Award-winning chef Mat McLean has cooked in some of the best restaurants in the world, with some of the finest ingredients, but he says nothing comes close to Kiwi produce.
McLean’s career has taken him from humble roots in the Waikato to Michelin-starred restaurants in London, the top kitchens in Melbourne, and back home again.
His Hamilton restaurant, Palate, is widely regarded as one of the best in the country.
“Cooking in those UK restaurants, there was just no seasonality at that time. Provenance wasn’t a thing and chefs just cooked whatever they wanted to cook,” McLean says.
“The Australian restaurants were a lot more in tune with their suppliers and their farmers, and in New Zealand we’re probably taking that one step further and growing quite deep connections.
“We’re lucky in this country that we can get produce pulled straight out of the soil, or meat that’s just finished grazing. It really is paddock to plate.”
McLean says he notices the seasonality in beef.
“When a region has good rain and plenty of grass is growing, the marbling of the meat is so much better. It’s amazing to cook with and my customers can taste it.
“It doesn’t matter how good you are as a cook, it’s about the product you start with. I can’t make an average steak great; it has to be great to start with. I try to source amazing products and then do as little as possible to it.”
As one of Beef + Lamb’s ambassador chefs, McLean’s enjoyed opportunities to cook in paddocks and woolsheds across the country.
“I’ve been through the meat works, and I’ve even dabbled in farming my own cattle – which only made me appreciate farmers’ craft even more.
“A farmer’s passion shines through on the plate. Guys like Richard Redmayne from Coastal Lamb are doing amazing things, Middlehurst Station Lamb is some of the best I’ve ever tried, and when I’m using Greenstone Creek beef, I feel like I’m completely spoiled.”
McLean says he wouldn’t serve Australian beef in his restaurant.
“I never have, and I never will. That would just be a total slap in the face for our farmers. Even when the Australians flood the market with cheap beef, I just never touch it out of principle. It wouldn’t feel right.”
When asked what the difference is, Mclean says it’s “plain to see on the plate – taste, tenderness, and probably the nutritional quality too.
“The French talk about ‘terroir’, which is where you can taste the geographic location of produce from the region it’s been grown in, the weather, and the nutrients it draws from the soil.
“It’s the same with New Zealand meat. Different farming practices, regions and soils all bring about a different flavour. What the animals have been eating, the environment they’ve come from, the welfare standards – you can taste it. That’s what makes our meat unique to us.”
Are Kiwi farmers good at telling their story?
“No, but show me an artisan who is,” McLean says. “Often when people are great at what they do, they keep their nose to the grindstone. They don’t always lift their head up to look outwards.”
McLean is adamant that farmers who truly care for their stock and their environment should be rewarded with a higher price.
“Farmers need to be rewarded for the quality of their meat. Grading systems work, but they deserve a real premium. It would be good for the processors to reward high marbling and encourage farmers to aim for it. There’s a huge market out there for that kind of product – people want it.
“They also need to be keeping track of where their products are coming from. Traceability is what the food servicing industry really wants.”
And while McLean is loyal to Kiwi-grown produce, he likes to keep things even closer to home.
“For me, that means predominantly sourcing my grassfed beef from the Waikato. I might look further afield for specialty stuff, but the closer the better.
“I want to be able to tell a story: ‘A farmer from down the road raised this beef, this is how they farmed it, and why I love what they’re doing’. That closes the loop from farm to restaurant and brings us all closer together.”
When asked if he has anything he’d like to say to New Zealand farmers, McLean was quick to offer simple message:
“Thank you for what you do. It’s a pleasure to serve your products to my customers,” he says.
“Without the farmers out there working hard to progressively improve their stock in the paddock, we couldn’t improve what we’re doing in the kitchen. Our businesses go hand in hand, and that’s very much the New Zealand food story.”
Mat’s restaurant, Palate, will be re-opening in a new Hamilton location in February 2024. He’ll be cooking New Zealand beef and lamb over native timber on an asado grill.
“This is all about getting back to basics: great meat cooked over fire and embers, showcasing the best of New Zealand’s produce.”
Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.