Born and raised on a dairy farm in the Waikato District of New Zealand's North Island, Ben Bayly garnered an appreciation of the country's fresh and unique produce at a young age. Looking back on his childhood, the esteemed restaurateur counts "drinking raw milk from the vat on the farm" as one of his earliest and most-treasured memories around food, along with [his] "Mum catching and cooking paddle crabs and mussels at Whangamata beach."
After a quiet and wholesome upbringing set amongst the rolling hills of the picturesque New Zealand countryside, Bayly travelled the globe to perfect his craft. He studied in the United States before building a name for himself as a senior chef at Michelin-starred restaurants in France and London including L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon and The Ledbury.
Eventually, the call of New Zealand drew this globetrotter home. After a nine year stint as head chef at Auckland institution The Grove, Bayly went out on his own. Now a multi-award-winning chef-owner, he is responsible for three of country's more popular restaurants: The Grounds in Auckland, Aosta in Arrowtown and most-recently, Ahi in Auckland's buzzing Commercial Bay, which opened in 2020 to much acclaim (hot on the heels of COVID-19, no less).
Across his restaurants, Bayly is renowned for creating wholesome menus that balance robust international flavours with local produce and cuisine. Case in point: the sourdough at Ahi, which is infused with kawakawa, a versatile herb and traditional medicinal plant of the Māori people.
Speaking to Gourmet Traveller, Bayly opens up about his New Zealand, sharing the kind of culinary insights only a local boy from Waikato could know, along with his plans for growing and expanding Ahi.
What makes New Zealand and Auckland legendary, in your opinion?
"When it comes to food, New Zealand is blessed. We are an island nation surrounded by two cool abundant oceans — the Tasman and the South Pacific — where some of the best seafood in the world can be found hiding. Our varied soils and our perfectly defined four-season climate grows the most phenomenal grapes, vegetables, fruits and wild ingredients. And our high country holds some of the largest best-tasting game animals, too."
What was it like growing up in Waikato?
"Waikato is the dairy farming capital of New Zealand and is located just south of Auckland; it rains a lot and grows great grass for the cows. Waikato has great access to the coast, from the wild black sanded beaches of the west coast to the beautiful white sands of Coromandel. Between surfing and milking cows, it was a great upbringing."
You have to create one dish to showcase your favourite local produce: what do you make?
"We have a fish x garden dish on the menu at Ahi that I eat every day before lunch. Our restaurant looks over the Hauraki Gulf so all seafood for this dish must come from there. Today, it was snapper from Kawau Island, blue mussels from the Great Barrier Reef and samphire from the North Shore. We have an amazing gardener named Tamsin in South Auckland — today her baby carrots and Chioggia beetroots made an appearance on the dish."
What’s been one of your favourite native ingredient discoveries over the years?
"It has to be kawakawa for me — it grows wild all over where I live in Titirangi, Auckland. I use it for everything! I wrap and age butter with kawakawa; I use it in bread making; I make kawakawa oil; I wrap seafood in it before cooking; to name a few."
What do you have in pipeline for Ahi after the year that was?
"I want to open another arm called Ahi South in Central Otago, and I want to write a book."
If someone hasn’t experienced your restaurants, what would you say to them to entice them to visit?
"You will find deliciousness meets my version of the New Zealand food story. When you visit my restaurants, you'll be left thinking a) I am coming back here and b) I need to think more about where my food comes from."