Sunday, 5 February 2012

Fleurs Place - There are Outstanding Chefs...and then there are Celebrity Chefs

I have an absolute aversion to the current cult of the "Celebrity Chef".  It seems to me that a chef is someone you pay to cook you a meal...some cook well, some don't.  If the meal is good you will return to their restaurant and they will be successful, if not, you won't return and their business will fail.  In Auckland I have favourite restaurants which I return to time and again...I have no idea who their chefs are, I just know their food is good.    I know, many won't agree with me. They will say cooking is  an art and artists should be acknowledged or that they are entertainers who bring pleasure to people.  Yes, I reply, but what about the surgeon who saves your life, or surf life savers, or plumbers or any other number of people who work hard to make our lives better.   Don't get me wrong, I love good food, enjoy trawling farmers' markets and am always interested in new products and food trends it's just that I detest the pretentious nonsense associated with "in" restaurants  like tasteless foams and ridiculously high prices so tend to avoid them. I am always amused when "the" place to be this year is  discarded the next in favour of some other new "in" place. Maybe my rather jaundiced view has been coloured by the arrogant celebrity chefs on television who strutt around their kitchens abusing their staff or make an art form of their lisp or plunging neckline.
Fleur's Place, Moeraki, South Island, New Zealand
Having said all of the above I  am now going to contradict myself and admit that I do have a very soft spot for Rick Stein.  Maybe it is because I love his foodie travelogues or maybe it is because I find him kind of attractive.  Either way, I'm a fan so it is interesting to note that when Rick Stein was told that he could choose to go anywhere in the world to research a travel article for England's Daily Mail he chose Fleur's Place in Moeraki, South Island, New Zealand.   Coincidentally Fleur's Place was somewhere I had  wanted to visit for a long time so  last weekend I was delighted to finally get there. 
Fleur with me before lunch
Fleur Sullivan, chef, restaurateur and owner of Fleur's Place is in her 70s, larger-than-life, eccentric, warm, friendly,  and  an astute and clever business woman.  After many years running Oliver's restaurant in Clyde, Central Otago, she "retired" to the village of Moeraki, on the coast, but it wasn't long before she saw the possibilities of running a restaurant using the rich harvest from the sea provided by the small fishing fleet based there. Starting with a caravan selling fish soups and stocks on the seashore, because she hated seeing the fishermen's offcuts go to waste, she saw restaurant possibilities as her   business boomed. Before long she was building her new restaurant from recycled bits and pieces she had collected over the years.  The result is a charming, quaint seafood restaurant, with its own adjoining smokehouse surrounded by the sea and right beside the fishing harbour. It delights her that it is unshowy and a bit cobbled together looking, like a real fisherman's hut. Her vast collection of china and cutlery gathered from antique and op shops over her life time are also put to good use in the restaurant giving it the feel of eating in someone's seaside home. Fleur has a passion for using fresh, local ingredients so will often wade into the sea to collect seaweed for one of her recipes and is an avid supporter of local growers and wine makers. Her mantra is : Simple. Good. Honest. Fresh. Local. She also managed to negotiate a fishing quota for the restaurant and is one of very few  allowed to serve fish straight off the fishing boats, making her food deliciously fresh....caught in the morning and served for lunch.

Mary with Fleur
My sister-in-law, Mary, and I travelled the 70 kilometres up from Dunedin for Sunday lunch at Fleur's Place.   Fleur, the consumate host, is generous with her time and with a wealth of stories to tell she chatted to us for some time before we took our seats.  Our view out to sea and across the fishing boats kept us well occupied until our main courses arrived.  My main course is a signature dish at Fleur's: Bacon wrapped Blue Cod with Littleneck Clams served with a light white wine and cream sauce and fresh herbs and vegetables.  Absolutely fresh the fish was almost jumping!  As we sipped on a  crisp local chardonnay we got chatting to the three women at the next table...two sisters aged 100 and 90 and the 90 years old's daughter aged 60. All three of them looked deacdes younger than their age.  Very inspiring. 

We lingered before ordering dessert, trying to delay our departure, but in the end succumbed to the menu.  My dessert was  Lime flavoured Creme Brulee  with Poached Apricots and the best almond biscotti I have ever eaten.  Mary chose the Chocolate Fondant with Cherries and Tamarind Syrup.  We both declared dessert the perfect ending to a perfect meal.

Our divine desserts

  I'd waited years to get there but I agree entirely with Rick Stein:  "Fleur's Place is everything I hoped it would be". Fleur's Place is definitely my kind of place. Fleur would loathe being called a celebrity chef, indeed, she now has chefs who do the cooking, and my admiration of Fleur's Place is really based on the whole package...Fleur as a person, what she has been through in her life, including cancer, what she has achieved, the quality of the ingredients, the lack of pretention, the very reasonable prices and the idyllic location.