Whilst we are high on winning the Rugby World Cup, I think we could recognise another victory this year… the flourishing New Zealand food scene.

There were over two hundred food and wine events taking place in the last two months: Auckland’s Taste of New Zealand, nationwide cooking tour Out Standing in their Fields, Wellington on a Plate, Feast of Canterbury, Paddock to Plate Tours in the Hawke’s Bay, Taste Nelson, countless wine tours, Farmers’ Markets, and festivals celebrating their local seasonal specialties and artisan food producers.

As a foodie myself I’ve seen a changing attitude towards food which even McDonalds can’t afford to ignore: people are suddenly caring about what they eat in New Zealand, and not just because of the latest international fad diet going around.

As Chairperson of Farmers’ Markets NZ, Marlborough-based chef Chris Fortune has noticed too: “The kitchen table has never been a more exciting place to be with regional produce overflowing at our local Farmers’ Markets and today’s chefs foraging and gathering from the bounty of what the great long white cloud has to offer. Not only do we have the most outstanding rugby team in the world but also some of the most outstanding food and producers of which we are building our future on.”

Perhaps the most significant consequence of this newfound passion for real food is that we are beginning to actually take pride in, as well as discover, the amazing ingredients and talent in our own backyard. Hamilton chef Chris Scott notes that “we have the best of both worlds – we live on an Island so we have access to amazing seafood and we are also surrounded by incredibly fertile land which is farmed extensively.”

Award winning food writer Julie Biuso adds to that sentiment: “Freshness. Every visitor comments on it. As soon as you travel you can’t help but pine for fresh salads, fresh fruit, unadulterated food that tastes good. NZ is literally the land of milk and honey.” However, we’re not just home to Bluff oysters and Waipara wine, but also amazing chefs and writers, from Al Brown to Annabel Langbein and Julie Biuso. While the All Blacks get to wow us every now and then, the farmers, bakers, food writers and chefs of this country nourish and inspire us every day. “I love our artisan producers and the pride they take in producing top-notch food,” Biuso declares, and who could disagree? They have helped craft the idea of “New Zealand food” as something we no longer shy away from.

What is this elusive idea of “New Zealand food” though? “Clean fresh flavours prepared to the best of the chefs ability, with wholesome honest product and integrity,” says Marc Soper, Wellington Chef of the Capital and Out Standing in their Fields chef.

“We are moving into different styles of cooking with new flavours being introduced because of our love to travel the world,” Masterchef Brett McGregor muses, but ultimately “it is fresh, hearty with robust flavours that is taking flavours from around the world and fusing them together to create a new world cuisine. The next few years are going to be amazing. Kiwi food can now stand proud internationally.”

Jan Bilton agrees, adding that “Real New Zealand cuisine today is influenced by many cultures which makes it interesting and innovative. We’ve used local products and integrated them into Asian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and other cuisines’ recipes and cooking techniques. We do have some essentially Kiwi recipes (pavlova, afghans etc) but we should be proud of how our cuisine has developed using our local fresh foods.”

Unlike the more entrenched gastronomic centres of the world, New Zealand is “not tied down too much by tradition and sometimes just take a leap of faith,” according to Julie Biuso. While the cynical among us may sneer at the idea of the “kiwiburger,” it’s precisely this lack of pretension and open-minded approach to cooking that will likely get more of us keen to eat better.

Chef of the Year David Schofield notes that we’re still experimenting though: “We’re simply too new a country to have our own identifiable style or hallmark, but it’s rather exciting to be here watching all these ideas pop up and be embraced by chefs and passionate home cooks.” Specifically though, “true New Zealand food to me has to always aim for quality, taste, values and passion.”

This casual but growing recognition of our excellence isn’t just ignorant arrogance either. Out Standing in their Fields Keri Keri chef Rolf Simons moved to New Zealand thirty years ago from Holland. At the time, “all that was available was the custard square, lamington, pie, and quiche. No decent cup of coffee.” However, he’s watched New Zealand grow, and is proud to state that “NZ has so much to offer now, and when we were travelling through Europe and having a coffee and dinner, we realized that NZ Food is world class and so much better than in most of the European countries.”

Thanks to our distance from the rest of the world, we’re also quite lucky to be able to eat seasonally but still retain a bit of diversity. “Northland has a great climate, lots of subtropical fruits, and access to the freshest seafood.” Keri Keri chef Colin Ashton cooked internationally for celebrities like Shania Twain and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. “Fresh is best and being able to source produce on your doorstep, in optimum condition, is such a pleasure. Seasonality of ingredients keeps my menu changing and evolving, each season has new and wonderful produce which inspires new dishes.”

“We come from a young world where life is to be experienced, challenges met and new tastes and styles to be developed,” says Out Standing in their Fields chef Hester Guy. Her hope (and mine!) is that alongside this development, there will be one constant: that our food is “grown with attention and care and then cooked with respect, so the ingredients can speak for themselves.”

As a young foodie myself, I am just as excited as the chefs and food writers I talked to about where New Zealand is heading, not just as a food destination, but as a home. Like Julie Biuso, Chris Scott and I’m sure countless others, I can’t wait to live the “Kiwi Dream” of tending to, and reaping the rewards from, my backyard vege garden and perhaps a few chickens.

Like Restaurant Personality of the Year and local Canterbury chef Jonny Schwass, “I love the rural connection the city has with its country cousins. I love the Waipara wine region which makes some of the best wines in the world. I love the craft brewers that make it worthwhile to work up a thirst. Canterbury is my home.”

When I take a deep whiff of a locally grown truffle presented to me by a local chef, or feel the glossy skin of a New Zealand grown tangelo, I feel proud not just to eat some of the best food in the world, but to call this place home and to support the other kiwis making it theirs too.

~Zo Zhou, Two Spoons blogger

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