wasn’t stunning enough, there’s some culinary alchemy to go with it: three jars are presented with the dish, and as the liquid from the first is tipped into the other two it changes colour. The end result is a consommé that is poured into the red cabbage dish.
With such a stellar line-up of finalists, I don’t envy the judges having to pick a winner. In the end it was Jano Bistro’s “magical” dish that the judges picked as this year’s Festival Dish Award winner. Liz says that diners will be “challenged and utterly surprised” by Jano Bistro’s dish.
Jano Bistro’s Head Chef Pierre-Alain Fenoux says he and fellow co-owner Diana Goh are still in a bit of disbelief after being told they were the winners: “We’re a bit emotional, and grateful. We were surprised just be in the top five.” But Pierre-Alain, who worked at the much-missed Le Canard in Thorndon, is no stranger to awards having won Chef of the Capital in 2014. Also, Jano Bistro was the runner-up of Cuisine’s Good Food Award for Best New Restaurant in 2015.
The starting point of the dish was to showcase some of Wellington’s best produce and to fully embrace the idea of presenting Wellington on a plate. The colour-change consommé was inspired by the Bucket Fountain and Wellington’s unpredictable “four seasons in one day” nature. With mere days before VWOAP takes over the city, Pierre-Alain says, “there’s lots of work to be done and lots of cabbages to order!”
Congratulations, Jano Bistro – this year’s VWOAP will no doubt be an unforgettable one for you!