Fork & Brewer
When I first met Anton Legg it was just a few days after he had severed his little finger, had it sewn back on and was back in the kitchen. He was a semi-finalist for the Monteith's Beer and Wild Food Challenge after all, and had work to do. That pretty much sums this guy up perfectly.
It was actually a chance meeting. I was helping out at the NZ Food Bloggers Conference (yes, it is a thing!) and all 40 of us (39 of them women) were hosted at 10 different restaurants around Wellington. With others off to Boulcott Street Bistro or Coco it may have seemed like heading off to a humble brew pub was the lesser deal, however you, my dear, are mistaken. Anton, hand bandaged, came to our table and talked us through his menu and let us in on a few of his secret concoctions out back. Because that is what makes this guy special. He hates anything going to waste and when you have a brewery right next to your kitchen you see a lot going down the drain. So Anton started experimenting with the by-products of beer making and transforming them into something quite special. Firstly spent grains, which taste like very little - however after drying them and adding a few spices these now make the perfect coating for his famous chicken wings and crackers for another of his masterful inventions: BARmite. In the Marmiteless world we have found ourselves in, this stuff is liquid gold, with a flavour so much more developed and deeper than the salty sludge we are used to, I don't imagine I'll ever go back. And lastly with each new keg, the first litre of beer normally goes down the drain. However Anton has started creating his own vinegars with the different styles of beer - stout, pale ale and IPA. Tasting each one offers its own subtle difference and depth of flavour. It is genius and a sustainable practice for a chef who uses vinegar every day in the kitchen.
I met with Anton on a quiet Saturday morning, was offered a breakfast of new season asparagus, fresh fish and his "Beernaise" sauce and if he hadn't already won my heart via my stomach he had it 100% by the end of our 2 hour interview. We were kindred souls when it came to dining, apparently I was a fellow Neophile he said, "I can smell you guys a mile off". No, Neophilia isn't a love of Keanu Reeves, in fact I imagine if you are reading this you are probably one yourself. I asked Anton to explain...
Right, there are two types of people in this world. Neophilic and Neophobic. Neophilics, that is you and me. We are the type of people who when we are presented a menu, we look at it to find something we haven't eaten before. There is something that triggers in your brain that says “I don’t know what that is, I have to try it”. Neophobics think “I don’t know what that is, I won’t touch it”. I'd say New Zealand is predominately made up of the phobics. Kiwis are a shepherd’s pie nation, I mean 30 years ago I was living in Taihape and a capsicum was an exotic vegetable! But I think we are evolving, Kiwis are starting to learn by seeing cooking on TV and travelling overseas. Nowadays if you say you're a Chef there is an air of rock and roll to it, but actually nothing has changed, you are still working in crap conditions! But when you are trying to do something a bit different, or introducing something a bit unknown you can hit a brick wall with those Neophobics.
Right, back on topic, how did the Fork & Brewer come to be?
Neil and Colin approached me early 2011. They had an idea, it could have been in Auckland or Melbourne but they chose to do it in Wellington because of the thriving craft beer scene here. They had heard there was a guy matching food and wine just out of a household oven, microwave and fridge at Beaujolais. When that closed down, I was freelancing, doing some food styling for ads and they approached me to see what I was up to. We got talking and got on to all the by-products from the beer brewing process. There is bucket loads of spent grains and yeast. So I spent a lot of time at home just playing around with it and I was already starting to dabble with food and beer matching by that time, so it seemed right. And in August 2011 we kicked it off.
Was it always about pairing food and beer?
Colin always had the idea of matching food to craft beer, but it wasn’t about taking beer into the wine world but it was about making beer more acceptable at the dining table. Part of that is because some of these beers are punching up to 7% alcohol and that is not a beer you can sit down and drink half a dozen. Well you can, but things get really blurry. Food needs to be put into the equation and that is where I come in and with the right match it starts making everything taste better.
Is there a technique with tasting food and beer together?
Sip on the beer first, have a bite of food, then another sip of the beer. So with creamy/buttery foods you want a pilsner to clean it up because the hoppiness will cut the fat. If you have chilli and spicy foods you want a pale ale, it is the bitterness of the pale ale that will make the chilli so refreshing.
What makes Fork & Brewer special?
It is Wellington’s first and only brew pub, making it on site saves food miles, in fact it is literally food meters for that beer to get to you. And I fit into the equation by making food to go with the beer, to encourage people to get involved with drinking beer with food on the table.
What ingredients do you have trouble getting hold of?
I want fresh sardines and anchovies, those smaller fish are hard to get. Trying to get the commercial fishing boats to go out and get you some is impossible. Also I wish we didn't export all our A grade produce. Anything New Zealand gets from France is going to be B-grade stuff, because they keep all the best produce for themselves. Whereas we export all our good stuff, and get left with the B-grade stuff. With a country so driven on tourism and spending all this money on bringing people here, why don’t we keep all our good stuff here and they will come in droves.
How long have you worked as a chef?
I've been in hospitality for 21 years. I started as a waiter, did a bit of bar work and learnt about wine. Worked my way up to maître d' at Bellamy's in Parliament when it was Government run, serving Kings and Queens from all around the world. Then moved into a kitchen and for a few years bounced between the two but then realised there was more work in chefing. So I worked for 10 years with no qualifications and waited for City and Guilds to come to NZ. They read my CV with references from Masterchefs all around the country and accredited me my bar one, so spent 6 months earning my bar two. I was lucky to pass, I hardly ever attended as I was sous cheffing at a restaurant at the time!
Do you feel like you had to get that qualification?
It helps with the health department and going overseas so it was something I wanted. Especially City and Guilds as it is recognised overseas. But saying that, it is all very well to do the qualification, what some people don’t realise is that this industry will chew you up and spit you out if you are not careful. If you make 10 years you are doing well, double decade...and you start becoming a rarity.
Who do you admire as a chef?
I guy I worked with and still have great respect for is Paul Limacher. Paul and his brother Mark set up Roxbourough Bistro (now closed) years ago, they did that for 5-6 years then Paul left and went to Shed 5, he ran the original Shed 5 till they sold it. He is now at Te Papa. I spent 5 years in all sorts of kitchens with that guy. He taught me a lot about attitude in the kitchen. He isn’t a pan chucker. I’ve worked for pan chuckers and it just doesn't work. It builds anger, and disrespect. I’ve found falling silent on someone is much more terrifying! If I fall silent on one of my staff, they beat themselves up, they self-destruct, so I don’t have to tell them off at all.
What is your favourite dish on the menu?
The ones that never make it to the menu! That is the honest answer. There is an element of mainstream appeal to the pub menu. Where I get to speak out is the degustations and that is what I love the most and I’m fully in control and can do what I want.
Favourite dish to cook?
Yeah, the degustation allows me to play, one dish will never suffice, it is that Neophilic in me. They are a real challenge. 40 plates in 2.5 hours. We set a stopwatch between each course now. Because over 7 or 8 courses that is around 300 plates. I love getting it all together, getting it done simply and getting that variety. And the diners are my target audience, the neophilics!
What is a pet hate of yours?
I’m not a big believer in this gluten free thing. I’m kind of dietary needs intolerant - People with dietary needs give me the shits! There are people who say they are allergic but it just turns out they don’t like it. However, don't get me wrong I understand there are people who are genuinely allergic. I have one customer; she contacted me five days before she was first going to come in. She had food intolerances so severe that if she even got a whiff of it she would die and the list was huge - oils, nuts, vinegars, seeds. But I was happy to do it for her. So I sterilised everything in my corner of the kitchen and every single utensil and cooking equipment. Now I have special equipment just for her, wrapped in kitchen wrap, no one is allowed to touch it because she is a regular.
Where do you eat out in Wellington?
Anywhere Asian! I only eat off the bottom half of the menu. All the “popular” dishes are at the top - your sweet and sour porks etc, but the bottom half is where all the good stuff is, the weird stuff and that is what I’m after, I want the stuff with Jellyfish and black fungus! My mate and I went to Cha, I order the pig tero tero I knew exactly what it was, my mate didn’t. But there are some parts you aren’t supposed to eat. “Here eat this,” I said. “Oh it tastes like crunchy sausage skin, it’s delicious.” It was deep fried pigs arse and he ate the sphincter! But that is what I love about Chinese cuisine, if it walks or moves they will eat it, and they will eat every part of it.
What do you do on your day off?
Taste Tripping! Have you heard of the Miracle berry? They dull your whole palate, so anything sour or bitter tastes sweet and caramelised. So I set up these little buffets, I’ve had guys chewing on grapefruit skin saying “this shit’s amazing”. You are eating all these foods you know never to eat raw. Your eyes are telling you one thing but your taste buds are telling you something else. We ate whole star anise. Then you move to things you have never eaten, like witlof, which taste great with the dulled pallet, but then you wait an hour or so and then eat it and everyone spat it out!
I'm sure you have seen a fair few, what is your cure for a hangover?
Don’t get drunk in the first place! The human liver, will process alcohol at 3.7%, so something like Emersons Bookbinder or Croucher Lowrider, you can drink glass for glass and you won’t get the dry horrors the next day. Once you get any percentage over that that is where the damage is done. For every glass of white wine you should always drink a glass of water. If it is red wine it should be 1 ½ glass. They would do this at Beaujolais. You would be given one glass for the whole night, if it was red at the bottom, they would fill it up with water and you had to drink that before you got another drink. You would never get a double red pour. Also EAT! At a degustation with 7 or so courses you can end up drinking loads! By the end you will be merry and full but you will wake up the next day and feel fine. This is something we need to change with the Kiwi culture. In NZ “eating is cheating” but in European countries it is about eating and drinking together. They even start out light but end with strong stuff like Grappa and Orzo. So you are merry but you have been eating along with it. If you did that here without food you would be a drooling mess like a half-sucked lolly on the floor! It’s not about opening your gullet, it is about enjoying the drink and enjoying it with great food.
I could not agree more. Alice and I attended Anton’s beer matched degustation on the 23rd of October. Simpler and more rustic than most degustations but that suited the perfectly matched beers chosen by Neil Miller from many different breweries around New Zealand. There was Salmon Ceviche marinated in Anton’s very own pale ale vinegar matched with Emerson’s Pilsner (remember what Chef Anton said about creaminess and pilsners?) and the Smoked Eel Salad with the Black Beer vinegar reduction, but the absolute highlight was the Scotch Quail Egg – which was encased in black pudding and Harrington’s free range pork then crumbed in spicy spent grain and served with “Beernaise” and an IPA hot chilli sauce. The chillies had been sat in the Malthouse’s “Hopinator” infusing the beers running through it with chilli but also taking on its own beer flavours. This match was spot on with ParrotDog’s BitterBitch IPA.
Although not everyone was Chef Anton's target market that night, I overheard a woman say "Well I don't eat eel, venison, offal or oysters", but I ate every last bite of mine dammit, so let's hear it for the Neophiles!
Fork & Brewer, 14 Bond Street, Wellington.