He runs three high-profile restaurants, but the acclaimed chef always makes time to cook for the family. He shares his simple food philosophy with David Skipwith.
We might be getting into the thick of winter, but celebrated chef Nic Watt’s barbecue is still getting a regular workout.
After busy days and nights stretched working between three Auckland restaurants – Masu, Inca and Akarana Eatery – you wouldn’t blame Watt if he wanted a break from home cooking.
But with a partner and blended family of four teenagers to feed he relishes meal times and embraces a stripped-back cooking philosophy based around freshness and simplicity.
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“I always make time to cook,” Watt explains.
“It’s definitely barbecue weather. People say it’s cold, but I’ve got a Kamado Joe barbecue and it cooks beautifully on the charcoal.”
Of course, Watt’s idea of firing up the barbie goes well beyond your average sausages and chops, and centres around “good-quality proteins” and herbs and greens collected from his home garden.
Watt says the fundamental difference between cooking at home and work is that he doesn’t rely on the full repertoire of ingredients, spices and different chillies that fill the pantries in his kitchens at Masu and Inca, where he also tends to keep things basic.
Akarana Eatery offers more of an opportunity for him to work with fish wings or different cuts that he may not get a chance to use at home.
But outdoor cooking is quick and convenient, and dishes such as his beer can chicken with a hot pepper and sweet soy glaze tick all the boxes in terms of presentation, and mouth-watering flavours that appeal to the whole family.
“I cook really simply. Just really easy stuff for the kids. They can churn through some food,” he says.
“If I’ve got some nice spices or fresh herbs from the garden, I’ll use them to really just try to enhance a beautiful piece of chicken or a beautiful piece of fish, or lamb rack.
“And depending on what vegetables are in season, make a really yummy fresh salad or roast veges to go with it.”
With the water close to the doorstep of his St Heliers home along Auckland’s Eastern Bays, Watt – “an avid boatie and fisherman” – enjoys venturing out with his family and foraging for local ingredients, whenever the weather allows.
“If we’re able to get down there at low tide and get some cockles or pipi, clams and whatnot, or go over the side of the boat to get some fresh scallops, or put a rod over for that matter, absolutely.”
Watt developed a passion for food at a young age and after identifying that a job in hospitality was a way to travel the globe, spent almost two decades abroad working at some of the world’s top restaurants.
“I was an avid little cook at home, making apple pies and various custards,” he says of his childhood learning curve.
“It was a conscious decision to be a chef. At 18 I did my hospitality certificate and sure enough by the time I was 21, I was off travelling.”
A stint in Japan, working at Kozue and New York Grill at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, was followed by a move to London in the late-90s, where he joined the Michelin-starred Nobu, and later The Rib Room and Oyster Bar, before returning home to become executive chef at Huka Lodge.
Watt then returned to London once more to work at highly acclaimed restaurants Zuma and Roka.
He eventually came back and settled in Auckland in 2013 to open the Japanese Robatayaki-style (“Robata”) Masu. In 2019, Inca, a Peruvian restaurant in Newmarket, and Okahu Bay’s Akarana Eatery, opened within weeks of each other.
And if he didn’t already have enough on his plate, Watt has also recruited some of his peers to join him as lead restaurateurs at Indulge Auckland next February, a three-day festival showcasing the best of New Zealand food, wine and design.
Between February 24 and 26 at the former America’s Cup hub at Wynyard Point, Watt and other chefs and artisan producers will host interactive cooking demonstrations and classes.
“There will be six top chefs from around the country who will work with ingredients from their province, and also match food, wine and beer from their region.”
Watt says Indulge Auckland will provide a timely boost to the local hospitality industry that is still licking its wounds after a tumultuous 18 months navigating the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s been a tough time for everybody,” he says. “So to be able to look forward to something in the prime of summer next year is really exciting.”
Nic Watt’s Beer Can Chicken with Hot Pepper and Sweet Soy Glaze
Cook time: 80 minutes
• Juice of a whole lemon
• 1 tablespoon Korean hot pepper paste (Gochujang)
• 4 tablespoons sweet soy sauce
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce
• 3 tablespoons water
• 1 whole chicken
• 1 beer can
1. In a medium bowl combine the lemon juice, hot pepper paste, sweet soy, soy and water and whisk together to incorporate. Make sure it is a juicy lemon, otherwise use the juice of two.
2. About four hours before you want to cook your chicken, marinate in the hot pepper soy glaze, focusing on the breast side down.
3. Heat your barbecue – ideally a charcoal version. If you don’t have either, then preheat your oven to 180C.
4. For the beer, I always use Garage Project Pilsner, Pils ’n’ Thrills as I like the freshness of the pilsner but any standard size can works fine. Open the can and stand the chicken up over the can, using the chicken cavity to place the can through and ensure the chicken stands.
5. Cook your chicken for approximately one hour and 20 minutes, basting with the hot pepper glaze regularly. You should get a really lacquered finish. Serve with a simple green salad.