There is constant development in what we do in the Nikau kitchen. Looking back at menus from 2 or 5 or 10 years ago we see the growth we have made, as we explore new ideas and ingredients or as we refine techniques. Some changes are an evolution, a gradual improvement, and some have been more quantum leaps. But despite the change, there are some constants to life in the Nikau kitchen. On our shelves are many cookbooks written by chefs we respect and admire. Even as we change these books remain with us, in constant use, their pages a dog-eared and oil stained tribute to the chefs who wrote them.
One of our long-term companions is The Zuni Café Cookbook, by Judy Rodgers.
Needless to say we were all sad to hear of her recent death, aged 57, after a battle with cancer. Judy was born in St Louis in 1956. As a 16 year old she travelled to France as an exchange student, and in the introduction to her book recounts living with the family of well-known French chef, Jean Troisgros, owner of a 3 Michelin star restaurant in the Loire. She writes of learning the importance of tradition, of ingredients, of simplicity and respect, and how “within a very few months, I had succumbed to the philosophy that guides Zuni cooking today”.
Judy’s cookbook is one of our bibles. Every recipe works, every introduction is thoughtful and elegantly written. The beliefs she espoused are echoed in our beliefs here at Nikau. Respect for tradition and for the seasons. Respect for ingredients and for flavour. Simple dishes prepared and presented to show food at it’s best.
As we talked about the news of Judy’s death, we realised that our current menu contained no less than four Zuni Café recipes. From asparagus and rice soup with pancetta, to the breadcrumb salsa adorning our kingfish, or the hazelnut picada that garnished the prosciutto, cherries and buttercrunch and the espresso granita in our freezer, Judy’s influence was all around us. Yet this was no conscious choice. We hadn’t set out to write a Zuni menu, it was simply a reflection of how much Judy’s recipes resonated with us.
We will continue to come back to the Zuni Café Cookbook time and again. Even as Nikau continues to evolve, we will hold to the beliefs that epitomise Judy Rodgers and her food. Simplicity, integrity and quality. Judy finishes the introduction to her book with these words.
“I hope in this volume I can honour and convey some of their collective wisdom and passion. If our food is delicious, it is due to that passion, and to the extraordinary quality of the products we obtain, and to the talent and devotion of every cook who has embraced it with heart”.
Judy Rodgers, we at Nikau hope this post has paid tribute to your wisdom and passion. If our food is delicious it is in no small part due to you, and we embrace you with heart.
The Nikau Big RB
It was a rainy old wellington day, but it wasn’t raining at Nikau. They have a roof. And because they think of everything, my companions and I were in for a treat: the redundancy banquet. (Recommended if you are ever made redundant. Ask for it by name: the Nikau Big RB.)
Kelda and Paul, the dynamic duo behind this classy joint, knew we were too tired to read a menu. But it was all part of service. They did the reading for us. We were in their hands, and because this joint is so classy, we barely noticed that Paul’s hands weren’t even there. He had played soccer in the rain and was in bed with the flu (despite the fact this link is an old wives tale … we suspected man flu). Thankfully, he was there in spirit: in the gleaming cutlery; in the ice that bobbed in our green tea soda; in the well-scrubbed faces of the friendly waiters he has reared from chicks.
The asparagus was expected. Kelda is a notorious sucker for the seasons. But the matching sauvignon was not. One of my companions last drank wine with lunch back in ’98, possibly on the day she was hired by a certain company that shall remain nameless (Learning Media Limited). But she managed. We all did. And surprisingly, it got easier.
The soup was celeriac, that hoary old beast of the soil only a chef could love. Blended with nettles and dill and surely plenty of cream, it slipped down a dream. I could barely remember why I have always hated celeriac. The matching pinot gris didn’t help.
But there was no time to dwell on blurred memory. It was time for our salmon, which had swum all the way from the deep south straight into Kelda’s pan. She respected that journey, making our friend a comfy bed of red-wine lentils with marinated turnip for pillows. Talk about being lulled into a false sense of security. In fact, we suspect that’s what the Nikau Big RB is all about. And the matching pinot noir certainly helped.
There was pudding. Buttermilk ice-cream churned on the premises and marbled with rhubarb sorbet. Only Kelda would think of that. It was so delicious, my companion’s eyebrows shot up six inches. Thankfully it’s beyond even the staff of Nikau to match wine with ice-cream, which meant my companion was in a position to retrieve his eyebrows and carry on. He even managed a double espresso.
There’s nothing more to say, other than our asparagus came with bread and our salmon came with roast potatoes. And the toilets were very clean. And we very much liked being Nikau Big RB VIPs.
Some signs and labels we saw on a trip to Copenhagen to attend MAD3
If asked, most would volunteer New York as the birthplace of the Reuben sandwich. To be sure the Reuben is a New York deli staple, but its story may begin elsewhere.
At Nikau, we’ve been able to get some nice Savoy cabbages recently, and Kelda has taken advantage of this and put down some batches of delicious sauerkraut. Painstakingly chopped cabbage is salted and after vigourous kneading is left in jars for some friendly lacto-bacillus to work it’s bacterial magic.
So we salute those card sharks from the Blackstone, all those years ago with our version of the Reuben. Because, once you have a chiller full of sauerkraut, and have access to corned beef and some very good gruyere, well, it would be rude not to …