Like many business owners Kevin Hopgood relies on his staff to excel at everything they do and the person leading the kitchen at Hopgood’s and Co is head chef Aaron Ballantyne.
Ballantyne has worked at Hopgood’s for almost 11 years and is an important key to the restaurant maintaining a focus on consistently high-quality food, to the point the restaurant has once again been named as one of New Zealand’s top 100 restaurants in Cuisine Magazine’s annual fine dining list, with the category finalists and winners to be announced at a dinner in August.
Along with Urban Eatery and Oyster Bar, Hopgood’s & Co are one of the two finalists from this region so I sat down with Ballantyne last week to find out what drives his search for perfection on a plate.
Because his father was a bank manager Ballantyne travelled around New Zealand quite bit in his younger days as his father moved from one branch to another but it was when they settled in Wellington and he was at high school that he decided cooking was going to be his future; he worked at the old Burma Lodge (now a rest home) a couple of days a week after school and loved it.
“I wanted to do the cooking class at high school but only two of us wanted to do it so the class got canned.”
When he finished high school Ballantyne went to Wellington Polytech for two years to train as a chef then, with a brand new qualification, his first proper cooking job out of school was for the same people who ran Burma Lodge but this time it was at The Grand on Courtney Place, a big bar and restaurant complex that was more a brasserie rather than fine dining.
As happens with most young chefs he headed overseas to see the world and experience other food cultures, Ballantyne spent a year in Japan teaching at an English school part time while he “spent too much time eating, I was a skinny kid when I went there but not so skinny when I came back to New Zealand” he says with a laugh and Japanese food is still one of his favourites.
After Japan it was back to New Zealand and a job at the luxury Blanket Bay Lodge in Queenstown for three years, “the budgets were massive, when people are paying a few thousand dollars a night they expect the very best so we were always looking for the best produce and the menu changed every day. It was a big eye opener to see what happens in a kitchen with no budget limits.
“The maximum number of guests was under 30 and a lot of the time we were cooking for more staff than paying quests, we even tailored individual breakfasts and menus depending on what the guest wanted, we would have to prepare up to 34 different breakfasts, they were paying premium money and expected premium service.
“The restaurant manager was an old-school French guy from Marseille, the head chef was Jason Dell and Mark Sycamore, who had won a Gordon Ramsey Scholarship, was another chef working there when I was there, a lot of chefs for under 30 guests.
Ballantyne says at the time Dell and Sycamore were really focussed on competition cooking and the competitive nature in the kitchen really focussed everyone on developing their skills.
After Queenstown he went to Sydney for a few months buy came back to Nelson for a few weeks to spend some time with his parents who had settled here, I saw a sign on the door at Hopgoods wanting staff and I wandered in looking for work for a month and I am still here”
It was the early days of Hopgood’s and when he started “it was only Kevin, me and one other staff member in the kitchen, now there are six or seven of us at night and three or four during the day doing prep, making stocks, putting away the produce that has been delivered and all those other things that mean we can come in at night and focus on cooking.”
Ballantyne also recently married his long term girlfriend, “we met when we were both in Wellington, she is Japanese and is one of the reasons I love Japanese food so much.
“Satomi had her own Japanese lunch restaurant in Singapore for six years so while it has been a bit of an on-again-off-again relationship we have always been close, it was just the different directions our careers went in that kept getting in the way of our relationship.”
She has just sold her business in Singapore and is tying up a few loose ends before she moves here in the next couple of months.
Ballantyne says that even though he loves to eat Japanese food he isn’t very good at cooking it but I have a feeling he just says that because he can’t cook it to the very high standards he sets for himself, I for one would love to try his take on Japanese food.
He says he likes to eat fresh things that aren’t complicated, which is quite different to the beautifully crafted dishes he cooks in the restaurant where one dish can take a dozen or more ingredients to create the perfectly balanced flavours that has earned Hopgood’s & Co its reputation as one of New Zealand’s top restaurants.
To stay at the top of their game the chefs at Hopgood’s are always trying to stay up with new trends, “the food is a lot lighter now than it was in the early days, we are really focused on local products. I think Kev was ahead of the trend when he opened, he really wanted to celebrate local produce and that was something that wasn’t commonplace ten years ago, but everyone is doing it now.
“I think Nelson has some outstanding producers and we are really proud to be able to use the things they work hard to grow and make in our food, local wines are world class and our suppliers produce everything from vegetables to cheese, cured meats, mushrooms, truffles, chocolate and so much more, we try not to buy very much from outside the region.”
Ballantyne also says that he has seen food in New Zealand come a long way in the last ten years, that it keeps evolving with the evolution driven by chefs who come here with cool ideas, “they travel and bring those ideas back with them, sharing their knowledge and then there is the internet, it has had a huge influence, it is much easier to follow trends and new cooking techniques.
He says tasting menus are becoming more popular, especially with groups of people, you just sit down and eat what the chef has designed using the freshest produce they can find.
The small bar Hopgood’s & Co opened recently has given people more choices too “some arrive early, have a cocktail and snack and have a look at the menu before moving into the restaurant, others come in for a drink and a few small plates for dinner and others just enjoy sitting there with a cocktail watching what’s going on outside.”
Ballantyne also loves working with young people, encouraging them to develop their cooking skills and training younger staff in the kitchen, “once a year we do a dinner at NMIT were I design the menu, write big lists for them then help them prep all day then serve dinner at night, it is a lot different to what we do at work and keeping an eye on lots of people at once isn’t easy so I have a lot of respect for the tutors there.
He also helps the cookery teacher at Nelson College train students for culinary competitions. “they are good places to look for new talent and we have employed a few at Hopgood’s”
And his final words, “I am lucky to have a job I enjoy, if your job is your hobby it makes coming to work each day a lot easier.”