Whatís for Dinner?

Whatís for Dinner?

Professional Chef Raids a UniFlat Kitchen

“Cooking is about controlling fire and water.” With two elements safely under his belt, our professional chef-for-a-day is halfway to becoming the Avatar. Critic extorted him for a free meal.

I asked Tony Heptinstall (Senior Lecturer at the Polytech’s Food Design Institute) to take a Friday afternoon off from his work at the Polytech and come cook a meal in my flat’s kitchen. I wanted to see what a seasoned veteran could do with questionable ingredients, shit-quality tools, and a less than desirable cooking space. I had my suspicions that even if you’re pinched for time and in a gross flat, you can still cook a quick, healthy, tasty meal.

The instructions I gave Tony were simple. Imagine you’ve just gotten home from uni and you have 40 minutes until your mates rock up. Make dinner using only what’s in the flat, and you can’t bring anything other than your chef’s coat, so no sharp knives, no fancy spices, nothing but what we’ve already got in store.

We didn’t have anything crazy in stock. Tony was “happily surprised” to see that we had the bare necessities like flour, butter and knives, and was impressed with the “relative lack” of mould. Because we are men of taste, we had a few more “exotic” items like ginger and garam masala. After a five-minute survey, Tony got to work.

He decided on an Indian theme based on our spices, though he pointed out that his main rice dish is a bit of a culinary chameleon and can be any spice theme you desire. He carries a few go-to recipes around in his brain at all times, and they were easily adapted to the ingredients I left him. Recipes are more like guidelines, anyway.

To Tony, good cooking is like good music. It’s adaptable, and it’s all about balance. “The carrots, onions and mushrooms, those are like the baseline. You get those going in a pan and then follow with other layers. The spices, those are like your drums, and your rhythm section, that’s your meats or whatever.” Too much or too little of anything, and you can tell that something’s just not quite right, even if you can’t put your finger on it.

That description of cooking sounded a lot like Ratatouille, which, as it turns out, is his favorite depiction of cooking in the media. His favorite scene is when the food critic gets taken back to his childhood. “Food can really do that, y’know. That’s what good food does.”

As he juggled the two stove-pan dishes, Tony took the time to mention a culinary sin he often sees in student kitchens: the tendency to crank the stovetop up to full tilt “and then wonder why the dish is burnt on the outside and raw in the middle”. I suspected that my shoddy burners would trip up the professional, but he did just fine. Honestly I was hoping that if he screwed up in the kitchen, I’d be able to use that as an excuse for mediocrity until my lease runs out, but only a poor craftsman blames his tools.

Some other life hacks: chilli tolerance does come with time. To easily make bread, combine your yeast, flour, salt and water and let it sit overnight. The bread will knead itself, and then just pop it in a hot oven. Look up how cooks chop their vegetables using the middle finger. It’ll save you a lot of effort, and maybe a fingernail or two.

Tony didn’t hesitate to tell us that in his 30+ years of cooking, North Dunedin took the cake for the shittest kitchens. Though he tastefully described mine as “not the worst place he’s ever cooked”. The worst kitchen he’s seen - in the entire world - was just blocks away. He saw this kitchen a few years ago. Having told students of that year to prepare a dish for a team of fashion designers, Tony clarified at the last minute that by “fashion designers” he actually meant “fashion design students”, and that the meal would be prepared in their flat kitchen. This kitchen happened to be the worst kitchen he’s ever seen.

Not exactly the glam-show that they were expecting, but the ability to adapt their food design on the fly was critical to the students' success. “The kitchen ought to be a place of questioning,” said Tony, as he sniffed a jar of homemade marmalade that he found on my shelf which went off well before lockdown. Use what you have, I guess.

By squashing butter, flour and baking powder together with his bare hands on my kitchen counter, Tony prepared a sort of upside-down sponge cake. He used the marmalade as a glaze. “Well, we’ll see how this turns out.” He popped it in the microwave after admiring the “growth going on in there”. The marmalade ended up being a no-go, because again, it had gone off well before lockdown. Tony used jam for attempt number two. A vast improvement.

It was around this point that he considered using mouldy yogurt to make a sauce, saying, in reference to the green bit, “we can ignore that”. A place of questioning indeed. By the way, when I told him that there was other yogurt available, he quickly made the swap and advised that we “did not eat that”, despite the fact that he was ready to serve it to us 30 seconds prior. Cheeky.

Tony’s least favourite depiction of cooking in the media - and he has several least favourites - is “the MasterChef-type shows”. Cooking “isn’t supposed to be stressful,” it’s a way of bringing people together. In fact, it’s “the best way to get to know someone”. But if you can tell a lot about a person based on what they eat, Tony might have some thoughts about those of us on our fourth Double Down meal this week.

And boy was he willing to share those thoughts. Tony, as he stirred the lentil dahl, launched into a well-rehearsed tirade about the demise of the western diet, the insidious nature of fast food, and the irreplaceable social aspect of dining that is missing from much of western culture. He questioned why western societies, despite having the greatest wealth and education, have some of the poorest diets.

The social aspect of sharing a meal is something he identifies as critical to human nature, and with the rise of impersonal takeaway culture, Tony is worried that we’re missing out on a very basic aspect of what it means to be human. Alongside this, he took great issue with the modern “military-style” kitchen culture, saying that the industry needs to change if it wants to survive.

“There’s this culture of ‘oui, chef’ that students are pushed into in many places. We don’t want that here. Here, we want our students to say ‘why, chef?’ not ‘oui, chef’. Only one of those leaves room for creativity.”

To nobody’s surprise, a professional chef fared just fine in a shit kitchen - that’s why he’s a professional. I got my free meal and a helpful side of culinary insight from a man that clearly cares about what he does. He also sharpened my knife using the back of a ceramic mug, which was mind-blowing.

Tony’s particular brand of gung-ho, semi-anarchistic chefery is easily adoptable into the Dunedin lifestyle and pairs just fine with a pint of whatever’s handy. In the end, he whipped up some flatbreads, a lentil dahl, a chicken and rice pilaf, and two desserts-in-a-cup. Give one of his recipes a crack. Tony supports your culinary misadventures - as long as he doesn’t have to try them.



Makes 4



1 cup flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 cup yoghurt

1 tsp salt

Place all ingredients into a bowl and mix to form a dough. Add a little more flour if the dough is sticky. Knead for about a minute and then cover with the bowl and leave for 10 minutes.

Divide into 4 pieces and dust a bench with flour. Gently roll out each ball of dough until a couple of millimetres thick, space doesn’t really matter. Repeat for the other 3 pieces of dough

Heat a frying pan over a medium to high heat. Place the rolled-out dough into the dry pan and cook for about 1 minute on each side or under if you smell it burning, then flip and repeat the cooking for another minute, or slight burning stage.

Serve with a little butter or garlic butter.


Spinach and kumara dahl

Serves 4



1 red onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 tbsp ginger, grated

1 red chilli, finely chopped

1 ½ tsp ground turmeric

1 ½ tsp ground cumin

2 kumara (about 400g), cut into even chunks

250g red split lentils

1 litre vegetable stock

80g baby spinach

4 spring onion, sliced on the diagonal, to serve


Heat 1 tbsp vegetable stock in a wide-based pan with a tight-fitting lid.

Add red onion and cook over a low heat for 10 mins, stirring occasionally, until softened. If the onion starts to stick to the pan, add a little more stock when required.

Add garlic, ginger and red chilli, cook for 1 min, then add turmeric and cook for 1 min more.

Turn up the heat to medium, add the kumara, cut into even chunks, and stir everything together so the kumara is coated in the spice mixture.

Tip in red split lentils, vegetable stock and some seasoning.

Bring the liquid to the boil, then reduce the heat to as low as possible, cover and cook for approximately 20 mins, stirring occasionally. When the lentils are tender and the potato is just holding its shape adjust the seasoning, then gently stir in the spinach. Once the spinach has wilted, serve and top with the 4 diagonally sliced spring onions.


Chicken pilau

Serves 4



1 tbsp oil

1 small onion

1 garlic clove

1 tsp ginger paste

2 chicken breasts, sliced

1 ½ cups long grain rice

½ red pepper, diced

50 g diced pumpkin

30 g sweetcorn

1 tbsp curry powder or paste

3 cups vegetable or chicken stock

3 tbsp lemon

20 g baby spinach


2 tbsp chopped coriander

Put the oil into a pan over a medium flame. Slice the onion and add to the pan and cook gently for 3-4 minutes.

Slice the garlic and add to the pan with the ginger, cook for 1 minute.

Add the sliced chicken breast and pumpkin and cook 2-3 minutes. Add rice, red pepper, sweetcorn and curry powder. Cook for a further 2-3 minute.

Add the stock and bring to the boil for 4-5 minutes. Turn off the heat and cover with a lid.

Leave for about 10 minutes. Remove lid and check rice is cooked. Season with salt and pepper. Add spinach, lemon juice and coriander.



Quick steamed pudding

Makes 4



½ cup softened butter

½ cup sugar

2 eggs

2 tbsp milk

1/2 cup self-raising flour

4 tbsp jam or golden syrup

In a bowl, mix butter and sugar together for about a minute, add the eggs, milk and flour and mix until soft.

Place a tablespoon of the jam or syrup in the bottom of four lightly oiled mug and cover with each with a quarter of the pudding mixture. Microwave two mugs at a time for 1 minute and 20 seconds. Leave for a couple of minutes before turning out into a bowl and to save washing up eat from the cup with cream or ice cream.


This article first appeared in Issue 17, 2020.
Posted 9:57pm Thursday 3rd September 2020 by Fox Meyer.