James Stapley

Published on November 21 2013.

Photo: Marcel Aucar

UK-born chef James Stapley impresses international diners who stay at Whare Kea lodge on Lake Wanaka and delight in his 5-course degustations based on local, seasonal, beautiful produce. It's been said he has a magic touch to his dishes. Allow him to take you through his view Aotearoa, like you're floating on a long white cloud. 

The MFWF team were lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat with James ahead of the Festival

Q. Who did you learn to cook from?

I trained as an apprentice at the Park Lane Hilton in London from the age of 16 and then I became a head chef at 19 and I’m 38 now. Most of my food knowledge comes from my own curiosity, burying myself in cook books and doing stages in top restaurants. During my time in London I worked for many amazing chefs and I’ve picked up bits and pieces from all of them. Even at this stage in my career, I am still open to learning new cooking techniques and have a huge thirst for any new culinary knowledge. My Mother’s cooking was also a huge influence on me.

Q. Name the one ingredient you can't live without and how you use it?

Candied chillies. We made them from a glut of home grown chillies last year and I use them on pretty much everything at the moment. They are nice with crispy pork or shellfish or in an Asian broth. They are really versatile.

Q. What's your favourite dish on your menu right now?

The menu changes daily at Whare Kea but right now my favourite is a dish using slow cooked turkey wings, Nelson scallops, palm sugar dressing and candied chillies.

Q. What do you do when you're not in the kitchen cooking?

I like to golf, read cook books, drink wine or nice whiskey, eat out at cafes and restaurants and think about food.

Q. What are you predicting to be the next trend in food and what has been your least favourite food trend?

My least favourite food trend is probably the rebirth of the steak house. When it is done well it is amazing but when it is done badly you are left paying an arm and a leg for a badly cooked piece of meat and a few uninspiring sides.

I think the customer has changed so much over the last 10 years. They are still wanting all the flavour but much lighter and healthier. I think natural wholefoods, organic produce and incredible sustainable ingredients should be the new trend.

Q. What other chef or restaurant do you most admire?

Raymond Blanc, Le Manoir in Oxford.

Luckily for me, Le Manoir is a fellow member of Relais and Chateaux together with Whare Kea Lodge. Because of this I was able to go to Le Manoir not only to eat but also to work for a few days in the kitchens. The thing I like about Raymond Blanc is that he moves with the times yet still stays true to his food style. I loved the vegetable and herb gardens that they have at Le Manoir and they were a big inspiration on my own organic vegetable garden. It is really great to be able to grow things and then be able to cook and serve them. It gives you a new appreciation for the produce.

Q. What are you looking forward to experiencing in Melbourne?

I’m really looking forward to meeting some of the other chefs and attending their master classes and picking up new tips. I’ve been coming to this event now for a few years and have always enjoyed it as a spectator. To actually be able to take part in it is something special.