What I Ate: Top Chefs Share Their Favourite Meals of 2016

From a homemade birthday cake to wild pig in the Yucatan, the big names in food recall their favourite eating experiences of 2016

Hen of the woods and cep mushrooms at Timberyard, Edinburgh. Picture / @timberyard10

Owner of Soul, Auckland
The fish in a bag we ate at Borgne restaurant, New Orleans, Lousiana, with the chef, and owners John Besh and Brian Landry, would have to be my favourite dining experience of the year. My husband Nigel and I ate our way through New Orleans, but at Borgne we started with fresh, delicious oysters from Murder Bay, Alabama, followed by fish in a bag. I always thought of this dish as bland but decided to give it a go and was seriously blown away. It was served with caramelised fennel, spinach, tomato and crab fat. Yes crab fat — I don’t know how you do this but wow, it was amazing. Once I have found out how to make it you may see this feature on the menu at Soul. That night we finished with tasty beignets at Cafe du Monde, delicious deep fried fritters covered with powdered sugar. Perfection.

Food writer and broadcaster, UK
If I tell you that the best thing I ate this year was in January, please don’t think the rest of my eating year has been a disappointment: I would never allow that to be the case. I have a big thing about chips. Whenever I go out, I ask whether the chips I see on the menu are hand-cut. I’m nearly always told they are; they invariably aren’t. That’s no good — I’m not interested if they’re triple-fried in goose fat if they’re not hand-cut.

It’s all about the rough edges, you see. Now, I have to say I didn’t oversee how they cut the chips at a restaurant called Gazi in Melbourne when I was there in January, but they taste like the real thing — and different. They’re fat chips that are halfway to potato wedges, fried in intensely garlicky oil and, once crisp and golden, tossed in a bowl with proper Greek dried oregano and crumbles of sharp feta. It’s impossible not to eat well in Melbourne (well, in Australia generally), but these chips were absolutely worth flying the 10,496.05 miles for.

Chef and owner of Merediths, Auckland
The Omakase menu with the most outstanding piece of nigiri kajiki (blue marlin) aged 50 days at Sushi Kimura, Tokyo, created by chef Kimura San. We had hired a food guide who booked us in to this tiny two-Michelin star sushiya on the outskirts of Tokyo. It only takes reservations by referral. You need to take two trains from the city before being led down a small lane and into the calm, intimate space of the restaurant where you are greeted by Kimura San’s mother.

The small sushi counter seats just 10 people, and behind it is the ultimate sushi master Kimura San, whose craft is ageing fish using a technique which has been handed down through generations — and he has perfected it. Out of the 18 pieces of nigiri, where each fish has been aged from two days to three months or even four months, was the 50-day aged kajiki that was out of this world. The incredible spongy texture melted in my mouth, and the layers of flavour reminded me of jamon iberico. It dispels all my Western views about sushi — fresh fish has no flavour!

READ: Great Places to Eat in Tokyo

Riley’s Fish Shack in Tynemouth. Picture / @rileysfishshack

Head chef at River Cottage and author of Gather
Timberyard in Edinburgh is a family-owned restaurant — the father, mother, daughter and two sons are all involved and they were incredibly welcoming. One particular dish in the six-course lunch bowled me over. The chef had received a delivery of fresh ceps that morning. He’d taken a thick slice from the middle of the mushroom and pan-fried it on both sides with salt and pepper, then served it warm with a tiny bit of celeriac puree and shaved truffle. Every mouthful was exceptional, partly because the mushroom was so fresh and pristine. It was the simplest dish you could imagine, but the way it was executed was just perfect.

Chef-patron, Noma, Copenhagen
Last summer, I went to a tiny little Mayan village called Yaxuna in the Yucatan peninsula and had cochinita pibil. It’s a very traditional dish made with a little pig, usually wild, that they hunt and then marinate in the seed of the achiote tree mixed with sour orange juice. It’s folded in banana leaves and cooked in a pit. We ate it in 35-degree heat with fresh tortillas, which Mayan women made on hot stones, accompanied by pickled onions, fresh coriander and habanero chillies (as a pale gringo, I could only have a few drops of the chilli marinade). The meat was moist and juicy and the acidity was just incredible. It was such a perfect mouthful — the best Mexican food I’ve ever had.

Co-owner The Oyster Inn, Waiheke
The stir-fried water spinach served with sambal matah at Warung Eny’s in Seminyak, Bali. The head chef? Grandmother! In the plethora of great (and often expensive) dining options in Seminyak Bali I keep returning to Warung Eny’s, which has been around for more than three decades and has not changed, with plastic tablecloths and a whole wall lined with photos of patrons over the years. It's a Balinese institution. In the smoky room, the matriarch grandmother presides over the kitchen, creating standout, home-cooked Balinese food.

The stir-fried water spinach is on a whole different level from the usual vegetable dishes served at local dining spots. A little bit sour from the lime, a little bit spicy from the chilli, it’s served with sambal matah — a staple Balinese condiment of young coconut oil, garlic, lemongrass, chill and shrimp paste. But Warung Eny’s version is a secret family recipe that's so good I could spread it on rice every day and never eat anything else again.

Food writer, author of Fresh India
In January, I went to Sri Lanka and stayed at a tropical plantation in the south called Samakanda. One evening some local chefs climbed the trees in the garden, harvested some coconuts and tender baby jackfruit and made a curry. I’d never eaten jackfruit before, but I’d been staring at these spiky green fruit in the sky wondering what they’d taste like.

They cooked the jackfruit in a clay pot over an open fire with onions, ginger, spices, coconut milk and a very sour ingredient called goraka. As you never just get one dish in Sri Lanka, we also had an aubergine and mustard pickle called brinjal moju, a cashew-nut curry, sambal and spiced rice, all washed down with an arak sour. But the jackfruit curry stood out: the sticky sweetness of the fruit was balanced by the sourness of the goraka, and together they cut through the creaminess of the coconut. It was sensational.

Owner of Clooney, Auckland
In Melbourne a few weeks back I caught up with an old friend, New Zealand chef Hayden McMillan at a cafe called Wide Open Road in Brunswick. I had their Nonna’s meatballs with parmesan, basil and rocket. I swear it was one of the simplest, tastiest dishes I have had for some time. It was cooked to perfection, perfectly seasoned and strong enough in flavour not to be heavy. It was balanced perfectly with the freshness and acidity of a simple rocket salad.

Culprit, Auckand. Picture / Babiche Martens

Observer restaurant critic
My best all-round eating experience remains Riley’s Fish Shack in Tynemouth and, having come so late in the year, it’s unlikely to be beaten. But the best single food item has to be the whole peking duck at Alan Yau’s homage to the famed dinner-dance clubs of Shanghai, Park Chinois, just off London’s Berkeley Square. Is it cheap? God no. It’s £85 ($152), though that’s for two, at least. But blimey, it’s good: crisp lacquered skin, perfect thin layer of fat and sweet yielding meat. It’s been said the Chinese are the best at roasting duck. This is quite simply the best of the best. It could be more expensive. For £280 they’ll bung on 50g of beluga caviar, but I really wouldn’t bother.

Food writer
The coffee icecream at Grom, Milan. In May, I went to Italy with my girlfriend for five weeks and we must have had two icecreams a day while we were there. We went to a couple of off-the-beaten-track places that were highly recommended, with an old man crushing pistachios with his bare hands or whatever, and to be honest they were underwhelming. The best was at a chain called Grom. I know being into a chain is very anti-foodie, but it was really amazing icecream. The one I remember most clearly was the first one I had: coffee and pistachio in a branch in Milan. I couldn’t believe a coffee ice-cream could taste like that — dark and bitter but sweet. It was wonderful. In every town we went to, we’d go to Grom.

Chef and owner of Paris Butter, Auckland and Le Petit Leon, France
A falafel kebab at L’As du Fallafel in the Marais district of Paris was by far the simplest and the best thing I have eaten all year. I am the biggest meat fan on the planet, so to pick this is saying at lot. The eight-euro kebab is something I still think about weekly and there are lines out the door every day there. They have nailed their recipe and it’s all made to order. Simply outstanding.

If you are in Paris you should also probably hit up the second-best thing I ate this year — a very close second — the millefeuille at Jaques Genin (also in the Marais). Again, this is made to order and the custard and pastry layers are absolute heaven. My mouth still waters thinking about it.

Head chef, Morito Hackney Rd, London
Earlier this year, a few of us from Morito went to Istanbul. We had amazing food, but the most interesting thing was a dish we ate at a fish restaurant in Uskudar, right next to the Bosphorus, called Ismet Baba. The dish is bal?k past?rmas?: swordfish cured with past?rma spices, lots of fenugreek, chilli flakes, cumin and caraway. Even though I cure fish myself, I had never eaten it this way before.

A few months later I went to Crete and had a very similar dish. I couldn’t believe the coincidence. So I got to work and tried to replicate it — and I did it quite successfully. Now it’s on our seafood menu. I’ve turned it into a salad with capers, cherry tomatoes and boiled baby potatoes, but in Turkey and Crete they just served it on its own with a little olive oil.

Head chef at the Palomar, London
My wife made me a cake for my birthday in April. It’s called a petit-beurre cake, after the French biscuits (which are very popular in Israel), and it’s the most delicious thing in the universe. I used to have it when I was little. My wife knows it’s one of my kryptonites: she made me a whole tray and I ate half by myself. It’s basically a layer cake with vanilla cream and these biscuits, then you add shaved chocolate on top and the biscuit becomes all mushy and nice. It’s simple, it’s trashy, but it’s so good.

Chef/co-owner, Som Saa, London
Before we opened the new Som Saa, the team went on a research trip to Thailand. For me, a meal at Bo.lan was the highlight of the visit, and this gaeng ki lek (beef and cassia leaf curry) stood out, even among all the other sublime dishes.

It had sweetness from fresh coconut cream and amazing artisan palm sugar that tastes like a combination of butterscotch and honey, and is balanced by the slight bitterness of fresh cassia and the fragrance of fresh makrut lime leaf. The beef was pretty special too — aged rump grilled until it was smoky. When you’re just off a flight from Britain and eat here, it smacks you square in the face — all those familiar Thai tastes and ingredients are turned up to 11, because they’re fresh from the market that morning.

Owner and chef of True Food bistro and Masu, Auckland
On a recent trip to Bali we stopped at a roadside vendor serving spotted mackerel roasted over coconut husks. The skin was blistered to perfection — the smoky coconut had penetrated the soft oily flesh — but what was pure gold was the small bag of homemade sambal she gave us to eat with it — a hot chilli kick among diced tomato and aromatics. I would go back in a heartbeat to eat that again.

Author of Symmetry Breakfast
In September, I went to stay with my sister who lives in Beijing. She was obsessed with watermelons, which are absolutely gargantuan in China — bigger than a beach ball. They’re so big, you need help in the supermarket to put them into the trolley, and we had to carry our one home in a pram. The heart of the watermelon is the best bit. It was such a different texture to anything I’ve ever experienced in the UK or America: the flesh was like sugar crystals. I just chopped it up and ate it by itself. It was so sugary and sweet, I couldn’t stop eating it.

Food writer and cook
Last summer I went hiking in the Swiss Alps. One day we walked for 12km, a lot of it uphill, and then came down into a valley where we found a little cafe that looked a bit like a shed. They made just a few dishes and one of them was homemade spatzle with cream, bacon and local cheese. I had it with a big glass of beer. Maybe it was the circumstances — I was really hungry from the long walk — but this dish was so good. It wasn’t a foodie thing at all: it felt like the world hadn’t touched this place for a long, long time. But it made me really happy.

The Clove Club, London. Picture / @thecloveclub

Co-owner Cazador, Auckland
There are so many wonderful things to eat right here in Auckland — Coco's Cantina on a Monday night, a very, very special occasion dinner at Pasture, a whole new way of dinner service at Culprit ... so much! It's hard to single out just one food experience after a whole year. But if we have to choose, the meal that stands out for being most satiating, delicious and utterly necessary was earlier this year in Hong Kong.

We'd been there for about 30 hours after arriving on a red eye flight off the back of a full dinner service, and we'd jumped straight into prep for our pop-up event. As well as cooking and wine-matching we were working to a copy deadline for our cookbook, so it was a very intense few days. Our co-workers at Cordis Hotel recommended their local noodle shop — a tiny, steamy joint in Portland St, Mong Kok.

Though I have no idea what we ordered, as the menu was in Cantonese, we had a brimming hot bowl of slippery noodles in a fragrant, vinegary pork wonton soup with just-cooked green vegetables and lots of chopped garlic shoots and coriander. It was exactly the restorative, flavourful pick-me-up we needed, and though we ate so many wonderful things on that trip, and throughout this year, those life-giving, steaming noodles were the most memorable.

Chef-patron, Osteria Francescana, Modena, Italy
None of the best things I ate this year involved luxury ingredients, but they all had an emotional quality, which is very important to me. A few months ago I had a pumpkin tortelli at Dal Pescatore, not far from Modena, which reminded me of my youth and the flavours of my grandmother’s cooking. It is savoury, spicy and sweet, so you have this feeling that you’re almost eating a dessert at the pasta course. Maybe the pasta was more refined and the plate more elegant, but otherwise it was exactly as my grandmother made it. As soon as I tasted it, I was so emotionally touched, because it took me back to the memory of my youth. It was unbelievable I almost cried.

READ: 9 Handy Tips for Eating in Italy

Food writer and broadcaster
My dad has a starfruit tree in his back yard in Bangladesh and when we were over there last month it was in season, which I was very excited about. My relatives were all laughing at me because they think starfruit is a nuisance — they don’t really eat them because they’re so tart, and when they become sweet they disintegrate very quickly. But it was such a treat to see them growing in abundance, and for the kids to pick them. They couldn’t see where the star was, but then we sliced one up and they saw it and were like, “ah, that’s really cool.”

I’d never cooked with starfruit before, but me and the kids dug a hole in my dad’s front garden (which he doesn’t know about because we filled it up afterwards) and took an old piece of metal mesh from my uncle’s building site and built a fire. Then we grilled the starfruit with cinnamon and sugar, and ate it with all the kids in the village. We were just making it up as we went along, using whatever we had in the cupboard, but it was so good. Grilled starfruit, I can tell you, is really delicious.

Cook and writer of Land of Fish and Rice
My dish of the year was steamed flower crab with golden chicken oil and shaoxing wine, served on a rippled bed of smooth rice pasta at the Tasting Court in Hong Kong. It was part of an exquisite Cantonese feast arranged by friends. Every dish was prepared with consummate artistry, among them lion’s head meatballs and a perfect rendition of an old classic, braised pomelo skin with dried shrimp eggs. I think it’s the best Cantonese meal I’ve ever had, and the steamed crab was the highlight. Unforgettable.

Head chef, Coco's Cantina, Auckland
We have had a great year. We have been fortunate to have travelled a few times since our trip to Italy last September where we visited Rome and Tuscany. We've also been to Brazil where we had a meal at DOM, chef Alex Atala's restaurant, one of the best in the world, and to Melbourne and Sydney and we ate a lot of great food. However, without a doubt, the most outstanding experience was at The Apollo in Sydney. Mayara (my wife), Damaris (my boss/sister) and I were in Sydney for two days and there were few choices for dining out on a Sunday.

By recommendation we landed at The Apollo, where we had the most amazing Greek food we have had for a while. We started with freshly made warm pita bread and taramasalata (smoky mullet roe dip) — amazing flavour and smooth texture — followed by their warm saganaki cheese with honey and oregano. We followed with grilled octopus with fennel and olives, so tender and delicious, and grilled fresh sardines, and finished with a melt-in-the-mouth whole lamb shoulder with lemon yoghurt.

Picture / 123RF

Chef-patron, Frenchie, London
The scallops with truffle puree at the Clove Club, London. This was fresh, beautiful and really, really tasty. The scallops came with a dashi jelly, mandarin juice, chopped hazelnuts and a brown butter dressing, with raw chestnut mushrooms shaved on top. Everything in the meal was stunning — the duck with fermented red cabbage puree was another stand-out — but this was the dish with the biggest wow factor. I still remember the experience of eating it.

Owner, Dominique Ansel Bakery, London
It was in Paris this spring, at a small bistro called Le Baratin, that I had the best dish ever: veal brain, poached and seared, with lemon sauce and small boiled potatoes. I love simple, home-cooked food and this was just spot-on — unbelievably delicious and cooked to perfection. Le Baratin is a tiny place in Belleville, not fancy at all. There’s an open kitchen and you can see the chef [Raquel Carena] working away, with just one other cook, while her husband manages the bar and front of house. She makes the kind of food I want to eat every day. I’d like to go back very soon.

Head chef, Barrafina, London
In September, I went to Mexico for a week, and spent three days in Malinalco learning about barbacoa — and no, it’s not the same as barbecue. The guy smeared a glorious paste of herbs, spices and about 10 types of chilli all over half a lamb, then laid it on a rack over a big pot filled with chickpeas, carrots, tomatoes, onions, herbs, spices, chillies and water, so the fat would drip through. He covered the meat with agave leaves, put the pot in a hole filled with smouldering charcoal, covered everything with hay and left it. The next day, about 16 hours later, we had the soup from the pot, then the lamb with tacos and … oh my God! Even though I was full, I just couldn’t stop eating. It was my idea of heaven. And the guy still refused to tell me what was in his paste.

Food writer and co-founder, Noma
The chicken rice at Wee Nam Kee, Singapore. Last winter, during a trip to Singapore, I had the best chicken I've had in my life. The chicken was a 2kg free-range chicken of the very best quality. It was poached for 30 minutes in a gigantic pot full of chicken stock that I suspect had been cooking for decades and had been passed on from chef to chef, just like a sourdough is passed from one generation to another.

After 30 minutes, the chicken was taken out of the stock and put straight into water with ice to seal the melted fats and juices under the skin. It was then kept at room temperature. The rice was cooked in chicken fat and then in chicken stock, and served with a black thick soy-like sauce and a chilli sauce made from freshly pounded chillis, ginger juice, garlic, lime juice, sesame oil and sugar. When the chicken melted in my mouth, tears came to my eyes.

— Viva, The Observer

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