Why would a business owner choose to reduce customer numbers? The couple behind high-end Auckland restaurant Pasture explain their philosophy.
Some key rules for running a successful restaurant are keep your food costs down, keep the average spend high, and maximise your floor space. Get as many customers in and out as possible.
A popular Otago spot, Black Rabbit Kitchen & Bar, recently made national news when it was forced to reduce from 40 seats to 12. As this could cripple their business, the owners were desperate to get their seats back. But in a kind of reverse-logic land, Ed and Laura Verner, owners of the acclaimed Auckland eatery Pasture, have recently chosen to reduce capacity from 20 seats to six.
They are doing this for their own sake – not as a business measure, not because a council order, but as a way to refine the dining experience they offer while simultaneously reducing the stress of being owner-operators of one of the most meticulous restaurants in this country.
Every customer now sits at ‘the pass’, watching over chef Ed as he personally prepares each dish. You feel the warm glow of open fire, on which most of the food is cooked, then, when Ed fans the flames, you feel a surge in heat. This is visceral cooking – you literally feel it on your skin. You smell the proteins shifting as fat and flesh fight back against the raging coals. There is no hiding poor quality in a setting like this. It is a very different kind of dining experience, and in a way it’s a perfect fit with Ed’s style of food; ingredient-driven, fierce flavours, uncompromising.
October saw the release of the Cuisine Good Food Awards winners for 2018. Unquestionably they’re the premier accolades for all things fine dining in New Zealand, so, much like yacht racing or Waiheke Island, they are fairly abstract for those who don’t often – or indeed ever – get to eat in such places. One notable omission from the evening was Pasture, whose co-owner Ed Verner was named Cuisine’s ‘Chef Of The Year’ in 2017. The reason for the omission was essentially little more than the change in seating.
To be fair to Cuisine, Pasture changed the dining experience after the judging period. The same fate has befallen The French Cafe as it changes ownership and chef. Cuisine editor Kelli Brett tells me she is a big fan of Pasture. “It put us in a difficult decision,” Brett says. “I have no doubt that Ed and Laura will continue to deliver excellence, they’re both extremely talented, but we need to able to say, hand on heart, we’ve been in there and we’ve experienced it.” Cuisine has included Pasture in the “Ones to Watch” section of its 2018 restaurant guide.
Well, I’ve been to the new six-seat version and I can say, hand on heart, that it is a great dining experience. For the price ($210), it should be. But over 14 courses, with crayfish, blue abalone and dry-aged wagyu among the ingredients, this is no ordinary meal.
Ed has created his own kind of restaurant. With all the seating at the pass, it feels very much like a high-end omakase-style sushi restaurant, and indeed the first course is sashimi of snapper belly served on a little disc of ice. But the food is closer in style to kaiseki, the Japanese multi-course cuisine that puts nature and the seasons centre stage. Flowers and a love of vegetables and seasons feels kaiseki, but the flame-grilled fish and meat feels more carnal and perhaps South American, and the regular acidic hits of Pasture’s fermentation programme feels decidedly Scandinavian. Ultimately, there is no one clear influence – it’s New Zealand produce sourced and prepared with an obsessive attention to detail.
Pasture opened in 2016 and was almost instantly hailed as one of the best restaurants in the country. For Ed and Laura, who have both in the past used food, nature and travel as tonic to recover from head injuries, it all blew up very fast. This year they took a long break over winter to travel, see some old friends in Copenhagen (and dine at the recently revamped Noma, where their old sous chef is now cooking) and rethink exactly how they wanted to run a restaurant.
After taking some time and looking at things from different angles, they decided the best way to communicate their vision was to reduce the number of seats. Currently open four nights a week, with two seatings a night, Pasture can serve a maximum of 48 customers a week. On the face of things, this seems nuts, but to Ed and Laura it’s how they could find some balance and in fact how they could sustain the restaurant. The pressure felt in restaurants to maintain standards and work yourself into the ground is a huge subject of debate right now. Perhaps by making the choice to downsize, Ed and Laura are just getting ahead of the curve?
“We’ve made the choice to downsize with our eyes wide open,” Laura tells me. “Remember, me and Laura don’t always have to get paid,” adds Ed. “And we don’t,” laughs Laura. “For Ed and I, this is our life for as long as we have this lease. We set some goals when we opened Pasture. It was about innovation, it was about creativity and it was about me and Ed sharing a life together.”
For Laura, who comes from South Africa, caring about providence is in her blood. “My family took over a rundown vineyard – the soil was in a terrible state. Over many years, through biodynamic process, they rebuilt that land. That was a really privileged upbringing – to be exposed to those practices and to really good food – and so it’s really import to me now that our wine list and the food we source reflects those values.”
Ed had a different journey to his food awakening. The Englishman travelled in Japan for a year, which opened him up to a broader universe of flavour than that offered by 90s UK fare. “Unlike Laura, I hadn’t grown up with food at all, so when I landed in Japan I was like ‘holy shit’. I went there with the insurance money I got after I had a head injury playing rugby, just to take a year off and experience something new. At home my mum wouldn’t even cook with garlic because my dad didn’t want bad breath, so Japan was just something else. I’d eat everywhere.”
My wife and I shared the two drinks pairings with our meal at Pasture. One is boozy, with cocktails, wine, whisky, a wild ferment cider and sake, and in true Pasture style, it is all from New Zealand. It’s great, but having been to one of Pasture’s “Rebel Yell” natural wine nights, I would have liked to see a more adventurous skin-contact wine in the mix somewhere – I think it would have suited the food. The non-alcoholic pairing, however, was mesmerising. The acidic, textured, house-fermented juices feel more adventurous and pair very well with the deep, smoky flavours of Ed’s cooking. Weeks later, I still feel like I can taste the fermented cucumber and the cold-pressed strawberry. Every drink feels like a vivid and innovation expression of the fruit or vegetable at its base.
The thing that gets me about all of these drinks, and a number of the courses, is the time that has gone into it. I don’t mean the human effort, though that is a factor too, but the months of ageing. The sourdough, made with a starter that is several years old (and is the best sourdough I have eaten), is served with a butter that, the night I dined, had been ageing for over eight months. Bread and butter, almost my favourite course of the night. Seemingly so simple, but think of the time that has gone into making the simplest of dishes reach such dizzy heights.
Time isn’t something we talk about a huge amount in food. We want things fresh, we want them fast, but time is inextricable from growing vegetables and raising livestock. It’s a cliche to say we are disconnected from the providence of our food and the work that goes into feeding the bulging cities of this planet, but despite 20 years of River Cottage TV shows, there’s still confusion over the providence of meat in our supermarkets and slices of tomato in our sandwiches in the depths of winter. If Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was dead, he’d be rolling over in his grave.
Obviously we are all supposed to appreciate seasonality and capitalise on produce when it’s at best. At this point time is your enemy, the degradation has begun, the living thing is dead and will eventually make you very aware of its deadness with its rot and wilt and stench, its bacteria, its sudden potential to cause harm.
That is unless you use time and decay to your advantage. This is where cooking becomes something arcane and wonderful. Ageing meat, ageing dairy, clamping vegetables, pickling, preserving, curing, smoking, drying. All of these things intensify flavour. And if you source your ingredients carefully and start the process with a great product, then what you put in your body at the end of it all may just be magic.
Ed buys only whole animals, which means investing in entire cows of the finest wagyu produced in New Zealand. He won’t reveal the exact source of the beast as it took great effort to build the relationship with the farmer. Pasture is their only New Zealand customer, with the rest destined for Japan. Suffice to say, it’s some crazy-expensive high-grade beast. And in a move that would make financial planners cringe, they then take these whole cows, break them down and dry-age the meat for months before even thinking about selling it on to the diner. The per-kilo cost creeping up as the meat dries, reduces in size and intensifies in flavour.
The end product though, holy shit. It’s insane, unquestionably the tastiest piece of beef I have ever masticated.
During the full tasting menu, the beef was sirloin. Tempered slowly over the evening, just lingering near enough to the raging fire to gently warm through. Ed brushed the sirloin with rendered aged fat every 20 minutes or so. By the time it’s cooking (hard and fast over white hot embers), it’s glowing with promise. A generous slice for a tasting menu is served with a roll of wilted spinach that is simultaneously reminiscent of a New York steakhouse side and a kaiseki banquet dish. The sauce, the stand-in where you might expect a reduced rich jus, is a very light, acidic, beefy dressing enhanced by fermented beef garum, made in the same process as a Vietnamese fish sauce.
A fish sauce made with beef? I recently had the pleasure of a lively debate with New Zealand food writing legend Lauraine Jacobs about whether anyone wants to read about fine dining. I argued that fine dining was beyond the reach of almost everyone, that glossy food magazines around the globe paid too much attention to something that is essentially unattainable. I like food writing to focus on the stories around food that are universal and relatable. Jacobs countered that fine dining is a fantasy escape and everyone deserves to be treated to luxury once in a while, which is worth saving up for. I couldn’t disagree, I just haven’t eaten enough fancy-shmancy food to really know what I’m talking about.
Jacobs is an expert in her field and I’m an enthusiastic dabbler. But getting to eat at Pasture and discovering the beef garum, I realised there was something else about fine dining that was more important to me, at least, than luxury: innovation. Again, having the time to search. This to me was it, this is why you pay so much money, why restaurants at this level must exist. The beef garum was a deeply delicious, surprising idea that worked. Why couldn’t it become a classic New Zealand product? With the amount of beef and dairy in this country, there must be tonnes of waste. How cool would it be to ferment that into a magic brew of intense culinary power?
Pasture is a very expensive dining experience, that can’t be denied. Of the 14 courses I ate, I think maybe one or two pushed my boundaries a bit far. But that’s OK, it’s not safe food. It’s exciting, it’s a bit odd, and when it works its sublime. The sourdough: cosmic. The fire-grilled snapper, caramelised skin on the outside, raw in the middle, was a revelation. Laura runs the service like a choreographed performance. Napkins appear on your lap like magic. They balance out the fine-dining finesse with a soundtrack of 80s rock and pop that feels stubbornly fun.
Ed and Laura have built Pasture without any industry investment. They are truly independent operators and they are doing things their own way. There is something brave but also risky in their approach. There is no a la carte lunches, or Instagrammable Korean taco pop-up evenings. Repeat customers make up about 50% of their business and for a $200+ tasting menu, that tells you something.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.