If you’ve ever looked forward to your pre-commute coffee or end-of-day wine more than the workday ahead, there’s a good chance you’ve dreamed of jacking in your job and making food your vocation. You’re not alone: we’ve visited three youngish businesses whose owners have done exactly that. From an Amsterdam design studio developing Dutch-distilled soju (Korean rice spirit) to a Kiwi oenologist making wine that honours the land he’s worked for years, we meet the entrepreneurs slaking an international thirst for fresh products. All before a charming lunch with an interior architect who turned her tasteful eye to catering and teaching time-poor professionals to cook simple but alluring fare. Seeking some satisfying tales of businesses faring well in the food game? Time to tuck in.
In Maori culture, turangawaewae refers to places that New Zealanders feel connected to. For Dom Maxwell, winemaker at Greystone Wines, it’s Waipara, a town 60km north of Christchurch. While terroir is the sum of environmental factors that influence a wine, turangawaewae is more than that, says Maxwell. “It’s where we put our feet – and that resonates with me as a winemaker. It’s how we work with the land and the land works with us.”
Greystone’s valleys comprise dense limestone and sandstone among native trees and bushes. Maxwell began here as a vineyard hand in 2004, working across 40 hectares of the new 120 hectare plot.
As a result of that initial grounding, planting grapes and operating the tractor, he knows the soil well. “I have a real understanding of the land because I’ve spent so much time on it,” he says.
There’s a sense that something personal happens here. Greystone produces 20,000 cases each season – 65 per cent for export – all made using certified organic methods by Maxwell and his team of 25. Today he has full control of the wine: growing, making, storing and bottling. Yet the process is far from industrialised. With New Zealand’s commercial vineyards (growers) and wineries (makers) becoming increasingly separate, Maxwell values the close-knit nature of Greystone. “We love that our vineyard and winery guys can still actually see each other,” he says.
Pinot noir is Maxwell’s reason for being: he loves the grape variety. “On an emotional level, when you start out working with a fruit, fermenting and nurturing it, you develop a connection,” he says. He has worked with said grape in the US, Germany and France. “The truth is there’s no perfect pinot,” he says, noting that the grapes are fickle and respond differently to different environments. He adds that the three-year process that winemakers must undergo to become certified organic gave Greystone’s land time to breathe, which is what bestows his turangawaewae and pinot with such earthy qualities.
Greystone’s product is wholly organic, hand-picked and hand-sorted. Maxwell prefers indigenous yeasts over yeast cultures because they are part of the local landscape. It all means that his wine tells a clear story of the vineyard it came from.
The current season – which featured New Zealand’s hottest January on record – has seen Greystone’s production skyrocket. The vineyard has a full crop thanks to months of consistent temperatures in the high 20s and low 30s, which has seen it gain ground and get about two weeks ahead of its picking schedule. The result of such a bumper crop will be what Maxwell calls “proper” ripeness, with the tannin changes occurring in grape skins, seeds and stems, not sugar ripeness.
Aside from selling via its website and cellar door, Greystone’s target is wine bars rather than shops. Meanwhile, the brand is flourishing overseas. “Red is an aspirational colour in China and it was our red that was chosen for the Chinese president, who visited New Zealand in 2014,” says Maxwell. “Look at traditional markets for New Zealand wine, such as the UK and Australia: brands have been selling there for about 20 years to gain that sort of foothold.”
Greystone’s best bottles:
Pinot noir, 2016
Layered with ripe cherry, berry and nutty flavours, the flagship pinot noir is youthful and complex.
Fermented pinot noir, 2015
Made from fermenting yeasts, this earthy pinot noir is true to the site.
Black Doris plums and spices make up this wine, named after the region’s hot, dry wind.
Walking into Hanna Geller Goldsmith’s Maida Vale home is the first clue to the fact that the trained interior architect has exceptional taste. The 1930s arts-and-crafts-style house is all high ceilings, natural light, terrazzo floors and spare Scandi-style furniture. It was also, as it turned out, the final project of a 15-year career before Goldsmith, a self-taught cook, exchanged remaking rooms for designing menus and writing recipes. Tastes, it seems, change, and the mother of four was keen to make her enthusiasm for food and the many dinner parties she hosted into a job. Building Feasts – a series of unfussy and animated supper clubs and cookery demonstrations – is the flavourful result.
“Have you ever had food from an angry chef?” says Goldsmith as she scoots around a marble-topped kitchen island under the gaze of six would-be chefs attending a cookery class on a bright spring morning. “You really can taste it – the more relaxed you feel, the better the food tastes.”
Next to her and dividing the florets of a romanesco broccoli is Jeremy Coleman, a photographer by trade, Goldsmith’s business partner in Building Feasts and the cause of much of the sense of bonhomie in the lively demonstration. The pair have given themselves an hour to show their guests – a consultant, a publicist, a film-maker, an acupuncturist, a tech start-up and a designer among them – how to make a meal for eight. A fillet of salmon, now at room temperature, is salted, buttered and oiled on a bed of dill. Aleppo peppers are chopped, a mandoline glides over a fresh red radish and a pan of freekeh grains is lifted from the hob where it’s been quietly simmering. As the food effortlessly rolls forth and the scent of salmon fills the bright, book-filled kitchen, a wonderful thing is happening: the strangers in attendance are firing forth questions, japing and getting to know each other.
Meanwhile Goldsmith, cool as a kohlrabi, is espousing simple, helpful cookery tips as she goes. She tells monocle how adding lemon to green veg before cooking will turn it a dull grey, why to season and oil the cabbage itself rather than the pan plus a short aside on how to make confit garlic to keep in the fridge.
The hour flashes past in an instant and the brown-card menus and Muji writing pads that Goldsmith and Coleman gave to the participants are brimming with notes: temperatures, tips, timings and other guests’ numbers. There’s a moment to take stock as dinner is served and the diners are done espousing the simplicity of the meal in front of them. They’re now nibbling on their lunch as the conversation turn to one another’s lives, jobs and how they’re keen to recreate and re-use the lessons learned today back at home.
“People have come to enjoy your company, not food theatre,” says Goldsmith, about to sit at the table as she unties the waist strap of her fetching orange-trimmed apron (a collaboration with Welsh-based firm Farmers’). Goldsmith’s forgiving and friendly take on cooking for a crowd is refreshing to hear in a world of fussy food admonitions and nutritional nonsense. “Mistakes will happen, there is no such thing as perfection, just enjoy the process,” she says with a genial glint in her eye.
The proof of Goldsmith’s career shift from interior architect to hostess and cooking teacher is in the pudding (in this case buckwheat cookies, roasted rhubarb and crème fraîche ice cream). Keen to cater to visiting friends with a fuss-free simple menu? You’d do well to visit the tasteful tenants of a certain arts-and-crafts-style house in north London.
Building Feasts hosting tips:
1. Keep food simple: colourful, inviting, fragrant and unpretentious.
2. Short on time? Cook one course. Start with nuts, cured meat and dips, then cheese for afters.
3. Buy pans that are hob and oven safe to serve meals from.
4. Have lemons and fresh herbs handy to lift dishes.
5. Always cook what you love –it will taste better.
It was a Friday afternoon when Dylan Griffith got the bad news. He and business partner Nathalie Ji Yun Kranenburg had been trying to make Europe’s first soju, the South Korean national spirit, for two years – but it wasn’t working. “We had just done the third and final distillation,” says Ad van der Lee, master distiller at historic Dutch drinks-maker Herman Jansen. “This was the true test of the soju project. But when I tasted it, it wasn’t good. All our work was down the drain.”
But Van der Lee, a highly knowledgeable long-time employee, playfully referred to here as the “nutty professor”, couldn’t stop thinking about how to fix it. He returned on the Monday ready to give it one more go. He tried it again and suddenly it tasted different. All the concoction had needed, it seems, was some time to rest and settle.
This was just one of the twists in the long and (often deeply frustrating) journey to creating Wihayo, a Dutch-distilled take on soju. It’s a clear, traditionally rice-based liquor and most Koreans drink a diluted version of it neat from a shot glass, usually with food. To say it’s popular would be an understatement.
The Jinro brand produced by South Korean distiller HiteJinro has been the world’s bestselling spirit by a country mile for years, shifting more than 70 million cases in 2016. For whatever reason, though, it remains little known outside Asia.
Making soju in the Netherlands was Kranenburg’s idea. The South Korean was adopted by Dutch parents when she was young and grew up in Amsterdam. When she went to Seoul to meet her family in 2006, soju at the dinner table quickly became a fixture and fascination of her visit. “It was a massive trip mentally and emotionally,” she says. “I fell in love with South Korean food and drink.”
But when she returned to Amsterdam searching for a South Korean fix, she couldn’t find it. Everything was either poor quality or too expensive. She wrote a South Korean cookbook in Dutch but still something was missing. A few years later someone told her that they were developing a new gin with the Herman Jansen distillery and it suddenly clicked: she would make her own soju. She set up a meeting and, within a few weeks, had enlisted the help of Griffith, creative director and founder of design studio Smörgåsbord, to come up with a business plan and design for the brand.
“The soju you get drunk on in Seoul is the cheap stuff,” says Kranenburg. “I wanted to elevate the quality and add a little Dutch flavour in there.” Herman Jansen, a sixth-generation family business specialising in Dutch spirit jenever, a botanical-flavoured antecedent of gin, was the perfect fit. They agreed to give it a go even though it was a completely new discipline for the storied distillery.
Two years of troubleshooting later, Van der Lee believed he had distilled the real deal: a smooth 19 per cent abv soju made from rice and malted barley (not normally used in Korea) ground in a centuries-old Dutch windmill and triple-distilled and bottled by an even older Dutch company. “In a way it embodies who I am,” says Kranenburg. “I’m Korean but I was raised in Holland.”
The pair soft-launched the product in November in Amsterdam and have so far sold about 500 bottles, mainly through collaborations with chefs and bartenders. Their brand ambassador, drinks consultant Julian Bayuni, has been busy cooking up Wihayo cocktails, which they intend to present alongside South Korean food to showcase its versatility. In the coming years the plan is to take Wihayo to London, Berlin, New York and, the big test, Seoul.
“We’ve been benchmarking it all the way through with Koreans because we wanted it to taste like real soju and eventually sell it in South Korea,” says Griffith. “Having spent some time in the country I know that they appreciate the Western aesthetic so we’re hoping that will help.”
The medicine-bottle style of Wihayo is different from the smaller, rounder beer-bottle-shaped glass that most soju comes in. But the white screen-printed label on the green glass – a colour that signifies health in South Korea – echoes the visual language of traditional brands but with a seemly contemporary twist.
“What we wanted to do was intrigue and attract both South Korean and Western consumers,” says Griffith. “Everything is in English and Korean and the logo references the Dutch windmill and rice grains.” Still, selling soju back to the Koreans is a big ask. “I would be super proud if that happened,” says Kranenburg with a slightly nervous smile. “It’s definitely the dream.”
1,700 The number of South Korean won that an average bottle costs at a convenience store, equivalent to about €1.30
28 The percentage of Koreans who drink soju once a week or more
20 The average abv per cent of soju, although premium brands can top 50 per cent
13th The century that soju dates back to thanks to Mongols who brought arak recipes from the Middle East
2 The number of hands you should use when pouring or receiving a drink of soju
0 How many times you should refill your own drink – it’s a big no-no in South Korea