In February 2005, chef Mat McLean invited a cast of family and friends to dinner for the opening night of his new Hamilton restaurant, Palate.
The freshly fitted 45-seater in Victoria St’s south-end was packed, and he was working with a brand new crew in the kitchen and out front. The extraction fan wasn’t up to the job, the kitchen heated up to 45 deg C, and service got a bit wobbly. But McLean held it together, everyone got watered and fed, it was a fine event.
The next night, reality hit when five customers came for dinner.
Says McLean: “It was absolutely dead. You go from the highs to the lows; that’s how restaurant ownership is.”
McLean knew he could deliver. He dug in, worked hard, built his reputation and his team. This February, he marked Palate’s 15th anniversary with a full house and a five-course dinner of past menu favourites such as seared tuna, crisp pork belly, honey spiced duck, beef fillet and milk chocolate mousse, and a splendid wine match for each.
From its humble start, Palate has collected more culinary awards than you can poke a fork at, and McLean is acknowledged as one of the country’s top chefs. He is highly regarded for his contemporary flavours, his strong technical skills, his top wine cellar, and his continuing ability to surprise and delight his customers.
He’s a three-time winner of Cuisine’s Good Food Awards’ regional restaurant of the year, the latest in 2018, and he’s earned Cuisine’s coveted two-hat rating three times. He’s won numerous Silver Fern Farms Restaurant Awards, is the inaugural winner of the Coastal Lamb Challenge, and is a NZ Beef + Lamb Platinum Ambassador Chef. He relishes the competitions, and the wins. They keep him sharp, keep his name out there.
McLean’s career, and Palate, happened more by accident than design. McLean trained as a chef at then Waikato Polytechnic because he wanted to travel and cooking seemed like a ticket to regular employment overseas.
He headed for the UK and cooked in kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants in London, starting at the bottom of the pile. He later moved to Melbourne and during a visit to back to his hometown in 2004, he noticed that The Curry Pavilion restaurant in the vintage Hamilton Hotel building was available for lease.
He took it on, with former partner Naomi Lee at front-of-house, aiming to create something in the style of Melbourne’s relaxed, busy, fun eateries. There was a fairly sparse fit-out, partly due to a lack of funds, but McLean says they probably over-delivered on the food. “People expected more and more, and customers ended up moulding what we did.”
In 2012 he expanded Palate, moving it from Victoria St to Alma St, on the site of the old Tables on the River restaurant where he’d once worked as sous chef. He gutted the place, did a sleek refurbishment, kept cooking, kept winning awards.
He says Palate is always innovative but it’s not fine dining. “You can come in here in shorts and a rugby jersey (with good behaviour). You can’t do that in half the bars in town. And I’ve never been attracted to over-manipulated or technology-driven food. We don’t do somersaults and back-flips in our kitchen. We like flavours that are true.”
McLean’s success – and Palate’s longevity and creativity – is particularly notable in a fickle and hotly competitive industry.
Cuisine editor Kelli Brett says 15 years is a milestone for a restaurant nowadays. “It’s a glorious business but also a tough one, especially for regionally based restaurants. Staffing, rising overheads, food costs, all make it a challenging game.” She says McLean has delivered a premium offering consistently across the years, demonstrating great technique and skill that is cleverly woven into his thoughtful menus. “The fact that Palate took home the Cuisine Regional Restaurant of the Year in 2018 is testament to that.”
McLean ponders whether his style of operation, as an independent owner-chef cooking handmade food to order, may become a rare beast in the future. “If labour becomes too expensive, many more eateries may use pre-chopped, pre-prepared ingredients to keep expenses down.” Like Brett, he says it’s a tough business and it’s entirely possible that Palate, in its present form, may not last forever. In the future he could be looking at doing something different, maybe something more casual.
But he’s still got more to give. “I’ve built a lot of good relationships. It’s important to find the right food from producers, and train staff well, that is a job in itself. I still probably spend too much time on the stove; it’s great for the food consistency but not so much for development of the restaurant. It is a constant challenge to get the right team.”
He welcomes the increased scope of his region’s produce available to him, and has tramped farms and beaches learning about the ingredients he works with. He particularly rates Te Kouma Bay oysters from Coromandel (“we get through truckloads”), Waikato’s Meyer Gouda cheeses, local truffles, and rib-eye beef on the bone from Magills Butchery in Te Awamutu.
He says his thorough training – in New Zealand, London and Melbourne – has played a big part in his success. His advice to young chefs is to do the hard graft. “I didn’t skimp on training. I use every ounce of my experience to get through a problem on any given day. It could be a glitch in service, a customer complaint, a problem with producers. You have to have the answer. In the middle of a chaotic night, I do what I know, and I know what I’m doing, I can pull it together.”
He says getting a meal from kitchen to customer is like passing a rugby ball between 20 sets of hands, and anyone can drop it. “The fact that we don’t is amazing.”
Each day is different: “You come back in after a tough shift and there’s new inspiration, you start again. If you aim for perfection you are going to get something close to excellence.”
And, of course, McLean loves food. “If you like what you’re working at then that is great motivation. It becomes a pleasure.”