NEW ZEALAND: Jake we last spoke with you in 2016 (May issue) and now it is a good time to talk again about this moment in 2020 because our paths have crossed and we are in in the same country at the same time because of COVID-19. Where were you when you heard about it, what was happening then, where are you and, of course, what are you doing now?
From the top down, I am staying still and safe in my family’s beach house in New Zealand…for the moment and how ever long that needs to be …in a sleepy village on the edge of the South Pacific Ocean on the Coromandel Peninsula. The area has subtropical weather and there is a lot going on in nature. Bananas and persimmons are ripening in the backyard, the second lot of figs are coming in, there are quinces at the neighbours, feijoas are dropping like rain, field mushrooms are everywhere and wild blackberries are ripening along the roadside.
The skies are bright blue all day, every day, with puffed clouds sailing east en route to Chile, if they are lucky enough to stay in one piece. There are unbelievable ink black night skies here with an infinite amount of stars.
It is a safe paradise where I am right now and its Q-U-I-E-T.
As much as all this sounds idyllic its doesn’t seem to be the way you design your life on the road, to be in the South Pacific .
Well yes …. there are no people to be seen here, they are all at home in the hills and valleys ,and there are no holiday house people here, there is no fishing from boats only from the shore, no swimming, no surfing, no local cafe, no local general store open, the place is empty… like a village scene in a kids book.
There is no action and just me and one other person to cook for .
And you’re right it is not my normal, and not the life I designed for myself .
Lets start with what were the last six weeks like for you before the pandemic engulfed us globally.
I had just wrapped up my winter in California. I did a three-week private job in Canouan, a private island, an hour plus flight from Barbados on a small prop plane where Falcon jets, Von Dutch power boats and golf carts are stock transport on sea and land and there is not a motor bike to be seen.
I flew in with 90 pounds of pantry stores as there were no resources available in the private estate and holiday house where I was working.
But the seafood was crazy, spineless lobsters and endless hauls of tropical reef fish to cook daily.
Before this, I’d just wedged in a motorcycle trip to the Baja, Mexico, from Phoenix where I am now based.
It was a 2000-mile pleasure run with a friend which meant motorbikes, food and camping, crossing the Arizona desert to the the west coast of the Gulf of Mexico, over and through the Sierra de San Pedro Matir from one ocean to the other.
We took in San Felipe on the east where we ate street food, grilled squid, rice, beans, carnitas and moved on, our minds set on Ensenada and its street tacos. The are filled with battered seabass and only worth getting from the corner stall outside the Ensenada bus station.
I was then back in Miami to meet and work with my Argentinian friends, Germain Lucarelli from Kennybunk -port in Maine and Nano Crespo from Quinto La Huella in Miami, the sister restaurant of Uruguays.
We were together for a four day outdoor event for the Ford Company in a private marina in Key Largo.
The word around the campfire after we had finished the job was about some flu that had broken out in New York .
Nano checked out the statistics for his restaurant and saw that from one day to the next 80% of the bookings had been cancelled. Later that day, chef friends in LA began texting me to come in and collect food boxes as they were closing their kitchens down.
We agreed something strange was happening and I left Miami curious but not too concerned.
I flew Miami to Phoenix via North Carolina which added six hours to my flight, just for the Bojangles lunch deal which is deep fried chicken biscuits and syrup which I can’t miss, it is so good.
But once I got home a new reality hit.
Within 24 hours, by March 16, I cancelled my annual flight to Uruguay which I did unhappily and dumbstruck. To do that was unreal.
It was my normal and nothing stopped me from going there for the last four years.
Then everything that seemed a given, our defaults is the new past and there is a huge blank space ahead, empty.
After a round of talks with friends and family , I found a flight from LA via Tahiti and onto Auckland, New Zealand which seemed my safest and most sensible way out of professional chaos. There was no work in the US , nothing for the upcoming Summer, things were being cancelled hour after hour and the health crisis was frightening everyone.
Papeete was a bit of a shock. At 5am, in the airport there were distancing areas duct taped onto the floor which none of us had ever seen anywhere before.
There were a handful of panicking stressed Australians with me, some who had already taken four flights to get this far and we mooched about and moved apart until we could get back on the plane and down to New Zealand.
There were about a dozen of us on the flight and we had the run of the plane. There were only very few flight crew and I got my meal from the aeroplane kitchen myself. As much as it was novel and liberating it was a bizarre way to be flying.
I sat, social distancing, near a fleeing research scientist who was shaken, in fact traumatised. He had to leave his mosquito project in Tahiti and he was concerned about their health and maybe the collapse of his work.
It was a story which added to the weirdness of what was happening.
When I arrived in New Zealand, I learned that I had to go into fourteen day self isolation and in the midst of that, the country began a total four-week stay at home lockdown. We were safe for sure but everything we once took for granted as New Zealanders, our freedom to roam, was limited.
So far I have been in lockdown for seven weeks .
From the get go, I was constantly in touch with my chef friends 24/7 all in different circumstances and places and we try to imagine what is going to happen in the United States, in Italy, in Uruguay, in the UK, in South Africa while we hang about in strange situations, waiting for what’s next and how much power we have to get going again.
I haven’t lived in New Zealand for twenty five years and now I am in its depths as we all face this global drama.
I have my family beach house kitchen at hand, and that’s one certainty while almost everything I know has an uncertain future and now I am Baking bread, Down Under and thinking.
That sounds like a good followup chat.
Sure lets see how that goes.
Finding a sense of purpose
May 1 2020
Jake you have been in one place in serious lockdown following the strict guidelines of the countries Prime Minister Jacinda Adern who has had cult following globally with her handling of the crisis.
I have been able to move around in the region closest to me in a 20km radius, visited a supermarket in the next town a couple of times but I have mostly stayed close to home, on an at home baking lockdown. I had my daily 5- 8km walks, and have foraged as things have eased off slowly. I have had some contact with local friends at a distance on the beaches, met across the fence and at their letter boxes.
I’ve focused on my hybrid sourdough. There was a flour shortage for a fortnight in the beginning but that’s over now and I had a lot of fun working with my ‘poolish’, putting it outside on the jasmine hedge during the day – its never been refrigerated – and has developed an amazing pungency.
There seems to be a big difference in growing one in a pristine natural environment with stable daily temperatures as its autumn and the air is purer than a restaurant kitchen in Los Angeles.
And surfing online, because I have so much free time, I came across the Sourdough library in Vith. What a place. It is absolutely on my bucketlist when the times is right to travel to Europe again.
I have been a fan of Italy’s Molino Mariani Paolo baking exclusively in the USA with their flour and semolina products. Here in New Zealand I have found an interesting mill in the South Island which I am definitely planning to visit once things ease here.
In my kitchen, I have been restricted by the oven size and its capacity compared to the much larger commercial and wood fired ones that I am used to. I also have a limited supply of baking equipment. Just a couple of cast iron Le Creusets, a selection of cast iron frying pans and that has been a challenge.
In one bake, I managed with two racks to wedge in five various sizes and shapes of bread and included some focaccia as well. Fortunately I have been able to send all the baking out to friends who have also been making their own bread but have not taken the sourdough challenge or eaten focaccia outside their holidays in Italy.
I have created a sourdough baking Sunday and I deliver to their letter boxes and front door steps. That has lifted the spirits for the baker and the recipients. They give me flour for a loaf the following week. It is a trade off that has worked well as this is not a commercial project.
Later, I figured out how to make gnocchi with red beets and pumpkin to kill time and have also made tortillas from scratch.
Looking around at the supermarket, I came across 100% beef and mutton lard which was exciting and very New Zealandish and serves as a marker of 200 years of British colonial kitchen and cuisine here.
I used it in my take on Encenade fish tacos.
There is an organic farm over the hill that delivers weekly so I find fresh vegetables, the freezer is full of soups. An old friend who moved here from Berlin in the 90s is a commercial apiarist so I have Manuka honey in my cupboard and people drop off fish and bundles of fresh herbs at the gate. The thyme and rosemary is incredible, its smell is penetrating and its taste rich and Mediterranean. There is also a coffee roaster a kilometre up the road and two artisan breweries with deliveries going on despite it being semi isolated and rural.
A seafood smoke house works off a wharf in the next bay and there are mussels from the mussel farm further along the coast. In fact, there is so much good food and produce here it has opened my eyes to what is available and and what’s not. In the local supermarket there are weird contradictions. Although they have national award wining organic chicken brought up in apple orchards, pork products, bacon, hams, salami and the odd bakery small goods are crazily sourced from Europe.
Being able to create a new reality for myself in the kitchen here gives me some sense of purpose. However long this prelude of sorts continues, no one knows.
I’m still slightly dazed about how I got to be here after twelve years in the United States doing what I love to the maximum; after 14 years in Japan doing likewise and now, still in lock down, watching the chaos in the United States unfold state to state as the virus fans out across the country and listening to my friends stories.
The wood fired oven
Part 3: May 8, 2020
I just got the go ahead to use a wood fired oven at a local place to make my bread. How to keep occupied, creative and begin something new in one swoop.
Narrative as told to Isabel Gilbert Palmer in New Zealand in the time of the 2020 pandemic.