Friday, 03 July 2020

WHITIANGA WEATHER

Young chef's journey from Whitianga to Guangzhou

Caleb Carter is still astonished that a chance encounter in a Whitianga café five years ago has become the catalyst for a culinary career that has taken him across the world.

The 23-year-old caught the eye of renowned chef, Ben Bayley, in 2015 after being given the job of making a carrot cake at The French Fig by then owners Erin Coats and Brad Rolls (who now owns Fagans Furniture, Beds & Homeware in Whitianga). After the My Kitchen Rules NZ judge asked to meet the cake’s creator, Caleb was introduced and two weeks later he found himself starting a chef’s apprenticeship at Baduzzi Restaurant in Auckland.

“It all started with a carrot cake, but I haven’t made one since,” Caleb laughs. “Before making the cake, I hadn’t really ever cooked apart from making pizza at Luke’s Kitchen in Kuaotunu. I had just left school and had no idea what I wanted to do, now cooking is my absolute passion.”

The former Mercury Bay Area School student is currently enjoying his longest visit home yet, after a planned nine-day stay was extended by the COVID-19 lockdown. China’s restrictions on inward arrivals means he cannot return to Guangzhou, site of his latest venture and the place he’s called home since July last year.

“Initially when China went into lockdown, I couldn’t leave because the government had my passport as they were processing all the paperwork for my visa,” Caleb said. He spent a month in his apartment, ordering food via an app, which he then collected from security. “They installed a magnet on all the apartment doors so as soon as you left your room, security was alerted and they would come and ask you what you what you were doing, so if you were taking out your rubbish they would come and check.”

After finally getting his passport, Caleb took one of the final flights out of China in February and headed for Japan to spend three weeks visiting his partner who is currently living there. “Then I planned a few days at home, a stop off in Sydney and back to China, but two-and-a-half months later, I’m still here,” he says.

Caleb’s latest challenge is as executive sous chef for a new restaurant that he has been involved in building from the ground up. “This is the first time I’ve been involved in the development stage of a restaurant right through from the actual construction and layout to menu design, recruitment and training,” he says. “I’m the only native English speaker in a team of around 60 staff, including 30 chefs, so the language barrier is definitely a challenge, but we make it work.”

Caleb was recruited for the role by head chef and director, Raymond Lynn, who he had worked under for several years in Sydney. “I did about two years at Baduzzi and then I decided to move on, so I headed to Perth with just a backpack and a set of knives,” Caleb says. “I worked for a while at a gastro type pub in the outback before I got the opportunity to move to Sydney. I met a group of people who had three different businesses and they kind of took me under their wing, I guess. I became sous chef at YAN restaurant, an Asian smokehouse, which was awarded one hat during my first year there, which for a 19-year-old chef was pretty exciting. Later it got another hat.”

Chef’s Hats are a prominent rating system in Australia and New Zealand awarded each year by food reviewers.

Caleb says he worked six days a week for the duration of his two-year spell in Sydney. “I would do five days at the restaurant which would be usually 8:00am to midnight and then I did one day a week at a pastry shop where I learned that side of the business,” he says.

While his variety of experiences to date has extended his culinary repertoire, Caleb’s newest role has come with some unique challenges. “We are doing French and Italian-style fine dining, but with locally available ingredients, which of course are very different to what you would get in Europe,” he says.

The restaurant, “Club Emmelyn,” is backed by one of the world’s wealthiest individuals who features on the Forbes list of billionaires. “It is definitely another level, there is no expense spared,” Caleb says.

Despite a team of 60 staff, the restaurant will only have around 30 tables with prices for a degustation menu starting at around NZ$300 and a wine menu ranging from $100 per bottle to $10,000. Training is currently continuing at pace with the opening fast approaching and Caleb says, while he is enjoying his time at home, he is itching to get back to the action. “There is a lot to do,” he says. “The local chefs are experienced, but quite often they may have spent all their time on one particular job or dish. They now need to learn how to do a wide variety of different cuisine, so it’s definitely challenging.”

Spending time diving, relaxing and of course cooking has helped stave off the frustration as the weeks waiting to return to Guangzhou have ticked by. “I’ve been staying with my grandparents, Christine Carter and Kevin Brown, in Kuaotunu, cooking dinner for them and just trying to enjoy being home,” Caleb says. “I’ve been living in big cities for so long now, the quiet is actually really nice.”

Caleb is philosophical about his current situation. “There’s not much I can do about it, so I might as well just make the most of my time here,” he says. “Once I do go back, it could be a long time before I get to spend this much time with my family again. My contract in China is for two years and after that who knows, we’ll see what happens.”

Pictured: Former Mercury Bay Area School student, Caleb Carter, was working as a sous chef at YAN Restaurant in Sydney when the restaurant was a awarded its first Chef’s Hat.

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