The perfect recipe: Artisanal chef serving up passion for the wild

All images via Damien Nikora
Dariush Lolaiy’s passion for food started young. With chefs for parents, cooking was going to be his life, whether he liked it or not. Now Lolaiy, co-owner and head chef of Cazador, has taken over his parents restaurant, serving a unique menu of game food from the same kitchen in which he learnt to cook.

It was 1987 when his parents opened Cazador, and Lolaiy’s lessons began in its kitchen. As a child he was taught to critique dishes and identify flavours, an education that continued as he grew old enough to work in Cazador’s kitchen washing dishes and eventually cooking. Even when he sought formal training at AUT, Lolaiy was following in his parents’ footsteps, with the two-year diploma the same qualification his mum completed in London.

It was during this time Lolaiy met his wife Rebecca Smidt, a waitress at Cazador, and chased her overseas. The pair were away for five years before returning to buy the restaurant when his parents put it up for sale, a transaction including not only a restaurant, but also a passion for serving game food.

Cazador meaning ‘hunter’ in Spanish, specializes in primarily wild food, with the meat, not surprisingly, hunted where possible. Lolaiy uses the word “unique” to describe it, as he plates up cuts of meat and offal that are often not given the credit they deserve.

“I’ll be talking to my suppliers who are brokers for hunters and I’ll be asking them to take the lungs of the rabbit so we can use them, which, as far as I know, would otherwise be thrown away. And we use venison heart.”


Image: Cazador's Dariush Lolaiy (via Damien Nikora)

Lolaiy was raised a hunter, and from a young age his father drilled into him the ethos that using the offal shows respect for the whole animal. From a chef perspective he also came to realize that “within reason anything can taste good with a bit of care and thought”.

Cazador’s menu changes seasonally with Lolaiy serving up pan-seared rabbit lungs and poussin hearts with chervil, parsley and watercress salad, as well mains of roast boar scotch, smoked quail and char-grilles venison. 

While he acknowledges that offal is not for everyone, he has seen a shift in its place at the restaurant. Lolaiy refers to offal as “chef’s treats”, the tougher meat requiring an acquired taste, which would be kept for the staff when not sold to diners. Now however, Lolaiy says the secrets once kept in the kitchen are getting out, thanks to the proliferation of food-orientated media.

Television shows and magazines are making celebrities of chefs and bringing to light ingredients that have not previously been found in the mainstream food world.

“Hearing a whole lot of chefs that you know and respect talking about how much they love these things is enough to make you go ‘Okay, well if they like it, let’s give it a whirl’,” he says.

A willingness to try new things is reflected in those who chose to feast at Cazador. On any given Friday night there will be a group celebrating a 60th birthday, sitting next to a group of young people out for dinner before a gig. There is no theme amongst the diners, which is just how Lolaiy likes it.

“Four years ago I would have said it would be quite specific, but what we’ve found is because the restaurant has been around for 30 years now, we are lucky enough to have some of the customers that were with my parents - so they’ve been coming in for years - we have people that are quite young, who are just discovering us, and we have middle aged people with young families who use us as their local.”

While those who visit the restaurant may have changed, behind the scenes, what goes into putting the food on the plate hasn’t. The ever-developing food technology has yet to make its way into its kitchen, and all work remains completely hands -on.

“You don’t set a timer and a temperature and have it perfectly cooked,” Lolaiy says. Instead, he describes the process as “instinct driven”, making it more 'craft' than 'cooking'. 

“We are involved in every step of the process, so, wherever possible, we hunt the meat, we butcher the meat, and we serve the meat, so it’s [about] being involved every step of the way.”

There are four chefs practicing their craft and trading skills in the Cazador kitchen. Lolaiy says he passes on just as much expertise as his fellow chefs share with him, making the situation "a real two-way thing.”

“For example I had a guy in for a trial the other night, he was six years my junior, and even in that short amount of time I learnt off him a few things, so it’s an open discussion and that’s what I love about cooking. If you are open to it you can learn off anyone and you should always be learning.”

He says when there is no learning, there is no creativity and things become stagnant quickly, something Lolaiy wants to avoid with Cazador, now and in the future.

“At this stage it’s a bit of a privilege to even be around for another couple of years, so ultimately that mostly it. I want to keep getting better, keep learning and keep offering interesting things to the customers.”