Q & A with Executive Chef Peter Thornley

The southern hemisphere’s answer to Jamie Oliver, Peter Thornley, believes we need to lift our game when it comes to restaurant ‘paddock to plate’ philosophy.

Peter is the Executive Chef at Hilton Queenstown’s award winning restaurant Wakatipu Grill. He is passionate about educating people about using wholesome organic and sustainable food and shortening the paddock to plate food miles. This philosophy means Peter uses local produce, sustainable foods, like seafood and even grows his own herbs for his menus.

We chatted to Peter to find out what drives him as a chef and his passion for sustainable foods.

How long have you been a Chef and why did you decide to pursue this career?

I have been cooking for 35 years. It was simple; cooking is my passion and obsession. There was a brief thought about going into arctiture, design or fashion. But cooking delivered my small moment of indecision and more.

Can you explain your ‘paddock to plate’ philosophy?

‘Providence’ - one very simple word. It is the new Luxury ingredient. Growing has always affected the way I cook, understanding the the life cycle and season of plants.
Longkeeper farm is my reconnection with the land. Vegetables, edible flowers, herbs, roots, bulbs, tubers, seeds, fruit and other culinary anomalies planted and picked, small and delicate at their peak, and delivered straight to mine and my chef colleagues’ kitchens.

‘Paddock to plate’ is not the new holy grail of current culinary ‘fancy’ that it was when I was growing up. We as consumers gave the plate, followed very quickly by the paddock, to the multi nationals, stock markets, balance sheets, and governments.

We are now full circle as the supermarket isles start to feel the pressure. A supportive environment now exists for the sustainable resurgence of the small niche producer.

Why are you so passionate about organic and sustainable foods?

Every time we make a decision to buy ethically produced, local, seasonal and fresh foods it keeps small artisan producers in business. We engage on a new level with our environment and help make the world a better place.

How do you support and incorporate these beliefs into your own cooking?

Local produce is always there, it is about wanting to make the effort to work with local farmers, fishermen, hunters and foragers or simply mum and pop backyard growers.

Yes, it requires more effort. Hotel purchasing and finance departments need to adapt and be creative in the process that encompasses this method of purchasing.

Is it sustainable? Yes! Our business on a global basis requires this to happen to keep our menus current, relevant and continually evolving. Customers are enthralled by a menu with a local offering; it engages the restaurant waiters and kitchen team with the customer in a holistic experience.

We as a hospitality industry have a responsibility to grow our global local back yard.

Our support ranges from the local farmers, hunters and fisherman. We use the Curly Willow Brothers for whitebait, olive oil, saffron; producers Southern Clams for clams and day boat sole, Bluff for oysters, Monte Christo raspberries in the season, the locals just up the road for herbs, flowers and lettuce and the local cheese makers. These are only a few of our Paddock to Plate producers

As an example, I work closely with our lamb farmer Bill French, not only using his lamb but helping him grow his business. The partnership with Bill extends into the wider region, now “our back yard”, giving this new restaurant (we opened in June 2011) a place, a home, and whole region to promote our business. We are neighbours.

We have invested in the local Remarkable Primary School situated less than 1 km away from the Hotel on the banks of Lake Wakatipu, developing a school garden which will supply herbs and vegetables to Hilton’s signature restaurant the Wakatipu Grill. This is not simply a “nice to do” project that seems to be the current fad. I rely on the garden produce to form a tangible part of my menus.

Also along with this initiative the kids will see the lifecycle of a garden. Each school term, classes spend time in the kitchen with a project, to deliver at term end for dinners, cocktail parties, and food for school camps. We call it from ‘garden to plate’. I like to call it tactile learning.

What is your favourite ingredient?

Lemons. Meyer, Genoa, Lisbon and Villa Franca – all lemon trees that I have just planted. There are now 200 trees on the farm. Juiced, zested, with gin and tonic or silken tarts. Hold one in each hand and squeeze. They are the most tactile of ingredients. A bowl of lemons can always be found in my kitchen.

What do you eat when you’re home alone and no one is looking?

Freshly shucked Clevedon coast oysters from 10 minutes just up the road with a sneaky Chardonnay.

What advice would you give to aspiring young chefs?

Learn where your food comes from and understand ingredients. As the next generation it is your responsibility to not allow multi-nationals to control the growth and supply of food and to end the continued extinction of fish from our oceans. The world is finite. As a young chef, challenge yourself. Be passionate, humble and generous and learn from others.


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