Meet The Chef: Des Harris

By Marilynn McLachlan
2nd Jun 2017

We are lucky enough in Auckland to have some of the best chefs, ever. This week we turn the spotlight to multi award-winning chef Des Harris. Once executive chef of exclusive restaurant Clooney, he has recently moved to one of the most beautiful restaurants in the City of Sails—Pilkingtons.

We recently popped down to try the new menu and, trust us when we say it’s seriously delicious and recommend you get down there quick smart to try it! You cannot go past melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi.

Here, Des tells us about where he finds his inspo, his favourite comfort dish and what he’d cook The Urban List team for dinner!

Tell us a little about yourself:

I grew up in Upper Hutt and as a teenager we moved to Johnsonville.  Being closer to Wellington city was a bonus when I started to study cookery with the variety of restaurants at my doorstep. 

By 25, after working in some pretty good middle market eateries as head chef, I needed to stop to have reconstructive surgery on my feet.  Four months off work gave me time to reflect and I realised it was time to take cookery seriously, take a big step back and work in great places to grow.

I took a job with Rex Morgan as his saucier / sous chef—to be honest I struggled but I never gave up, the workload was horrendous but I was learning.  Rex was so spontaneous and creative, working with him gave me an appreciation of how wonderful cooking could be—and also how taxing it was.

From there I worked at Logan Brown and eventually Al and Steve gave me the run of the kitchen.  This was my finishing school and it was an amazing place to work.

Having a young family meant I needed to earn more money, so I took a job in Martinborough at the Hotel.  I saw an opportunity here in amongst all that amazing wine.  Here, I got noticed doing my own thing and we really loved our almost two years in Marty.

Why did you choose to base yourself in Auckland?

In 2008 I moved the family to Auckland to take the vacant head chefs position at Clooney restaurant.  It is such an amazing dining room and I saw the potential canvas for me to evolve my food.  Auckland just has so much more opportunity so it was an easy move.

Where do you get your food inspo from?

There is the raw produce, travelling and eating, but social media helps fast tracks creativity.  There is so much information and ideas being bounced around all the time and from there you add your experiences to come up with your own thing. Just being surrounded by many other great chefs in Auckland pushes you to keep developing your craft and that keeps your edge. 

Do you have a mentor, and if so, who?

That's Al Brown for sure.  He refined my palette, taught me how to make food eat well.  You learn that pretty quickly working for him.  He is so imposing and intimidating, he hounds you till you get it.

Were you always interested in food?

Yup, I’ve always loved eating.  My grandmother was such an amazing cook and we used to spend a lot of time at the grand parents house growing up.  Delicious smells were always alive and she kept us boys fed.

When/why did you decide to become a chef?

By about 18, school was finishing and I needed to do something.  I’d always liked food and it felt like a natural step.  Lucky for me it worked out.

What was your biggest obstacle to overcome?

Confidence to be myself. Through food you get the chance to be creative but the industry’s such a critical one.  Breaking through that is key.

What’s your go-to comfort dish?

Vegetable soup, exactly how my grand mother made it.  I’m addicted to the aroma.

What’s the best thing about being a chef?

Being creative for sure, but the real reward is when customers enjoy what you cook.

The worst?

Just the hours, trying to be a husband and a father is a relentless juggle when you're a chef and you’re focused on doing a great job.

If you weren’t a chef, what else would you be?

That's a good question.  I really don’t know.

Best cooking skill every person should master?

Seasoning and acid, it’s as simple as that.  A squeeze of lemon juice or a dash of vinegar and a little more sea salt can lift almost any thing to deliciousness.

What are your long term career plans?

I’d like to stay in Auckland for a while yet, but ultimately we’ll end up back in Wellington as we get older, to be closer to family.  I have never really been driven to own my own restaurant but it's a real option as the kids get older and I have more time to burn.

Where was the last place you went out for dinner and what did you think?

Date night at Lucky Buddha, everything is on point.  So much flavour packed into every dish.  It’s very reasonably priced, so the value is awesome.

What is your favourite place in Auckland to enjoy breakfast?

Orphans Kitchen or yum cha at Grand Harbour.

If you’re out for drinks with friends, where do you love to go?

That's a funny and equally sad question, usually I’m at work so that doesn’t happen very often.

When friends visit Auckland, where is your first stop?

Usually it’s at ours, bbq, drinks.  Relaxed and in no hurry.

The Urban List Team are coming for dinner—what will you be making us?

Wild pork bolognaise with potato gnocchi.  A bit of smoke, a bit of chilli, a bit of balsamic.  Parmesan shortbread.  Yum!

Find out more details about Pilkingtons, including opening hours here.

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