Mention New Zealand cuisine to an American, and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare. Beyond the odd kiwifruit and jars of Marmite, even many of our self-proclaimed dining sophisticates can’t conceptualize what such food might entail. But if Mark Simmons has anything to say about it, we won’t live in ignorance for much longer.
Two days ago the chef opened Kiwiana, a Park Slope restaurant dedicated to showcasing the ingredients of his homeland. It’s the first time Simmons, who competed on Top Chef Season 4 and previously worked at Melt, Get Fresh Table & Market, and Public, has owned his own place, and he’s got his work cut out for him.
When we spoke with him this morning, Simmons was busy putting his brother, who had just arrived from New Zealand, to work preparing his Manuka-and-Marmite-braised baby-back ribs. In between giving directions, he found some time to speak with us about his new restaurant, hokey pokey ice cream, and the allure of a gas-station meat pie. Check back tomorrow for the second half of our interview.
So how did you decide to open your own restaurant?
I’ve been living in Park Slope for the last three years, and believed it was time to get on with my own concept. Obviously New Zealand cuisine is very close to my heart, and I wanted to bring something different to my neighborhood: It was time Park Slope had that. And then this space came up and it was the perfect size. I wanted to create a dining room that small, homey, and intimate in ambiance — we’ve only got 40 seats.
You built the restaurant yourself, right?
Me and this guy from Australia built the place from the ground up. We started on the second of May and opened the doors Tuesday, so it took less than three months. We worked around the clock. I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do — I think once you have a clear vision of what you want, you just do it. I spent a lot of effort designing the dining room, and I had a lot of fun doing it. It drew a lot of inspiration from my grandma’s kitchen and dining room — it’s the same color palette.
How do you explain the concept of New Zealand cuisine to Americans?
What I tell people is it’s mainly about the ingredients. Like I have lamb in a couple of preparations — it’s served with beets and egg in the Kiwi burger, which is a version of New Zealand’s signature burger. And then there’s the ribs, which are braised with Manuka [a type of honey] and Marmite.
Basically, a lot of these dishes are inspired by American comfort food and food that I ate growing up in New Zealand. My fried chicken is made with buttermilk and horopito, a mild herb from New Zealand. And I just started working on pies, the kind that you get at the gas station for lunch. I wanted to elevate that concept, so I’m doing one with braised lamb shank, and a summer-vegetable pie with peas.
The pickled Green Lip mussels that you guys loved at Get Fresh are back on the menu — they’re smoked with Japanese applewood, smoked, and served in a pickling jar with sourbread and butter. And then our salmon ceviche is made with Stewart Island salmon, which is bright pink and milder than Scottish salmon because the waters aren’t as cold as they are in Scotland. I truly believe that New Zealand is one of the cleanest and most pure countries in the world, so I’m proud and confident that the ingredients will talk for themselves.
Do you have any plans for hokey pokey ice cream, the vanilla ice cream with sponge toffee chunks that’s so popular in New Zealand?
It’s not that dessert is an afterthought for me, it’s that I’m trying to find my feet — I don’t even have time to scratch my balls right now. But passion fruit is big in New Zealand, and we’re doing a passion fruit crème caramel, and raspberry lamington. Hokey pokey is on its way. Right now, we’re doing a smallish menu to try and find our feet, but we’ll introduce other New Zealand staples that you will see in the near future.
Do you miss New Zealand at all?
I do. I was back recently, and whenever I touch down I get a little welled up. I do kiss the concrete. And the first thing I do is drive to a gas station and have a meat pie.