Don’t think about what Mapu Test Kitchen has – think about what it doesn’t have. Because that’s what defines it.
Mapu doesn’t have a sign out the front. It doesn’t have a proper dining room, or a kitchen filled with staff. It doesn’t have a reservation system. It doesn’t have opening hours. It doesn’t have any waiters. It doesn’t have a menu. It doesn’t even have a wine list.
This is a restaurant that’s not a restaurant, an eatery designed to subvert the entire hospitality model. It’s revolutionary; wildly daring. And it can be found – through the use of Google Maps, thanks very much – tucked away behind a café on a quiet street in Lyttelton, on the outskirts of Christchurch.
Mapu is the brainchild of Giulio Sturla, a Chilean-born chef who found his way to New Zealand via Ecuador and the Basque Country of Spain. Giulio now stands before me, stirring a pot here, chopping a vegetable there, chatting as he works, prepping this lunch for one.
“I’m not trying to create dishes here, I’m trying to create flavours,” Giulio says as he puts the finishing touches on my second course, “a taste of summer in winter”, a mixture of preserved vegetables, herbs and spices plucked from the garden out the back here a few months ago. It’s a complex and entirely unique dish, sour, salty, gently spiced, and one that says a lot about what Giulio is trying to do in his restaurant-that’s-not-a-restaurant.
See, the reason Giulio moved to New Zealand, after stints in some of the best restaurants in the world, was to live at the source of some of the finest produce he had been handling in those foreign eateries. The best seafood, the best lamb, the best vegetables – they were from New Zealand.
Imagine his frustration, then, when Sturla walked out to a trawler at the Auckland docks one day and asked to buy a few fish. No, he was told. This is all being exported. And that wasn’t unique – Giulio soon realised that the best produce was all being sent overseas.
Giulio’s career since that moment, his restaurants, his cuisine, has been a reaction to that discovery, a desire to go back to basics, to change the way Kiwis eat. Everything superfluous has now been chipped away. The radius for sourcing his food has shrunk dramatically. And now he has Mapu Test Kitchen, with six seats surrounding a hotplate and an oven.
Mapu is representative of something powerful that is happening in NZ right now: a quiet culinary revolution; a shift to small-scale, local, sustainable, thoughtful, delicious dining. The country previously known for fish and chips and pavlova is now a hotbed for gastronomic creativity and skill.
Check out the small-scale restaurants NZ boasts. Hiakai in Wellington is an incredible fine-diner in which chef Monique Fiso takes native ingredients and Māori techniques and treats them with haute cuisine skill.
See Rita, another tiny restaurant in the capital, where an ever-changing set menu of just three dishes is served to appreciative audiences four nights a week. Or try Graze, where American expat chef Max Gordy insists on a hyper-local and sustainable ingredient list, to the point where he won’t even serve fish unless a spear fisherman drops it off at his door. Or dine at Hillside Kitchen, again in Wellington, where all the produce is foraged nearby or grown on-site.
The calling card for all these restaurants, their mantra, is “lots of little”. It means taking food back to its source; using small amounts of seasonal produce to create beautiful things.
There are all sorts of ways tourists can enjoy local food experiences. They can visit farmers markets, which take place across the country on weekends. They can do cooking classes at the likes of Hapuku Kitchen, near Kaikōura, where the produce is all grown or caught locally. They can go foraging with chef Asher Boote of Hillside Kitchen in Wellington.
Eat New Zealand, an organisation founded by Giulio, can create these itineraries. Head to the website (eatnewzealand.nz), plug in your destinations, and select from the lo-fi food experiences available. This is how to tap into New Kiwi cuisine.
Here’s how Mapu works: you can’t make a booking, but you can buy a ticket. Periodically, Giulio offers tickets to dine at the test kitchen, via his website. If you nab a spot, you will arrive on your given day and sit at the six-seat bench in front of Giulio’s small kitchen and be served the dishes he has created that day, and poured the wines he has opened.
You won’t recognise any of those dishes. Giulio’s food isn’t an expression of a style or a technique, but of a place. This place.
So you might recognise the ingredients because everything will be local, everything will be foraged from the surrounding hills, or pulled from the ocean nearby, or farmed or hunted in the local area.
The first dish I’m served is a meeting of familiar and unfamiliar flavours: a small tart using two peaches, one wild and slightly bitter, the other farmed and sweet. Next is that taste of Giulio’s summer garden in winter. Then there’s a small gougere made with aged NZ cheddar, topped with jamon that Giulio cured himself over a period of five years.
This symphony of cuisine is only just building. Next there’s a single scampi, very lightly heated with charcoal, served with beurre blanc on a bed of noodles.
“Guess what the noodles are made from,” Giulio says as I pick up a forkful. Turns out it’s bananas, grown in the South Island, picked green, pounded and extruded, gently poached and cut into ribbons – a nod to Giulio’s time in Ecuador: “Even vegetables can tell a story.”
The next dish is NZ lamb, the stuff that usually gets sent overseas, seared and served with a mille-feuille of silverbeet leaves, with foraged porcini mushrooms and a rich sauce made from the bones of that leg of jamon.
This isn’t exactly mum’s pavlova. It’s not fish and chips down at your local. It’s food of impressive skill and thought, where lots is made of little.
It’s a revolution.
Tickets for dining experiences at Mapu Test Kitchen are released monthly, and cost $300 a person for five courses, with matching non-alcoholic beverages, or $395 with food with matching wines. See: mapu.co.nz
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism New Zealand and Wellington on a Plate.