We spoke to three people who love New Zealand—an extraordinary baker, a world-renowned chef, and an innovative sommelier—about their favorite parts of this gorgeous country.
We may be deprived of the joy of travel right now, but that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice the benefits of interacting with other cultures. While we can’t go to other countries, those countries can come to us—and perhaps teach us something in the process.
New Zealand is one such place—and its lessons are best taught in the kitchen, because the quality of the produce from this beautiful corner of the Southern Hemisphere is second to none. The country’s wine (especially—but not at all limited to—its Sauvignon Blanc) is rightly world-renowned, as is its meat—so much so that these days, “New Zealand lamb” as a compound noun belongs to the same pantheon as “New York pizza.”
The good news is that there’s a whole lot more where those came from. The commitment to quality and sustainability that characterize New Zealand’s wine industry and its sheep farms also appear in its unique and justly famous mānuka honey, its cheeses, and a wealth of other products. New Zealanders have a deep-rooted love for—and respect for—their country and its landscape. And it shows.
They also share an underlying philosophy and approach to life—a down-to-earth, laid-back but passionate attitude that’s summed up neatly by Matt Lambert. He’s a genial Kiwi-born chef who spent 15 very fruitful years stateside, co-founding The Musket Room—which earned international recognition just months after opening its doors in New York City—before returning home in 2020 to helm The Lodge Bar & Dining. “For me,” he says, “it's just about simplicity. Simplicity and honesty.”
These are simple words, but it’s remarkable just how well they do describe so much of what comes out of New Zealand: its food, its wine, and its ethos. And increasingly, the fruits of this nation’s caring spirit are available for Americans to enjoy.
All the things you think of when you think of New Zealand—the spectacularly beautiful landscapes, the serenity, the sense of mystery born of distance—manifest in the country’s food culture. And, indeed, New Zealand’s location is a big part of what makes both its cuisine and its wine so special.
It also means that as far as concepts like focusing on naturally grown, quality ingredients go, New Zealand has a natural advantage. The country’s very nature—its seclusion, its size, and its land—means that its produce attains, effortlessly and organically, a standard for which other nations strive. As a chef, Lambert has endeavored on both sides of the world to source ingredients from nearby farms and producers with great success, and believes that this New Zealand-informed philosophy is easily applied in American kitchens.
This same sense of place also informs the country’s wine, as master sommelier June Rodil explains: “[New Zealand] is so remote from the rest of the world [that] they've figured out how to do [everything] themselves. It's all local, because [they] don't necessarily have to import anything.”
Rodil is American, but she’s fallen in love with New Zealand and has visited the country many times. She has a fascinating perspective on Kiwis’ approach to food and drink—and, in particular, to wine. “There's something very unabashed about it. They aren't afraid to be who they are, [whereas] sometimes U.S. winemakers are trying to figure out what their marketing niche is. [New Zealanders] appreciate where they come from [and] where the grapes come from.”
While Americans are renowned around the world for their can-do attitude, the Kiwis give them more than a run for their money. Baker Erin Clarkson, for instance, has built a career entirely on the sort of do-it-yourself ethos that characterizes so many of her compatriots. After moving to the U.S. with her boyfriend, she found herself a little homesick while running the operations of the design business they founded together: “I was like, ‘I don't have a creative outlet. I literally just write emails.’ My grandma taught me how to bake as a kid, so I started baking as a way to make nostalgic things from home. I started a little Instagram page, [and] people started asking for the recipes.”
That Instagram page has grown into Cloudy Kitchen, a site that shares baking recipes—Kiwi classics like peppermint “slices” and more exotic creations—with the world. It’s a project that exists as a tribute both to the Kiwi generosity of spirit—all the recipes are free—and to the way in which the internet can bring people together. “I’ve made it my mission,” she laughs, “to give the baked goods of my childhood a glow-up.”
Clarkson’s solo venture is in many ways characteristic of her countrymen, demonstrating a quiet but passionate drive to innovate. Rodil, for instance, also identifies another, perhaps lesser-known aspect of the culture that has made New Zealand’s wine so successful: its embrace of innovation. “[Winemakers in New Zealand] also appreciate technology,” she explains. “They don't shy away from it. It's awesome. You visit, and they’re like, ’[Welcome], my door is open. We're researching technology. How do we make our wine better? How do we get our wine faster to you?’ I really appreciate that.”
This determination to find new, better ways of doing things manifests most prominently in combination with another Kiwi trait: a commitment to sustainability. Respect for the land is deeply ingrained in New Zealand’s culture, and the Māori principle of kaitiakitanga, which emphasizes embracing the duty of guardianship of the land, has come increasingly to inform public policy, manifesting most prominently in an emphasis on sustainability and conservationism. New Zealand has been at the forefront of global environmental activism for decades, and its government walks the walk as well as talking the talk: a recent study put it second in a ranking of 181 countries’ readiness to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.
Love for the land—and the planet—is just as apparent in the way New Zealand’s food is produced as it is in the food itself. The country’s famous beef and lamb comes from cattle and sheep that are almost entirely grass-fed, and from an industry that emits 75 percent less carbon than the global average. This quality has won New Zealand global respect—the country is highly ranked in food safety—and it all stems from the concept of kaitiakitanga.
The land also returns the love that its custodians bestow upon it. New Zealand wine, for instance, is uniquely high in antioxidants as a result of the conditions in which the grapes are grown: the combination of intense sunlight and low pollution causes the fruit to develop far higher levels of these compounds than grapes grown elsewhere. It’s not just grapes, either—the country’s berries are also rich in antioxidants. It’s a lovely example of the fact that when you love the planet, the earth finds ways to give back.
Indeed, if there’s one thing that unites each of our three interviewees, it’s an agreement that above all, Kiwi produce, meat, wine—along with specialty items like its vanilla, cheese, and, of course, mānuka honey—are characterized by their quality and authenticity. Clarkson recalls being taught to bake by her grandmother, and of the resulting “expectation that you just make everything yourself from scratch” when baking—not as some sort of deliberate demonstration of culinary virtue, but because the ingredients are so good—and so available—that it would be a shame not to use them.
Similarly, Lambert explains how his approach to cooking has been shaped by growing up with an abundance of quality produce: “I'll start with an ingredient that is as good as I can get—or, frankly, I won't use it. In most cases I'll try to do as little as possible to this ingredient, [so as] to showcase what it is—or I'll try to do multiple things with the same ingredient so that you're getting different techniques or textures [with the same base].” He identifies lamb, of course, as an example—but also venison, describing a particularly delicious-sounding dish that pairs venison with the flavors of gin botanicals.
The ability to be this discerning is driven partly by abundance—the combination of New Zealand’s remarkable fertility, efficient agricultural practices, and small population means that it grew enough food in 2017 to feed its population eight times over. Lambert recalls hearing stories from older generations of being able to “go to the beach and literally just pull crayfish out of the [water],” while Rodil notes that New Zealand is blessed with both climate and soil, and with agriculture to match: “To this day New Zealand wines have always held a higher quality level at their base product than really any other country that I've experienced. That just means that their agriculture is awesome in general. It's a beautiful place to start to grow anything, including grapes. So that product, no matter at what level, is going to be quality driven.” Clarkson, meanwhile, says wistfully, “It's really hard to explain to someone over here just how good our food is.” This natural bounty, along with a long-running commitment to safeguarding its unique landscape and resources, means that the Kiwis are now able to share their wealth with the world. It’s not just the USA that is enjoying the result—some 140 countries now import food and wine from New Zealand, and these industries comprise 46 percent of the country’s exports. And with lamb and Sauvignon Blanc having already gone global, the stage is ready for even more of the country’s thoughtfully made and harvested products, which means that more and more Americans can bring the special care shown by New Zealand into their homes.
Rodil waxes lyrical about her past visits: “The seafood is fabulous … [there’s] some of the best salmon [around]. Also cheese, really great cheeses, honey, … protein, everything just feels fresh.” And as far as wine goes, she identifies “Pinot Noir, probably from Central Otago… [and] red wine, probably from Hawke's Bay. Their Bordeaux style blends … are super special.”
For her part, Clarkson looks no farther than her kitchen. “I always have New Zealand honey in my fridge. Always.” And along with it, something to warm the heart of every American: “Oh, and peanut butter!”
With restaurants that span the globe, award-winning chef Matt Lambert has truly made his mark upon the world with his New Zealand-inspired cuisine. Originally from Auckland, Lambert trained in kitchens in his native country as well as across the pond in the New York City area, eventually going on to open the internationally lauded Musket Room in New York’s SoHo and the newly opened Lodge Bar & Dining group, with locations in Auckland and Queenstown. Matt’s cooking emphasizes fresh ingredients and incredible New Zealand produce.
I did a deconstructed meat pie that really resonates—it’s a beef filet dish with attributes of a good mince and cheese pie. Familiar, whimsical, and nostalgic to Kiwis.
Anything with hapuka, a.k.a. New Zealand grouper—it’s absolutely delicious. It has an incredible flavor… but the texture is firmer than the grouper you would typically get from Florida. I’m not sure if that’s due to the temperature of the water, but it is amazing eating. We get ours bespoke caught with a long line from Nate at Gravity Fishing.
Seafood is my instant reaction to this question. Of note, Cloudy Bay clams. They are amazing! I have a habit of eating lots of them. The Diamond Shell, in particular, is—for me personally—the greatest clam on the planet. Ōra King salmon really jumped ahead of the game with amazing aquaculture practices and makes an incredible product which travels globally perfectly. I have cooked this in eight different countries and never been let down on quality. They also look after chefs like family.
Master sommelier and beverage director extraordinaire, June Rodil discovered a passion for the hospitality industry while in school at the University of Texas—which in turn led her to the wonderful world of wine. Now a partner at Goodnight Hospitality with restaurants all over the Houston and Austin areas (including the newly opened MARCH), Rodil is passionate about sourcing bottles that complement great food, like the dishes that inspired her on her journeys across New Zealand. Her favorite Kiwi dining experience was eating freshly caught crayfish with white wine.
I love Millton! The first biodynamic producer in all of New Zealand, and their vineyards are beautiful. Millton makes Chenin—which is so amazing, because it’s little known that there's really great Chenin in New Zealand. Very natural, very low-impact, and truly biodynamic. I ate honeycomb from the bees on their estate. They're very in touch with nature, and it shows in the wines.
I also really love Kumeu River Chardonnay. It’s one of the most long-lived Chardonnays in the country. In my restaurants, we always have it wherever it fits the most. And we try to get older vintages so that we can show our consumers how gracefully New Zealand wines can age, as well.
You should never only have one bottle. If you haven't done it, you should have the benchmark, which is a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. And then you should probably have one or two other wines; I would say one should be Pinot Noir, probably from Central Otago—it's the coolest place in the world. If you want to do a third one, I would do a red wine, probably from Hawke's Bay, just because a lot of Americans really love Cabernet and rich reds.
Erin Clarkson began her professional career as a geologist, working on an oil rig in Taranaki. After she moved to the U.S. on a working visa to found a design company with her husband, Clarkson started experimenting more and more with baking in her downtime—and found that she had a real knack for it. Sharing her impressive (and extremely photogenic) baking exploits via her website, Cloudy Kitchen (named after one of their design ventures, the aptly titled Lampshade Cloud), Clarkson creates a whimsical mix of nostalgic New Zealand pastries and biscuits, original recipes, and ideas based on farmers’ market finds.
We are very well stocked! I have a bottle of Cloudy Bay Wine, about 20 pounds of Lewis Road Creamery Butter, and some smoked king salmon. In the pantry, there is a huge variety of New Zealand honey (I love the creamed clover honey from Taylor Pass—it's what I grew up on), a big jar of Heilala Vanilla, some Marmite, a jar of Barker's Passionfruit Curd (it's my fave and we always bring some back), and a few jars of Fix & Fogg Peanut Butter. There's also some Tom & Luke Snackaballs, some coffee sachets and fruit tea bags, and a block of Whittaker's chocolate we are trying to save for a treat! My husband also has a good selection of New Zealand cereal, and there's the makings of Kiwi onion dip and some crackers in there somewhere, too. We always take a full suitcase home with things for family so we can bring it back filled with snacks!
Definitely Heilala Vanilla and Lewis Road Creamery Butter. I use both daily in my baking. Whittaker's chocolate will be my forever fave, and I think everyone needs to try New Zealand peanut butter because it is truly the best. That's what I always keep on hand; also, honorable mention goes to Delisio Greek Tzatziki Chips, which I believe are the best chips to have ever been made.