Queenstown is best known among Aussies for the snow on its surrounding peaks, but the town also has a thriving food scene.
True South Dining Room at The Rees Hotel is one of the resort town’s restaurants that’s building a reputation, and it’s partly thanks to the leading man in the kitchen, executive chef Ben Batterbury.
Batterbury, who hails from Bristol, England, has a strong focus on cooking with seasonal, regional produce.
The majority of the produce he uses at the fine diner True South is sourced from no further north than Christchurch.
“We literally try to buy from the South Island,” says Batterbury, when we meet before evening service starts. “There’s so much growing around here.”
Central Otago, where Queenstown sits, is renowned for its pinot noir, with 80 per cent of the grapes produced from the region’s 200 vineyards being the popular varietal.
Hospitality professionals will know, however, that Central Otago also has great pork, lamb, goat and game, such as venison, wild pig and hare.
When it comes to meat, Batterbury enjoys working with alternative cuts, such as pork shoulder, fillets of lamb neck and topside. Lamb, unsurprisingly, is a star dish, and Batterbury prefers Merino due to its full flavour.
“Meat’s pretty plentiful down here,” says Batterbury. “There’s a lot of choice.”
Destination Queenstown Communications Manager Sarah Stacey says local chefs have been at the forefront in New Zealand utilising alternative cuts.
“There has been a movement toward slow food, eating seasonally available, local produce and many restaurants have their own kitchen gardens,” Stacey says.
The main food trend in Queenstown, she adds, has been showcasing amazing regional produce with a focus on seasonality.
“The Queenstown dining scene is punctuated with celebrity chef eateries, as well as long standing local establishments.”
Despite the growth of kitchen gardens, Batterbury says in the industry, it’s nothing new.
“Good chefs have always done it … but never really made a song and dance about it,” he says. “It was expected. If you went to a good restaurant, you wouldn’t be eating winter veg in summer. You wouldn’t be eating raspberries in winter.”
He says Queenstown used to be far behind in this regard, until five years ago when he came onboard at The Rees Hotel and made the practice standard.
It’s no surprise then, True South Dining Room has received a number of accolades including the 2014 Award of Excellence by US wine and hospitality magazine Wine Spectator, received in May.
That same month, The Rees Hotel was named by TripAdvisor as one of the top five hotels in New Zealand, while it also featured on the 2014 HotelsCombined Stellar Stay List.
Batterbury plays a large hand in the restaurant and hotel’s success, as does The Rees Hotel’s General Manager Mark Rose.
Rose is a passionate foodie who also co-owns fine-dining Italian restaurant Sasso in town.
Sasso chefs also focus on fresh, local produce, with the menu changing daily.
Expect dishes such as carpaccio di polipo (braised octopus with shaved truffle and fennel salsa $NZ20.50 ($A19.08); tagliatelle al ragu di coniglio (pasta ribbons with braised Southland rabbit ragu, parmesan and truffle oil $NZ26.50); and agnello (Canterbury lamb rump wrapped in prosciutto on a fennel gratin, green pea and mint puree $NZ34.50).
I dine on the homemade potato dumplings with pistachio mascarpone and parmesan ($NZ26.50) and don’t leave a single creamy morsel on the plate.
Despite the restaurant being only 19 months old, it’s quickly become a popular spot with both locals and tourists (of which there are more than two million to Queenstown a year).
It’s not just Queenstown restaurants that support New Zealand produce but the entire country, due to tight importation regulations and the high cost of importing. That means chefs have to adapt to the limited growing seasons of fruit and vegetables.
In summer, Batterbury buys cherries from Cromwell but due to a six-week season, he makes a lot of preserves. In winter, Queenstown chefs are left with apples and pears, and therefore need to rely on the purees and preserves they’ve already created during the warmer months.
Queenstown itself is difficult for growing, due to the shade cast by the surrounding hills and mountains, but there are backyard growers who can provide “emergency herbs” for restaurants, says Batterbury.
Queenstown has always been a popular destination for Australians searching for adventure, but now they are being lured by the great food scene, says Stacey from the tourism board.
“Two thirds of our visitors are international and we believe they are very much appreciating the qualities of our local food scene,” she says.
“Many of our visitors, especially Australians, are now coming because of our sophisticated but relaxed food and wine scene, alongside experiences such as spa, wellbeing, golf, hiking and cycling.”
IF YOU GO to Queenstown:
Getting there: Queenstown is on the South Island of New Zealand. A handful of airlines fly between Australia’s east coast and Queenstown International Airport, including Qantas, Jetstar, Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand. You can also regularly get connecting flights via Auckland and Wellington on the North Island and Christchurch on the South Island.
The airport is about 10 minutes’ drive from the centre of Queenstown.
Staying there: The Rees Hotel is five-star accommodation on the banks of Lake Wakatipu. It’s located on the main road leading into Queenstown, Frankton Road, a few minutes’ drive from town.
There are 60 hotel rooms and 90 one- to three-bedroom apartments, as well as True South Dining Room. Hotel room rates start from $NZ195 per night twin-share for an executive non-lake view hotel room, $NZ295 for a lake view hotel room and $NZ320 for an executive lake view hotel room.
The hotel also has a free shuttle service throughout the day and evening.
Playing there: Sasso is at 14/16 Church Street, just a skip from the waterfront. For more on what to do in Queenstown, visit the website.
The writer travelled with assistance from The Rees Hotel