Having ticked off an enjoyable 2015 awards, judging alongside Lauraine Jacobs, I launched into the 2016 awards enthusiastically, knowing I’d be tasting some fantastic dishes in beautiful places round the country, this time around with respected chef and legendary restaurateur Geoff Scott to convene with. Several weeks of eating some of the world’s best salmon prepared by talented chefs was definitely something to look forward to.

Before I come over too gushing, I have to say it’s not all rosy. With judging of the semi-finals needing to be complete within a couple of weeks, then the finalists cross-judged in under two weeks, varying opening hours to take into consideration and some remote locations, life was a fairly complex jigsaw. But, delicious salmon made it all worth it!

Right from the first judges’ meeting where we looked through the list of semi-finalists, I was excited to see that the 2016 entries were notably different in style to 2015’s. Reading the chefs’ descriptions of their dishes at this stage was an insight into how much brainpower and work goes into them. Geoff and I divvied up the 10 and headed off with our first five to visit. We convened several times during this early stage of judging – admittedly sometimes to bemoan delayed flights or road closures that rudely attempted to disturb on our salmon-eating mission – but mainly to compare notes as we judged each dish.

2016 NZ semi finalist dishes

We both had plenty of positive things to say early on. At the semis stage, Geoff and I found beauty: in being prudent over every element that went on the plate, in not giving in to trends and instead trusting one’s own culinary approach, in intricate technique that paid off, in clever textural play, and in the way that sometimes, we could really taste the exacting care that went into each step of the dish especially in the preparation of the salmon.

Occasionally there were things that weren’t so great; too much going on, the salmon being overwhelmed with too many flavours and techniques, overly rich elements that also fought with rather than enhanced the salmon, and sometimes, flavours and textures that were slightly jarring and just shouldn’t have been on the plate. But where we found things to criticize, we were always careful to try and see these through the eyes of the chef, to respect and look to understand their intentions. It is notable, too, that in general it was never the salmon that let a dish down – the care taken with the salmon was very commendable – every piece of salmon I ate in this competition made me want more.

Choosing the finalists wasn’t easy, but we both walked away from that meeting confident in our selections, and headed off to cross judge two finalists each. These four finalist dishes were wonderfully diverse in approach and while there was a lot to admire in all of them, it was immediately clear, once I had visited Wharekauhau Country Estate to cross judge Marc Soper’s dish, that here was this year’s winner. Geoff had rated this dish very highly and I concurred with all his comments. All the things we were looking for – and some things we didn’t even know we were looking for – shone in this dish. A heck of a lot of thought and work had gone into each element in Marc’s dish, and most importantly everything on the plate had a purpose and felt right at home; from the sweet n’ tangy Chilean guava rub to the delicate sour and bitter notes of grapefruit, and the use of yoghurt to tarten and make utterly silky the sublime salmon mousse. Marc’s dish just sang, and afterwards, so did Geoff and I its praises.

2016 Best Ōra King Dish NZ by Chef Marc Soper

Well done to all the chefs whose entries Geoff and I judged in 2016. Seeing the level of thought and effort that ramped these entries up a notch from 2015 has me thinking 2017 will be bigger, brighter, and more delicious yet.

By Anna King Shahab, Ōra King Awards Judge 2015, 2016.