It’s a clear Summers day in Milford Sound. James Howdry, head chef at the B Group has suggested our interview best be done here. Seems James spends his days off work a little bit different to us mortal folk. We are aboard a helicopter flown by Bruce one of James mates. I guess we're safe given Bruce fly's in here every day only normally with tourists. Bruce explains he has some people to pick up in Milford so we are hitching a free ride.
I won't try and explain the view but the photo might give you some ideas. James however hasn't come to look at the views. The chef is here to fish and forage, he’s after some of the seaweed, a few fish and a couple of crays he tells me. This is not for the faint-hearted. We land on an outcrop of rocks and its not long before James has his wetsuit on and is waist-deep in surging water. He collects seaweed from just under the water then throws it up on a rock shelf. This goes on for about 5 minutes, he then pulls on a mask and snorkel and disappears underwater...
My photographer and I stand on the rock ledge looking at each other after about a minute has gone by and we haven’t seen James. We are actually now quite worried then up pops James with two huge crayfish. He pulls himself up onto the rock’s, crayfish and all like he’s getting out of a resort swimming pool and it’s all in a day’s work, or in his case, leisure. He puts the crayfish into a large rock pool then without hesitating casts a line into the dark waters of the sound. I’m not kidding you when I tell you he is getting bites in less than a minute. I say to him “Have you got one?” “Yeah," he says "I’m just waiting for another” What?? James goes on to tell us “...no point pulling the line in when you’ve just got one”
Speak with Howdry for any length of time and you begin to understand how unique this character is. “I grew up on a coastal remote farm, we had to pick things from the farm, things from the bush, things from the coast. That’s how we sustained ourselves,” he explains, of his upbringing. “My dad picked up this knowledge from the same place I did: from his father and from the community he lived in, in the 1940s and ’50s rural New Zealand. Harder times than I grew up in. The ’80s and ’90s weren’t great for dry-stock farmers, there was no money in it. We were happy, but we didn’t have things wealthy people had. We had other things.” Howdry pauses...
"My parents set me up to succeed by accident. Foraging wasn’t a trendy thing back then, it wasn’t based on trying to impress guests at a restaurant or anything like that. Money was tight and food was free in the wild, and it seemed like folly to avoid it. I left the farm in my late twenties, solely focused on my career, and I forgot a little bit of the soul of that,” he continued,
“When I started in my first proper chef job I felt there was a lot of sameness – everyone was doing New Zealand’s take on fusion food, but I wasn’t good at any of that, and I didn’t want to do it. I returned to the very early lessons I learnt on the farm." It is natural his background informs his cooking, but how it ended up manifesting itself into the dishes produced at the group's venues is something that can’t be explained so easily. “For the last while we’ve done an experimental menu, so I feel more confident and comfortable cooking in a style like that. I like being in a situation like this, where I am in nature, in a difficult spot but knowing the reward is worth it.”
I ask why he has to be out here, in this location and this time of night? “I only get away from the venues for a couple of days, so I like to make the most of it, I enjoy being in remote locations and most of all this place is full of incredible produce”
Then the rod goes off again. We watch as James pulls up 8 large blue cod in about 15 minutes. He unhooks them kills them and tosses them into a rock pool with the crayfish. Then the quietly spoken chef says “That’ll do.”
We head back to the spot James has arranged to be picked up from, this time its a mate with a boat. We have a basket full of fish, seaweed and crayfish. Just quietly we are hoping we might get an invite to sample some of this fresh catch and we're stoked when James suggested we swing by the café tomorrow night to get a "feed" as he calls it.
I won't go into detail as to the meal that was produced, fair to say it's not a meal I will forget anytime soon, instead I would encourage you to get to Puku yourself and see what this man does to fresh produce. It truly is something special.