Matterhorn needs no introduction. This place has been around for a long time and is an institution in Wellington. Many a celebrity and hipster band have checked in on facebook and tweeted their twats off about it and rightfully so. This place is unashamedly cool, a little dark and mysterious but not dingy, fancy but not pretentious and utterly approachable. The chef Dave Verheul can pretty much be described by all of those adjectives above as well! This guy knows how to cook and I’ve heard him being described as the best chef in Wellington. I’m not going to argue.
I wanted to talk to Dave because Matterhorn recently got rid of their a la carte menu, threw out the reservations book and introduced a 28 dish tasting menu. Was this a natural progression or just moving with the trend? With restaurants like Depot up in Auckland becoming more and more popular, is this where dining in heading? Or is it that as a nation when we sit down at a bar we need to be encouraged to eat food while we drink (much like Chef Anton pointed out). Is eating cheating? No no, at Matterhorn eating is winning.
Dave asked me when I first arrived 'can you climb ladders?' Luckily I can, because he took me to his ‘happy place’ – his glorious rooftop garden, on top of Matterhorn. If you are ever out on the smokers deck at Mighty Mighty I encourage you to take a peek.
How long have you worked as a chef?
13 years, a couple of shitty places, a couple of great places. I was at university; I was into a 2nd year psych degree and hating it and not knowing what to do and then I would go home and cook elaborate dinners. It took me a long time to piece it all together. I wish that I had known what I wanted to do at 15, but by starting later you come into it with a different outlook and more focus.
Did you go to culinary school?
Yep, I moved to Wellington and went to Massey, but in my first year I blew my knee to pieces so I couldn’t finish. I went to Weltec the year after and loved it. Afterwards I worked the next year at Martin Bosley’s and then went overseas to London where I worked at the Savoy.
Did living overseas affect the way you cook?
Yeah absolutely, it is nice to be back in some respects, but every young chef needs to go overseas and see it, you get to see different cultures, different techniques and a grander scale of operations. Everyone should to travel.
How did you come to work at Matterhorn?
I lived in London, then Sydney where I met my partner so we moved back to Auckland for a while. Up there I met the guy who owns Matterhorn, it was around the time that the previous chef Sean Marshall was thinking about heading up to Auckland. So I came in to work with Sean for a while, then took over when he left.
What is the idea behind changing to a tasting menu?
I think it suits the place a lot better. The whole dynamic of the place changed when they won Restaurant of the Year in 2008. Because until then everyone thought it was a bar. But it suits everyone now; there are all sorts of price points so you can come in, eat and it’s not crazy expensive. It is a lot more relaxed, it has good food and good service and it is still quite interesting. The first plates on the menu are simple and fast to prepare so they get you over that hangry* stage. I get really hangry, so that is important to me. Then once you are over that, you have quite a few other plates to choose from – a mix of interesting modern dishes and also rustic really tasty dishes. I’ve pretty much left the desserts as they were, because who wants to share desserts!?
Do you see the dining scene heading that way?
There are merits for all types of dining, but when something isn’t right for a space you have to work with that or you are just pushing something uphill.
Who has been your biggest mentor?
A guy called Brent Savage. I worked for him in Sydney for four years. He runs a place called The Bentley Restaurant and Bar. He is a week older than me and a very good mate of mine. When I worked there it was (and still is) one of the most underrated but constantly evolving modern restaurants in Australia. A lot of chefs don’t get taught how to think about their food and create. When you find a place that has a creative culture it is a rare thing.
Who do you admire?
Anyone who has run a business for a long time, it is a hard industry and there is a lot of risk involved. I am jealous of those European restaurants that are 40 years old. We just don’t get that here, we have a young food culture. But to have a restaurant that has been in the family for generations is just completely next level.
What makes a good chef?
(silence) …fuck …I dunno. There used to be so many things, but now what makes a good chef is three different professions rolled into one. It used to be about cooking food, good food costs and staff costs but now you have to talk to people (oops, sorry!), don’t they know chefs aren’t good at talking to people! (you’re doing fine Dave)
Do you consider yourself a chef or a cook?
I call myself a cook.
Not a chef?
Some people run away with the term ‘chef’ a bit too much. Especially with that whole cheffy TV media thing. I’ll just call myself a cook and cook good food.
Do you feel the celebrity chef culture hindering the industry?
It is good and bad. It educates people about certain parts of cooking; the more that they understand about food, the more you can do for them. If people don’t know what prosciutto is it is very hard to sell it to them. It is like what Jamie Oliver did for cooking. You may not agree or like him but he taught people to cook Italian food in a non-scary way and that opened up that side of cooking to home cooks, it means you can do more.
What is your favourite dish on the menu?
Normally the latest one I have put on! I have a short attention span. I also have a really sweet tooth so I love our desserts. Our raspberry dish that we do with fresh elderflowers – I thought people would freak out about goats cheese mousse but they love it.
Do you have any urban foraging tips?
You can pick stuff from the wild but you need to be doing it consciously, don’t pick something at the same height an animal can wee on it or by a busy road so it is polluted. But there is a lot of stuff out there that a lot of chefs don’t know that can be eaten and it is amazing stuff.
What do you cook for yourself on a day off?
It used to be chicken and rice soup. We had it on the bar menu for a while which sort of ruined it for me but it was that perfect Sunday night dinner dish. It is sort of a westernised Soto Ayam - a clear broth, with caramelised onions, fennel and garlic with charred chicken thighs, fennel and lots of lemon and olive oil. (I convinced him to send me the recipe so look out for that in the near future)
What ingredient can you not live without?
Brown butter. I put it in everything, we even make ice cream out of it! I have been trying to figure out a way of making brown butter. The Holy Grail would be a butter dessert but that would probably scare the shit out of people.
Where do you like to eat in Wellington?
I go for breakfast to Nikau or Ti Kouka pretty often. I love the Larder as I live out that way. I used to live around the corner from Jacob’s restaurant in Sydney and used to eat there a lot too so it is nice to have him here in Wellington.
What is something about you most people won’t know?
I like compound chocolate. The real cheap shit, the stuff that makes your whole mouth taste like fat. It is really horrible but I love it for some reason and that stuff they make chocolate dipped ice cream out of. You would kill it if you could make gourmet Ice Magic – believe me I have tried!
*Hangry (adjective); when one is hungry and angry at the same time
Matterhorn, 106 Cuba Street, Wellington
(04) 384 3359