Simon Wilson eats at Pasture, the restaurant that cooks with fire and fermentation and a very singular vision.
First published on 11 November 2017.
This is what obsession looks like.
Five very small, thick oval slices of a bird’s breast, skin on, in a row on a large plate, with a leg and a large piece of skin. The breast meat served glistening and rare, like duck, all the pieces dark-skinned from the woodsmoke in which they have been cooked. Nothing else. Your cutlery removed. Nothing but water to drink. This is muttonbird.
This is the primal experience of eating muttonbird, cooked over fire, using your hands, tearing at the skin and flesh as best you can with your teeth. The overpowering saltiness. The overpowering sense of doing something elemental and raw – a thing you don’t get to do anywhere else, unless you’re a muttonbirder or know where to buy them – and doing it here, in a sophisticated restaurant.
I ate the little pieces of fillet, complete with their rich-beyond-compare layer of fat beneath the skin, I gnawed the leg, but the skin defeated me. You get a flannel to wipe up afterwards.
I wasn’t sure. Was it glorious or was it preposterous? Offering muttonbird seemed terrific. What a wonderful thing for a restaurant to do. Insisting you eat it unaccompanied, less so. I interrogated myself: I’ll eat oysters like that in a heartbeat, so why not this? Too salty. Too much. Muttonbird needs bread, potato, beer, greens, something. It was an experience more than it was a thrill.
To be clear, you don’t have to eat muttonbird at Pasture. It’s a bonus item on the set menu and it costs extra. They call it the “Elton John”, which I think is their way of saying they know it’s the epitome of excess.
This is what obsession looks like.
Ed Verner gets up at 6am to feed the sourdough starter for his bread. Then he goes back to bed. At 10am he’s up again. Shower, walk to work. He doesn’t eat breakfast. At the restaurant he lights the fire, mills some rye for the bread and does some other prep. At 12 o’clock he puts the bread dough in the mixer and after that he leaves it to prove for three hours, hand turning it from time to time. Late in the afternoon it’s time for stitching, which involves folding the dough over and over, and then wrapping it up in itself. Stitching puts air pockets into the bread and gives it a light but chewy texture.
Sometimes, he doesn’t get it all done in time. One day recently he told me, “At 8.30 last Saturday I had to take time out to do the bread.” All the guests were in, it was the middle of service and Ed was supposed to be looking after the meat hanging over the fire, not to mention running the whole kitchen.
“I had to do it. I said to Laura, ‘If we want bread tomorrow I have to do this now.’” I asked, did that happen often? He said, “8.30 is rare. But 6.30 is common.”
The loaves go in the fridge overnight and are baked at 1pm the next day. On the shelves by 2pm. They sell to the public; regulars place their orders in advance. Each loaf is large, oval, astonishingly light and also chewy, with a very thin, very dark crust. As caramelised as they can be without burning. They cost $12.50 each.
It has to be watched, all the time. From day to day and week to week things change: the quality of the flour, the weather, and sometimes it doesn’t rise, or doesn’t rise to Ed’s satisfaction. “A bad bread day is the worst ever. When I pull out pancakes from the oven, those are the days I hate my life.”
Laura said, “If we’re not entirely happy we say, ‘Here, just have it.’ The customers say, ‘Oh no, we don’t mind paying, we can’t tell the difference!’ But we can.”
Last thing at night, that is, after service, after cleaning up, after winding down, when he’s home, so maybe at 2am, Ed might eat some pot noodles. He gets the starter going for the next round. Then he goes to bed.
One day I arranged to meet Ed and he was 40 minutes late, because he’d been at the barber having his head shaved and his beard trimmed and he was so tired he fell asleep. Still, he looked good.
Ed and Laura Verner run Pasture, a little restaurant in a lane behind the Parnell Rd shops. They do fermentation and traditional preserving and they cook over fire. They do their own butchering; they make almost everything they serve from scratch. But when you ask Ed about his day, which invariably involves dozens of tasks – curing, fermenting and all the other practices of slow-prepped and preserved food, tasks he applies himself to with rigour and with pleasure – when you ask, what he talks about is the bread. The bread defines his life.
They serve it, not first but after three small appetisers, with butter, which they age for about four months. It’s almost a soft cheese. I’m trying to be careful with the word revelation, writing this story, because it will be true most times I describe the food, so I’ll use it just once, about the butter. I already knew bread could be good and I knew you could flavour butter. Many restaurants do it. I didn’t know you could age butter to make a taste sensation quite like that. That bread and that butter, honestly, you understand when you eat it why Ed cares so much. In fact, you start to wonder why he bothers with anything else.
And then out comes the next dish, and you remember.
The floor is grey terrazzo, polished concrete set with pebbles. The walls behind the counters are a moss green, the upholstery grey, the chairs black framed, the tables blond wood, and there’s a kind of sliding gate of slatted blond wood dividing the entrance from the dining room proper. It’s so Scandinavian you assume there’s a sauna somewhere near.
The exterior wall is mostly windows, with a view across to the other restaurants in the lane, and past them to the Domain, but if you’re facing inwards the view is of the kitchen, set behind a counter around two sides of the room, with raised fire and benches for prep. Only the dishwasher works out the back; everyone else, diners, servers and cooks, is in the one room together.
You can sit at tables or, if you prefer, up at the counters where you can watch the food being made. It’s intense, quiet, not obviously hurried. They hunch over bowls, two chefs at a time, measuring their precision against each other, adding a spoonful of this and a sprinkle of that.
Every now and then Ed stops, suddenly overwhelmed by some private thought. He doesn’t look up. After a moment, he starts again, gets the smile back on his face. Laura wears her smile all night long, it warms the room and it’s like she was born with it.
He cuts little pieces from a leg of lamb hanging above the fire. She mixes drinks. The other chefs shave wafers of celeriac. Slice a kaffir leaf so finely you can hardly see it. Pasture, when it’s full, feeds only 20 people a night.
Mr Roboto is an aperitif of mirin, normally a rice wine but which they make with gin, and fermented rhubarb, which they also make, and salted sakura. Sakura is cherry blossom. “I pick it in the neighbourhood,” said Laura, blushing slightly. “I think it’s almost time for me to pick some more. At night, of course.”
The drink was served in a flat-bottomed cylindrical tumbler made from almost paper-thin glass, with a single cube of ice. It was pure pink, with little hints of the saltiness on the tongue and a surprisingly full mouthfeel. Delicious, and unlike any cocktail I’ve had before. The name Mr Roboto refers to the Styx song of the same name, although I don’t know why. The other aperitifs are all named after singers and bands: Blondie, White Stripes and so on, also The Flaming Lips, which sounds like a challenge but surely isn’t. The aperitif sees you through the appetisers and the bread.
Everyone eats the same menu, a degustation of around eight courses, which evolves with the seasons and the availability of the cured and preserved foods in their larder. Ed customises the menu for people with allergies, but if you’ve got any kind of special dietary requirement be sure to ask them about it when you book. The restaurant isn’t geared to cater for surprise requests on the night.
There are drinks matches for each course, an alcoholic option and a non-alcoholic one they call the “Pasture pairing”. Laura conceives the drinks. There’s also an exotic list of wines, beers, cider, spirits, half a dozen teas including roasted dandelion root, and single origin softbrew coffee. You pay around $150 per person, another $80/$85 for the matched drinks (prices vary slightly according to what’s on the menu). It’s expensive, but less so than other comparable restaurants in town: you can add another $50 or so to eat and drink the degustation at one of them.
The pink mirin was wonderfully rich, savoury rather than sweet. Pasture is an umami restaurant, dedicated to that fifth taste quality that isn’t sweet, sour, salty or bitter, and is a bit like savoury only, well, a bit different. Most restaurants do savoury, of course, but almost none forego sweetness. Sugar is the secret ingredient of chefs, the thing they add to soups, salads, sauces, meats, vegetables, you’d be astonished.
Ed cooks without sugar and Laura makes her drinks without it too. They’d probably say the things that set them apart are the fermenting and the fire cooking, and that’s true, their dedication to those things is unparalleled in Auckland. But it’s not unique. Slow-cooked fire-pit meats are common enough now and the rise of Korean cuisine has made fermentation a thing too.
But the flavour difference between Pasture and all the others is defined most of all by the lack of sugar. They find other ways to excite. It’s honourable, because we all know about sugar now, and it’s brave, because sugar makes food easy to like. Sweetness is a base flavour experience, we use it to value our food: too sweet, no thanks; but not sweet, you might just be thinking, what’s this? Is there something missing? Ed has to work a little bit harder than everyone else to get past that.
Laura brought out a dish of goat’s curd and spring greens. “The goat’s milk is from Crescent Dairy,” she said. “Once a week she brings it to us in a bucket. We make the curd.”
The curd formed the bed of the dish and was generously covered with little round pieces of asparagus, cut across the stalk, and apple. “Everything has a season,” she said, but she wasn’t talking about the veges. “In spring, the milk is thick tasting, it’s got that hint of an edge. The curd is the hero of the dish.”
Was it? I thought it was the asparagus, bright and firm, almost crisp, so tasty and so vibrantly full of spring, so well complemented by the curd. And it was beautiful to look at.
Ed does really good vegetables. He thinks of himself as the fire cook, dedicated to the meat, and he’s dedicated to the bread. But for all the wonders he achieves with them, he’s got a special thing going with the veges. The ferments, the combinations, the astonishingly precise control of flavours, the presentation.
Laura grew up on a biodynamic vineyard in South Africa. The family had been visiting New Zealand ever since she was six, but after a traumatic encounter in Johannesburg they emigrated here when she was 21.
She’s slim, intense, with a light voice and clear and careful speech in that English South African way. She’s seriously tattooed. She said she had been happy in her life doing “many different things”: studying literature and classics; working for Arts Access Aotearoa, which does art in prisons; helping with environmental and community work in the Waitakeres. She’s a graphic designer and a photographer.
Ed is English, from a village in Dorset. There’s a serious rugby injury in his past and you wouldn’t pick him as a sporty person now. He’s slight, like Laura, and intense, even more than Laura. Some restaurant people ooze confidence, they’re the life and soul – the Al Browns and Simon Gaults and all the celebrity chefs on TV. But most are not like that, especially the chefs. Chefs are the guys who hid in the kitchen at parties. Ed’s one of them. He’s got a lot of tatts too.
He discovered cooking as an adult and it was a revelation. Learned his craft in London, married a New Zealander and when her career brought her home he naturally came too. Then the marriage collapsed.
Laura and Ed met each other working in hospitality. They did some pop-up restaurants and, she said, “we knew we had something special”. So they sold everything they had and moved to Copenhagen, the spiritual lodestone for a restaurant like Pasture and for restaurant people like Ed and Laura. Home to Rene Redzepi and his restaurant Noma; home to the world of foraging and working out how to eat pine needles, of traditional methods of food storage and cooking, of the desire to make everything taste like a better version of itself.
They worked on an island, he in a restaurant kitchen and she in the garden and further afield, foraging. She said to Ed, “All you do is work.”
She told me, “I could see his life and his passion, I got a little taste of it there. But it was make or break for us. It was nearly break.”
So they came back to New Zealand and got married, in a forest near Clevedon, where Laura’s father and stepmother live. They thought they would open a restaurant out there but the logistics didn’t work. Ed became head chef at the Stafford Rd Bistro in Northcote; the critics noticed and were impressed. But they wanted their own place.
Pasture opened a year ago. It’s their first restaurant and it’s Ed’s first time working on the meat section. They’re both 34.
They make everything. The fish sauce, the mirin, the miso. The curd and the butter, also yoghurt, cheeses, ice cream. They ferment honey. They ferment everything. Every day, there are a hundred things to prep, not just for the night’s service but for next week and next month and next year. It never stops.
“Our marriage is very important for Pasture,” said Laura. “It’s so hard, what we do. The commitment we’ve made.” They couldn’t do it if they didn’t live and work together, because how would they see each other?
Also because the marriage glues them together: without it, would they have survived? “It’s very stressful,” she said. “You can’t hide anything.”
Later she said that in a marriage you have “a licence: you can hurt the people closest to you and recover”. I asked her if that was what they did.
“No,” she said and laughed. “We’re very good at celebrating.”
They live around the corner. They have a dog, supposedly a Labrador Staffordshire cross although Laura said she was not really sure. They call him Marlo. “He was a rescue dog. He got hit by a car.” One day I met Laura at the restaurant in the middle of the day and Marlo was there, staying close to her, slumped under the table when she sat and padding after her when she moved around. He has three legs.
You get the sense they wouldn’t bother if it was an ordinary dog. Laura takes Marlo for a long walk every morning.
Here comes the fish: it’s snapper. “I undercook the fish,” Ed said, “because it keeps on cooking.” It felt like he had a bet on with himself: how many microseconds could he shave off the cook time, to make it even, before it became unappetising? When he was gone I checked; it was cooked through. The skin was crisp and there was a glaze made from the bones, head, liver. It sat, neatly sliced, on a deep green pool made from watercress and kaffir lime leaves.
It tasted like a supercharged version of itself. That’s what Ed does: there’s a hero ingredient and everything is designed to tip you deeply into the sensation of eating that hero. Fish that’s more fishy than you could have imagined; asparagus the same; lamb the same; quince the same. The food tastes like what it is, only more so. That is the essence of Ed Verner.
I’ve eaten there three times. Twice in the last few months, and aside from the bread this snapper was the only thing still on the menu from the second visit to the third. The first time, the wine for the fish was an elderflower vermouth, which they made themselves from last year’s elderflower wine, which they also made. Fortified, it was extremely aromatic. On the next visit, the vermouth finished, they’d switched to a New Zealand pinot blanc. “The winemaker describes it as a bit feral,” said Laura with that smile.
It was true: the wine was stinky. You wouldn’t drink it on its own, and with this rich intensity of snapper I thought it would set up a flavour war. But it didn’t. It was superb: the stinkiness had no follow through on the palate, so that the wine trumped the fish, sending you back for another bite, which trumped the wine, and another sip, another bite. These were flavours saluting each other.
They have two big walk-in fridges. The first is mainly for aging the meat: two suckling pigs, when they showed me around, and mackerel packed in hay. The fish had been there a week and were destined to stay another; they were dry and they smelled fresh. The other fridge has rows of buckets and jars with preserves, ferments, vegetables, and the bread is in there too. There was a mackerel garum, made from the guts, heads and an enzyme called koji, with salt.
They don’t do a lot of foraging. “We’ve got good local farmer suppliers,” said Laura, “but going out and picking things in the Domain, that’s not us.” Some cherry blossom? “Okay, we do it every now and then.” And they get given things – tangelos from someone’s backyard tree.
The food might taste like what it is but it doesn’t always look like it. “Spring lettuce” was tile shaped, about the size of a small hard-covered notebook, sitting on a wide flat plate. Ed smothered it in “Paris butter”, which is normally a sauce for steak made with Worcestershire sauce or anchovies, mustard, onion and herbs, only he changed out the Wooster for crayfish and basically reinvented all the other ingredients too. It was lovely to look at, but strange, with a mottled pattern of deep brown and yellowy green.
You slice into it, take a forkful, and it’s lettuce all right, a cross-section of cos, crisp, quite tightly packed, very umami, extraordinary. Lettuce, with flavours you would not ever have thought, and yet insisting on being lettuce. The food tastes like what it is, only more so.
Mind you, the Pasture pairing didn’t work. It was nice, made with asparagus and citrus blossom, but flavourwise it just went off and did its own thing. I couldn’t detect a complementarity with the lettuce and its sauce at all.
You have to be prepared for that. A restaurant that wants to exist on the edge will not please every palate every time. You should expect most of the time; you hope for nearly all of the time. You relish the adventure.
Sometimes, obsession has a name.
The beef was called Nigel. At least, that was the name of the steer it came from, off a farm in the Waikato. I have a brother called Nigel, so eating it was a little odd. Customers whose own name is Nigel may find it even odder.
“We got most of the cow in,” said Ed cheerily, by which he meant their walk-in chiller, big as it is, wasn’t quite big enough for the whole animal. He didn’t say what they left out. Ed did the butchering and the meat was hung and stored in its own fat. When I ate some of Nigel they’d had him for 72 days, and were expecting him to last for another three weeks. Next up a pig and “then we’ve got a nice heifer coming”. No names for either of them, as yet.
I was served Nigel two ways, with cutlery and drinks restored, right after the muttonbird. One of them was scrapings from the bone in a little tartare dish, with thin-sliced lotus and two-year fermented plum. Those scrapings came in tiny pieces, just a few forkfuls, and they were reassuringly lovely, comfort food to follow the bracing briny chewiness of the muttonbird, which I expect was deliberate.
The other part of Nigel was a thin red slab of his rump, sitting off-centre on a large white plate with a green blob next to it: a sorrel and sake conduit. “The fat will be delicious,” Ed said. “It’s like foie gras.”
I can’t tell you if that’s true because there was a thread of sinew running along the edge of the fat that resisted my best efforts even with the heavy steak knife. If I can’t cut it with the perfect tool for the job, I decided, I’m not going to try to chew it. So I sliced the flesh away and just ate that. It tasted good but I wouldn’t say exceptional, and there was a little bowl of broth, made from the bones and heart, which was good but not exceptional too. When Ed asked how the meat was, I told him why I had left the strip of fat behind. He apologised.
Laura made the Pasture pairing drink for the rump with black doris plums, wild fennel and smoked black tea. “We bring in the tea and smoke it ourselves,” she said. On the nose, it was fennel and plum; in the mouth, plum and tea. Very good with beef. The wine was from South Australia, made with a Georgian grape called saperavi and matured in the “traditional Georgian manner”, in clay amphoras lined with beeswax. That went pretty well with beef too.
I know these things because Laura explained them to me, as they do to every table. In the small room, with maybe five to eight groups of diners, all eating and drinking the same thing, they quietly work their way around. The acoustics are well managed: you can’t hear the other diners’ conversations and you can’t hear the staff repeating the same information, table by table through the evening. But you can watch them doing it.
At some point on the playlist they treated us to “We’re only making plans for Nigel”. It didn’t seem like a surprise.
I think they let themselves down a touch with the music. What would work? Something intriguing and soft and wonderful, winding up the energy a bit as the evening draws on, like most restaurants do. Something surprising. Classical, jazz, alt folk singers you haven’t heard of yet but you’re going to? Pasture plays quality songs from the 60s, 70s and 80s. It’s not bad music, and it’s not dull – you’ll hear Dylan and Springsteen and Randy Newman – but it is safe, which isn’t the ethic they bring to anything else they do.
Mind you, what do I know. I think most restaurant music should be better and I really don’t know what the theory of good restaurant music is. And the safe old stuff isn’t all that safe: on one visit I heard the Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park”, which a pretty little song about a man luring a girl out of school so he can blow her mind with drugs in the park. “What did you do there? I got high … it’s all too beautiful.” Pop music, eh.
This is what obsession looks like.
A cotton check shirt, tight black jeans, black trainers you can stand up in all night, a heavy cotton apron that you strap yourself into. Making the same food for everyone, every night. Explaining it to everyone, over and over. Knowing it’s not perfect but wanting so much that it will be, wondering if you’ll know what perfection is anyway, if you do achieve it, and if it will bring the reward you need. Stopping, from time to time, struck by the revelation of another extraordinary thing to do with that onion, that piece of neck. Proud that you have never cooked a chicken on this fire. Certain you never will. Driving yourself to be better.
“We know in our minds what Pasture 2.0 will be,” said Ed. “It will never be bigger or smaller than this.”
“This is like the prototype,” said Laura.
“I want to double the size of the fire,” said Ed.
Pasture 2.0 will be the same as Pasture, only more so.
They lose staff, all the time. In my two recent dining visits, just three months apart, I saw a completely different lineup in the kitchen. “It’s been rough,” said Ed. “Sometimes it’s just been me and one chef. You think oh my God, what are you going to do? Sometimes, we’ve hired the wrong person because there’s been no one else.”
There was the server who put out the wrong butter. “He served the butter made that week!” Using the freshest butter in a restaurant is not normally a crime.
“It’s very hard to keep people,” he said. “You’ve got to love this to do this. You’ve got to be obsessive. It’s OK with me …”
The thing about obsession, as some of those departed staff may have realised, is that it’s harder to love if it’s not your obsession. Two of the new chefs I saw on that second visit left the next day.
Sid Sahrawat, of Sidart and Cassia, has been Ed’s mentor. And his wife Chand. “She’s been so great,” said Laura. “They’ve both been so great.” Michael Meredith of Merediths has also helped out.
Wanting to be perfect is not unusual. The cricketer never bats a perfect innings, but tries to. A work of art is never finished – at a certain point the artist merely abandons the task of trying to finish. Every cook at home who cares, knows that even the best pie or pudding they ever made wasn’t actually perfect. You can always do better, and the more you know about what you’re doing, the higher you set your bar and the harder it gets.
It does drive some people mad, though. There is that.
For a dish called “Potatoes and seaweed” they semi-dehydrate agria potatoes and serve small rounds of them, a bit chewy, with a silky mousse poured over, a seaweed jus and truffle shavings piled on. The Pasture pairing was a mushroom jus. I was not happy.
I have loved, really loved, most of what I’ve eaten at Pasture. I love the place and I think the people are splendid too. Sometimes I’ve wanted to say I admire so much that you tried this or took that risk, even though. But with the potatoes, for the first and only time, I just wanted to say no. Why would you do that? The truffle was a waste, the chewy nubs of spud a sad reduction of the original splendour of the vegetable.
But then, climbing closer to heaven than any chef has the right to do, they bring out the desserts.
A few small things, served together, not in sequence like the appetisers. An ice cream slice, about the length of a finger and a bit thicker, the ice cream made from buffalo milk, the “brandy snap” wafers from elderflower. One of those foods you only have to look at to know how lovely it will be, except then you discover it’s even better than that. A soft single-mouthful sweet in a Japanese style, with the red bean paste replaced by kumara, made into a paste, with a little piece of fermented cherry blossom in the middle. Also lovely, and far more so than I thought kumara had a right to be when served as dessert.
Savoury for dessert is an Ed thing. He had little bone marrow tartlets on my earlier visit.
This is what obsession looks like.
A shaken tangelo posset, served in a Marie Antoinette coupe. It’s not really a posset, which used to be a hot drink of milk with wine or beer and spices, served as a comforter for colds, usually in a pot with two handles and a lid. Laura said she made this one “in the style of a whisky sour”, but with no whisky or any other alcohol and no sugar on the rim – just tangelo juice and rind thickened and mellowed with egg white.
Is perfection unattainable? The posset was as perfect a drink as I can imagine. And very simple: the egg white so light, the citrus fresh but not intrusive, not sharp, the cool juice so refreshing.
At one stage, during one of my visits, there was a small pile of leeks on the bench, cut into short lengths, and then they weren’t there any longer and I realised Ed had put them into the fire, slid them in right at the bottom with the burning wood heaped on top. You can do this on a barbecue: burn whole leeks, so the outer leaves char and you peel them off to eat the brilliantly flavoursome and juicy core. It’s very messy, all the blackened flaky waste goes everywhere, so it’s strictly for outdoors unless you strip all the charred parts away before you serve them.
In a restaurant like this you can’t have that much mess, so Ed roasts his leeks for taste and juiciness, but serves them sedately. I missed the joy of eating them with my hands, but they were juicier and tastier than any other leeks I’ve ever been served. They came with a gouda melt, some fermented leek and whole basil and sage leaves. And a rosé – who’d have thought – to drink.
It was very fine. Was it perfect? No. But then, perfection isn’t in the dish, despite what chefs might think. It’s not even something chefs make, although they do make it possible. Perfection is something the diner, you, me, if we’re of a mind, if our hearts incline that way, are overcome by. Perfection is in the moment of eating. I’ve had that at Pasture.
This year in the Cuisine Good Food Awards, Pasture became a Cuisine 2 hats restaurant. Ed Verner was named Chef of the Year and Laura Verner’s drinks won the award for Best Drinks List. In this year’s Metro Restaurant of the Year Awards, Pasture was named Best New Restaurant, won runner-up for Best Fitout and was a finalist for the Food for Good award. Ed and Laura were finalists for Restaurateur of the Year and Ed was a finalist for Best Chef.
Pasture, at 235 Parnell Road, is open Wednesday-Sunday from 6pm. Check the website for details.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.