Marc Soper - 2016 Chef of the Year

Marc Soper 1

Anyone would think a chef’s life is complicated enough. Working long shifts, maintaining good relationships with suppliers, managing staff, minimising waste, developing menus, balancing flavours, and plating up perfection night after night. But some chefs don’t find this regime enough of a challenge. Some chefs want to add another layer of complexity to their already hectic lives – competitions.

Marc Soper is one such chef.  Not content to spend his days impressing the many discerning guests at Wharekauhau Country Estate, a luxury lodge in the Wairarapa, Marc prefers to stretch his skills as executive chef even further.  His efforts certainly pay off.  After 15 years of competing (and winning) in various local and international competitions, Marc has again achieved gold – this time securing the Chef of the Year award for 2016 at the NZChef’s National Salon as well as taking out the title of Chef of the Capital 2016.

‘Of course, competitions would not be possible without the generous support of companies like vegetables.co.nz’ says Marc. ‘Their sponsorship of the premier culinary competitions like Chef of the Year, stretches us to think outside the square and present the best execution of vegetables.’

‘Competing comes from a desire to put myself under undue pressure,’ laughs Marc.  ‘You’re competing not only against your peers but yourself.  And the pressure is intense, with judges watching your every move and deducting points based on what you’re doing wrong – everyone starts with 100 points but it’s up to you to keep them.’

‘You get some great chefs in service just folding in competition.  There are different pressures.  You’ve got to be methodically organised and physically organised while you’re thinking about a million things.  Measuring up your ingredients – making sure you don’t get marked on wastage.’ 

Technique is one thing.  But it’s nothing without a chef’s natural creativity and flair.  Fortunately Marc has both sides sorted and when it comes to displaying innovation in competitions, vegetables give him every reason to shine.  

‘Vegetables offer a real opportunity for chefs to showcase their skills.  Every year when the New Zealand Vegetarian Dish Challenge happens, the whole kitchen gets behind it.  We get in a whole lot of vegetables that are available at that time and the guys spend hours preparing and presenting dishes, working out what to do with them – which is brilliant for me because I’m seeing my staff grow and progress.  And we’re constantly seeing people at the Estate with dietary restrictions.  The days are gone when a stuffed red pepper or a risotto will suffice for a vegetarian dish.'

‘Chefs can really push the boundaries with vegetables,’ says Marc.  ‘Creating an interest factor is what it is about.’

As you would expect from a chef who is passionate about testing the limits of his ingredients, Marc spends a lot of time learning and sharing new techniques for preparing vegetables with his staff.  One such technique which has gained in popularity is roasting whole sweetcorn in the husk as has been done for centuries in South America.  ‘It was something one of my staff introduced.  Preparing corn like this gives you a beautiful, vibrant, sweet product versus something that has been boiled where you lose the nutrients.’

Vegetables such as swedes and cauliflower have also been given fresh treatments.  ‘I’ll use cauliflower as a fresh product.  I shave it up with a truffle cutter and add that to a salad like a crisp snow.  Or I’ll blanch it, refresh it, dry it off and roast it to give it a bit of caramelisation.  It’s about creating new flavours and textures.  A controlled burn off!’

Despite his apparent culinary sophistication, Marc professes to love the basics.  ‘Herbs are another wonderful resource to add a range of flavours – mint, chives, and parsley.  We use tons of parsley. Baby beetroot too can also be shaved into nice rings and used to add texture and a contrast of colours.’

The old Kiwi standby, iceberg lettuce, is another firm favourite which Marc regularly adds along with non-traditional elements such as baby beet leaves to his own salad mix.  

‘I think the whole nose-to-tail concept when it comes to meat should be applied to vegetables. People throw out the broccoli stalks when they can be peeled and used as a roast vegetable – then turned into a cheesy gratin with the wonderful nutty broccoli flavour but none of the mush you would get with the florets.’

Learning new ways of showcasing seasonal vegetables is obviously a process that fills Marc Soper with excitement and one that will keep him performing at the top of his game for many years to come.

‘The way I see it, if you’re not excited as a chef about food, then your customers are not going to be excited about what they’re eating.  I’m a firm believer in what you put into a dish, the customer is going to get out of it.  And if you love what you’re doing, the food tastes 100 times better.’ 

Previously published in NZ Grower.