By Kate Gordon-Smith
Originally from South Africa where he trained as a chef, Mario Rodrigues has travelled the world with stints working in London before moving to New Zealand. Before becoming head chef at Wanaka’s iconic Bistro Gentil, Mario worked at the former Botswana Butchery in Wanaka.
Mario’s ethos is to use the best possible ingredients and his inspiration has changed over the years, although his love of cooking meat has never waned.
We ask Mario five questions about his life and food inspiration as one of Wanaka’s most highly-regarded chefs.
1: What’s one of your favourite food memories?
Mario: I grew up in Cape Town and my memories are always of standing around fire with my dad and all the guys, having a barbeque, eating some lamb chops straight off the grill. That was always the best. It was part of a nice meal with my aunties. Every Sunday we used to go to their house with a big spread; there was so much food. Everyone got full bellies and took an afternoon nap! I don’t think many people do that anymore, but in those days, it was quite a thing to indulge in that kind of food.
Barbeque or braai is a very strong South African tradition and that’s why my company is called Mario’s Meat Mafia. I often have a barbeque, a nice wood fired barbeque, and cook something for my friends. Whenever I go to South Africa, I just barbeque every day. It’s outside, nice and social. The wood there is hard and dried from the desert compared to much wetter, softer wood here. Manuka is the best wood for fired barbeques here, but it’s expensive.
2: When you’re not working, where do you like to go to eat in Wanaka?
Mario: Kika has always been my staple to go to, I love Kika. Now Muttonbird has opened and I went there recently. It was really good, very fresh, very relaxed, really nice ingredients that they use and a relaxed setting so that was pretty cool. The problem is that they are closed the same times as Bistro Gentil, so it’s harder for me to get there!
3. What is your favourite local ingredient? Why do you enjoy working with it?
Mario: I always say stonefruit because we have a great garden at the back of the bistro owned by Jo and Hamish. Lots of stonefruit and apple trees so when the plums are ready, we pickle and preserve them, and make plum sorbets. We’ve got apricots, little damson plums and cherries all growing out the back so I love using those. There’s also a hazelnut tree and two massive quince trees. My pastry chef hates quince because, when they’re ready, he has to make 1000 jars of quince paste or quince cheese! We poach them, pickle them, make a chutney etc. There are so many quinces, you have to be creative! Quince vinegar is really good as well; nice and sweet, a peachy pink colour.
4. Do you have a recent recipe you’re happy to share with Forage & Feast followers please?
Mario: I have an awesome pastry chef who has really good ideas so I’ll share his hazelnut friand recipe. The bistro started off as fine dining with big plates and not too much food on it, but ever since I took over, we’ve tried to make it a bit more rustic and appealing to the Kiwi eye and palate. A little bit bigger, slightly more messy and still tastes good. I call it rustic fine dining and you won’t leave hungry. That fits our style.
5. Do you have any thoughts on the next big thing in NZ food?
Mario: I’m not sure; there are a few things happening. I always used to go to Melbourne and get some ideas there, the guys there were always one step ahead of us in terms of food fashion and what’s happening. I find that over here meat is quite dominant. I find at our restaurant even if we offered three vegetarian dishes, people still love steaks, lamb and pork.
I love kohlrabi but find the supply of exotic or different ingredients like this not very stable. It’s not always easy to get something that we love working with. Weather plays a part here with producers. A local strawberry supplier lost 200kg of berries in a weekend of rain.
With covid, a lot less meat has been shipped overseas and there’s more good stuff here for us to enjoy. Before you had to pay more for a good piece of fillet and now you’ll get the good stuff for the same price of the cheaper stuff because there’s so much more around.
New in the Marlborough Sounds are farmed kingfish where they sell the whole fish to restaurants. At Muttonbird, I had the kingfish wings. They were delicious, so nice and soft. The guys at Muttonbird and at Arc use the whole fish, crisping up the skin, making stock from the bones, like old style school cooking. I love seeing this kind of thing.