Located 800km east of the South Island of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands are an often overlooked destination home to some of the country’s most remote landscapes and unique flora and fauna.
Kaai Silbery is the head chef of Hotel Chatham, one of a handful of hotels on the islands. She first arrived on the Chatham Islands six years ago and took to them instantly. “I remember when I arrived, as soon as I walked through the aeroplane doors, I felt like I was home.”
Silbery studied food science and culinary arts, before developing her craft under the supervision of Gareth Stewart at Auckland’s Soul Bar. The waterfront eatery now owned by the Nourish Group was a popular haunt for Auckland’s rich and famous, with Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Bono, Charlize Theron, and Anthony Hopkins all paying a visit.
Now, Silbery’s days are spent in a considerably more remote setting. “We have a busy little kitchen, it’s small and simple, and it serves us well,” she told Hotel Magazine, reflecting on her workplace’s influence on her cuisine. “I like simplicity. It’s really hard to hide behind single ingredients – so I let the produce speak for itself.”
The Chatham Islands present a unique opportunity to source local quality ingredients. “We get local potatoes, garlic, vegetables, eggs, and pickles,” Silbery commented. “I also use Go Wild Chatham Island freeze-dried honey throughout all my dishes.” Often, Silbery will prepare and cook paua, cod, and crayfish caught that very day by her guests.
Although the Chatham Islands can be advantageous in terms of fresh food, they understandably come with their fair share of challenges. “It can take up to eight months to find a new chef or waitress,” said Silbery. “The isolation certainly plays a role in it. And our staff have learned to be versatile.” Like the rest of the islands, the Hotel Chatham relies on flights to and from the mainland four times a week for supplies, and a boat every three or four weeks – services often rendered unreliable by New Zealand’s changeable weather.
Despite the distance, Silbery has made great strides towards bringing a taste of the Chatham Islands to mainland New Zealand. “I used to cater for private functions on the mainland,” she said. “Now, I do community markets and festivals. I also help to fundraise and have entered a new category in the Hospitality Championships for chefs to compete on premier products of the Islands: Chatham Island on a Plate. I’ve also taken a concept from the mainland to the Chathams: the Local Wild Food Challenge, coming this December.”
During the harsh winter months, many staff at the Hotel Chatham take extended leave. Silbery and her partner are soon heading to Italy for five weeks, and are looking forward to the cuisine on offer there. Meanwhile, Hotel Chatham is looking to expand to accommodate the increasing number of tourists looking to explore this remote corner of New Zealand, with 18 new suites under construction. “We will have to manage the increase in tourism, as well as continuing to cater to our locals.”