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Out at Pasture: How creativity and sustainability make good food

What does an emphasis on creativity, sustainable business practices and pared-down interior design add up to? At Auckland restaurant Pasture, it means an experience that's not just good for diners, but good for the wider business community and the planet itself.

Fancy restaurants usually carry a certain level of expectations. After all, if you’re visiting such a place, you expect your food to, well, taste good.

Image: Aaron McLean.

Laura Verner, co-owner of Auckland restaurant Pasture, knows this too. But while a lot of restaurants will cite sourcing the very best ingredients as a key part of what they do, she’s also quick to point out something else: social responsibility and working with small suppliers whose contracts with pasture can make or break their business.

That means navigating a very fine line between meeting diners’ expectations and supporting these businesses, Verney says. “Produce grown with love and care, as well as environmental integrity, is the palette with which we design our menus,” she explains. “Without their amazing produce, our dishes aren’t as good. As independent owner-operators we are acutely aware of the challenges that small, artisan businesses can face and so whenever possible, we want to support these enterprises - this is done in the full knowledge that the cost is often higher but we place a lot of value in knowing who grows our food and the quality they achieve.”

Laura Verner. Image: Aaron McLean.

Verner says that while some restaurants might “forage” their ingredients or grow everything themselves, Pasture’s approach was to support small, local New Zealand businesses. “We also believe that restaurants have an important role developing and growing our local food economy and infrastructure,” says Verner. “We also provide a link between growers and consumers – the stories that we tell at the table can deepen people's awareness of our food systems and sustainability.”

Ed Verner. Image: Aaron McLean.

But there’s more to it than just saving the planet and supporting a sustainable ecosystem, says Verner. “We’ve found most of our suppliers are diligent people that want to work with us to deliver the quality and produce that both parties,” she explains. “We find working with small suppliers is easier and better than distributors to whom our business is just a number and the goods they shift are not personal to them. If anything, these suppliers help meet our standards and reputation, there’s nothing to balance out and at least if something is occasionally not up to scratch, we can have a direct discussion with someone and work together to a better outcome.”

Image: Aaron McLean.

And working with those suppliers also allows for a more creative approach to cooking, Verner says. “We believe our diners come to us because they are curious, and know that we offer one menu that is innovative and unusual,” she says. “It’s great to have high expectations from people to keep us striving to meet that.”

Image: Aaron McLean.

And that creativity, she says, means a lot of things. “Food is as much about creativity as it is nourishment and regardless of what sector of the food industry people work in, it is easy to be creative when our medium offers so many colours, flavours, textures and infinite combinations to work with,” she explains. “In fine dining you are paying for a meal that is creative, thoughtfully composed and executed with a high level of technique. With a set menu there is an extra layer of narrative because the dishes are also part of a progressive experience.”

Image: Aaron McLean.

A key part of Pasture's creativity, Verner explains, is the interior design of the restaurant itself. “We designed Pasture to be an open kitchen concept, the heart of which is our fire,” she says. “Our diners often comment that they enjoyed watching their dishes being made before their eyes, and that it enhanced their experience because they could see the skill and techniques used.

Image: Aaron McLean.

“There is a restraint in our interior design as well as our dishes. We choose to plate our dishes ‘simply’ - we don’t use garnishes unless they are an integral component to the dish in terms of how it eats and the interaction of the flavours. Our dishes may look austere because they aren’t full of flowers, foams, gels, purees and textural components spread across a colourful plate. Despite their visual restraint they are highly intentional and every layer of them has been developed to evoke something. Our dining room interior is minimalist to reflect the nature of our dishes. We also chose our ceramics because of their raw, grounded and balanced character. They are hand-thrown and with a muted colour palette that accentuates our dishes, rather than clashing with them. It’s a highly stimulating environment because of all the activity of the chefs, the smell of smoke, and the experience of being in an open kitchen, so it’s always great when diners tell us that the environment feels calm and homely. There is a constant feedback loop between us and our diners and the design of the space is important in creating that exchange and conversation.”

Image: Aaron McLean.

So… is it innovative? “Innovation means bringing something new to the table and striving to constantly develop and further what we do,” Verner explains. “We do think we bought innovation to New Zealand's dining scene because of the combination of design elements and values that underpin what we do – our wood fire, our methods of cooking, our approach to whole-animal use and ageing meat, the scale at which we ferment and preserve ingredients, our service model, our open kitchen and transparency are all very unique here. We are also innovative in terms of our size and offering just one menu in order to reduce our food waste and keep our dishes seasonal and cohesive.

Laura and Ed Verner. Image: Aaron McLean.

“Innovation may be about change and evolution, but it also has to be purposeful. We have a vision statement that keeps our evolution aligned to our values rather than just trying to be different for that sake alone.”

Image: Aaron McLean.

But whatever you do, don’t think what Verner and the staff do will be replaced by robots anytime soon. “Food is emotional, and taps into memories, culture and social experiences,” she explains. “Maybe this could all be programmed, but we're happy to be inspired and led by our upbringing and interest in traditional methods.”

Image: Aaron McLean.