Tamara Johnson - Fine Dining

From a young age, Tamara Johnson has had an astounding career in the New Zealand food scene, most recently as Head Chef at the Malaysian inspired Auckland restaurant Madam Woo. She’s also been a part of kitchen teams at many iconic New Zealand restaurants including Takapuna Beach Café where she learned to make gelato and Clooney where she worked under the tutelage of Chef Des Harris – and she’s even worked for TV series’ My Kitchen Rules and Masterchef NZ as a food coordinator. It was while working on Masterchef that she first met celebrity chef Josh Emmet, who offered her a trial job at his then newly opened restaurant Madam Woo.

Tamara has recently relocated to London, where she’s travelling on a two-year work visa around the UK, aiming to work in a variety of kitchens and submerge herself in the culinary scene before coming back to open an establishment in New Zealand.

One of Tamara’s recipes will be featuring in an upcoming WOOP box as part of the new WOOP Guest Foodie Series. For those that haven’t yet heard, WOOP is a food box delivery service that lives and breathes the mantra of ‘slow food fast’ – it’s for people who want to eat incredible food, but don’t have the time to prpepare it. The team will go one step further to make things easy for you. They’ll find the freshest ingredients and prep, parboil, dice and slice – even make dressings, sauces and marinades from scratch – so that you don’t have to.

What is the future of cooking?

Well you only need to look online to see what that looks like. Robo-chef hands and 3d printed food are coming into the world. Technology is playing a big part in the direction our cooking is going. I am hoping that knowing how to cook doesn’t become on par with having a landline at home. I mean this as being almost non-existent. If having a gadget produce all your meals for you means you don’t have to lift a finger, well that will be a sad day. I already feel like we have become too lazy in our beings and we don’t make time for people as much as we used to. So, by enabling these robots and smart-chefs to take something that should bring us together, away from us, I’m not sure I am ready for that.

Do you have a food philosophy?

When I have an idea for a dish, I start with the main component - let’s say a duck leg. I will go through the different ways I could cook the leg - braise, confit, roast etc. Then look at components that will bring the dish together - puree, vege or salad, fruit, sauce or jus, crumb, garnish, foam, starch etc. Then look at complimenting flavours that will work together to make the main component shine. This is my formula for producing a well-balanced dish. Then, as long as every single ingredient on that plate is cooked and seasoned perfectly, you’ll have a winner.

 What’s the most important thing about cooking?

Understanding the ingredient and treating it with respect. To do this, you need to know how to use and prepare the ingredient properly to get the most of it.

Also, a massive one for me is when people are afraid to use salt! Within reason of course. The difference between an okay dish and something delicious, is seasoning.

And just having fun with it. Don’t make it a chore. Find your inner happy place with cooking. Notice what is happening when you are finishing that lamb rump with that perfect jus, or smearing that fluffy mashed potato all over that schnitzel. Or the way that watercress drizzled with chardonnay vinaigrette cuts through the seasoned crust of that juicy eye fillet steak. Make time for good food.

What do you think would encourage more people to cook healthily?

Cost is definitely a factor, you’re more inclined to gravitate towards processed foods as opposed to something super healthy if it’s cheaper. Time is another thing that scares people into making bad food choices. If it’s going to take more than 25mins to cook after working a full day, you can forget about it. So, I think by finding a way to limit the time it takes to prepare a dish and also controlling the overall cost of the dish, it will definitely be more appealable.

Ways to do this is by buying in bulk when it’s on sale, trying to only use produce when it is in season. Not only will it taste its best, but you will get it at the best possible price. You can also set a day of the week to cooking, make up your dishes for the week and freeze them down. That way all the hard work is done for you.

People get scared of being told to eat healthy foods, as they can be seen as tasteless or boring. Or think that to be healthy they need to go on a full diet regime and cut out all sugar, fat and sodium as they are seen as the devils foods.

It’s not about that. It is about knowing what is in your food and what it does to your body. If you know that something is ridiculously high in fat, salt, sugar then try not to indulge in it. There is nothing wrong with having the old chocolate bar every now and again, but you need to realise that your body hungers for more than just sugar. It needs vitamins and nutrients from fruit and vege, protein from legumes and meat and carbs from starches.

So, we need to pay attention to what it is we are eating and how we are cooking it. Instead of deep frying or baking, looking more at grilling and steaming. And start thinking things like if I made my own pasta from scratch, I can control the sodium and fat compared to a store bought one. Or instead of getting that processed microwave dinner at the supermarket, I should make extra stir-fry tonight and freeze the rest down for dinner on the weekend. It is just about controlling the naughty bits so we don’t feel bad as a result./

What impact do you think recipe delivery services will have on people’s eating habits?

It stops the customer from thinking too much. It saves them time. It saves them money. What is doesn’t do is, teach them how to make their meal from scratch and it gives the customer a false idea of what is involved in the creation process of a dish.

What are some of your favourite ingredients to cook with?

Celeriac! I love the slight nutty, celery flavour it has. It is such a versatile ingredient that you can use fresh or cooked. My favourite way to eat it is as a puree with a nice roasted piece of lamb. Perfect.

I have to say that having a good quality beef stock makes all the difference to a pie base, braised meat and even a good sauce. In the kitchen, we use the 1/3 reduction Foundation Beef Stock. At home I find that Simon Gault’s concentration stock, packs a decent base to whatever dish I need it for.

Truffle Oil in your mashed potatoes! I really don’t think you can go wrong with that one!

Duck. Need I say more? I think it is the chicken’s sexier cousin. He has so much more to give. The skin gets that much crispier, the meat is so much more intense. I just love it!

I’m also a sucker for a good fresh fillet of fish. A friend of mine recently went fishing and bought a load of Sea Bass to the kitchen. All we did was caramelize the fillets on the hotplate with a good seasoning. That distinct flavour and so fresh out the ocean, you really don’t need to do much more. 

Tell us about your WOOP dish.

I wanted to try and create a something that was a bit “fine-dining” compared to previous WOOP dishes, but still doable for the customers at home.

I wanted to stay clear of chicken and beef as I feel that most customers would have these proteins on a regular basis. Also, the pork and venison can be tricky to cook, so I went with lamb. A meat with loads of flavour and the leg steaks are nice and lean too.

To help tenderize and add character to the meat, I have chosen to marinade the lamb in salsa verde. It is normally used as a condiment, but I find the flavours really compliment the meat and make it special. The acid components of the salsa verde help to cut through the fat of the protein and give it a much cleaner mouth feel.

As my starch component to the dish, I have gone for a pomme puree. This is a bit fancier than your mother’s mashed potato. It’s light, fluffy and is a great sponge for soaking up any juices left behind.

For my vege components, I have made a carrot puree that is so silky and smooth you will just want a plate of that for dinner! The natural sweetness from the carrot really balances out the acid notes in the salsa verde. I’ve also done some baby spinach and peas, quickly wilted in a hot pan with a knob of butter, to fill in the gaps.

There is also a red wine jus that really bring this dish together. It’s been carefully reduced down to the perfect consistency to drizzle over the lamb and really just completes the dish.

I like to think of my dish as your more gourmet Sunday roast lamb. You have your meat and three vege and a gorgeous jus to finish it off. What else do you need New Zealand?!

What’s going on in your life at the moment – any projects, passions or focuses?

I have recently relocated to London, where I am travelling on a two-year work visa around the UK. It has already been an eye-opener to how small we are in New Zealand. The aim is to work in a variety of kitchens and submerge myself in the culinary scene as much as possible to then go back to New Zealand and open an establishment back there.

What’s your pet peeve in the kitchen?

At home, it is probably throwing food out. It honestly breaks my heart to throw any food away and it gets a bit hard not being at home all the time to stock rotate the fridge. Sometimes a good piece of meat or a dairy product gets pushed to the back and ends up becoming spoiled. I can’t help thinking about the process that piece of produce has gone through to end up in my fridge. So, trying to buy what you need, when you need it is a big thing for me. I hate wastage, it’s expensive!

At work, it would be watching a chef work with a blunt knife or chefs that don’t taste their food. If they can’t be bothered checking the seasoning of the dish before it goes out to the table, what else don’t they care about?

Favourite international cuisine?

Would have to be Italian or Mexican. I love the simplicity and the freshness of Italian dishes. Three or four ingredients and you have a winner! I love how the people of Italy make time for food and see it as a way of life. I will be going to Italy in the next 12 months to experience the massive culinary scene over there.

Mexican has always been a favourite of mine. I could eat guacamole and salsa until I passed out. The big bold flavours, the spices, the slow cooked pulled meats. All balanced out with beans, rice and sour cream. I think it’s the Spanish in me!

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