While most people travel to the Cook Islands to relax, top chef MacLean Fraser is hard at work there indulging in two of his great passions – food and judging the culinary skills of others.
Just freshly announced as one of only two New Zealanders to ever achieve the lofty status of a certified WorldChefs judge, it’s clear that MacLean has something special to offer the international culinary world.
While working with food could be viewed by some as indulgent, for MacLean it offers a unique opportunity to give something back to people and communities which is why he has flown from Wellington to the Cook Islands.
During his current whirlwind trip, he’s busy judging at the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs - Cook Islands Jeunes Chefs competition and helping to oversee delivery of the event’s gala dinner.
For a man just approaching his mid-30s, MacLean has already packed a lot into his life.
He says his culinary career kicked off “relatively late” during his early 20s. After completing a degree in classical studies at Victoria University, he scouted round for something different to do.
A course at Massey University piqued his interest and started him on a colourful career that has taken him from Wellington to the Maldives and back again.
While at Massey, he flourished under the tutelage of top chef Anita Sarginson now Corporate Manager at Westpac Stadium and former Executive Chef at Parliament and NZChefs President.
“She was a great person to have as a tutor and I learnt a lot from her.”
MacLean says he has fond memories of those early days including road trips with other students to compete at events and a cinnamon quill thrown at him when he served it up by mistake.
After successfully completing his City and Guilds training and gaining a heightened sense of confidence by competing at culinary events, MacLean picked up a series of jobs that eventually took him all over the world.
During his career, he has worked in the kitchens of some of Wellington’s dining hotspots including: Logan Brown, Bouquet Garni, Elements Café, Dockside, and Hippopotamus restaurant. Further afield, he has worked in the Cook Islands, Kuala Lumpur and the Maldives.
Along the way, he has notched up numerous top accolades and awards including a gold medal in the New Zealand finals of the Global Chefs Challenge, winner of the NZ Vegetarian dish challenge and seven Beef & Lamb Excellence Awards gold plates.
Having now gone full circle, MacLean is thriving in his current job in Wellington as Executive Chef at the Bolton Hotel and Artisan Dining House.
“My employers are fantastic. They really look after me and are very supportive of the time I take off to judge at key events. They see it as a win-win for everyone – the industry and our customers.”
While the menu at the Bolton is European inspired, MacLean has been able to cleverly infuse flavour combinations and techniques acquired while working overseas.
“We’re lucky in New Zealand because we have such amazing produce and seafood to work with.”
MacLean says this combined with a proliferation of cooking shows has made kiwis quite a discerning bunch who expect high quality food regardless of where they dine.
“Even the humble burger has been elevated to a new level by kiwi chefs who have turned casual dining into a lucrative and hugely popular affair.”
“While casual dining is now often exceeding customers’ expectations, it’s also offering a fantastic baseline for chefs when it comes to mastering core techniques and skills.”
From there, an ambitious chef can extend their experience through working in a fine dining restaurant or finding an outlet for their creativity at culinary events.
Having already travelled that road himself, MacLean is now in the privileged position of being able to judge at these events. Despite his success, he is quick to acknowledge that he still has a lot to learn.
“I’m getting to grips with the opportunities before me as a World Chefs judge. I’ve also got my sight set on competing at the 2020 Culinary Olympics and, who knows, I might even get to be a judge there one day.”
Recently invited to judge the efforts of the country’s top hospitality students at the annual Nestlé Toque d’Or event, MacLean accepted without hesitation.
Having watched the event in action before including cheering on some of his friends who competed, he appreciates the amount of work that goes into preparing for the competition.
“It’s great to now be revisiting that whole experience so many years later as a judge. Hopefully, I will be able to give the competitors some constructive feedback that they can use to learn and grow from.”
He’s also keen to provide that opportunity for growth in developing countries where there are educational gaps.
MacLean is quick to credit his wife for much of his success.
“I couldn’t have such an exciting career if I didn’t have a great partner who was so supportive and willing to juggle family life while I’m away.”
When he’s home, cooking is a simple affair.
“I’m a one pot or one tray person when I’m at home. It’s quick and easy, tastes delicious and best of all there’s hardly any dishes.”
See MacLean in action at Nestlé Toque d’Or on Thursday 27 July at the Auckland Showgrounds. Sponsors of this year’s event are: Nestlé Professional, Beef + Lamb New Zealand, vegetables.co.nz, Akaroa Salmon, House of Knives and Moffat.