“It’s fun to think, ‘Hey, what can I do with this element of produce that would usually be discarded?’” says Georgia van Prehn. As owner and head chef of Karangahape Road restaurant Alta, low-waste practices are central to her ethos. This – along with an emphasis on innovation, memorable flavours and sustainability – means she’s plating up some of the most interesting food in Auckland.
Her restaurant, which opened in July 2021, is a hub of sophistication among K’ Road’s vibrant bars and restaurants. The long, narrow room has green leather bench seating on one side of the tables and wine fridges lining the wall on the other; the multicoloured mosaic floor is a charmingly off-kilter remnant of the space’s former life as wine bar Clay. The vibe is usually serene, allowing the food to speak for itself.
Van Prehn serves up ever-changing a la carte menus. Years of seeing food wastage in restaurants, coupled with the time she spent training at renowned zero-waste London restaurant Silo, influenced many of her methods.
“At Silo, waste is seen as a lack of imagination,” she says. “Innovative ideas happen when you are restricted to using only what you are looking at, not when you have access to any ingredient you could want in the world.”
She’s also worked in kitchens across Melbourne and London, and most recently at Scotch Wine Bar in Blenheim, where she began attracting industry attention.
Van Prehn’s menus are seasonal and experimental – and she often has fun with them. She plays with nostalgia, subverting familiar dishes and highlighting ingredients that are often overlooked.
“I want people to be thinking about how even basic or underrated vegetables and ingredients can be made interesting with a bit of thought, and some interesting flavour combinations too.”
How does this all manifest on the plate? Past dishes have included roasted beetroot dumplings, filled with house-made smoked yoghurt and pumpkin seeds, served with a whey and beetroot sauce – the whey being a by-product of hanging the yoghurt to make labneh. The seafood platter includes parts of a fish that would usually be binned in its fish skin crackers and fish head terrine.
Lamb rump glazed in marmite with fermented cos lettuce has also featured, along with a beef tartare that nods to “surf and turf”, with the beef very lightly seared and served with pickled mussels, spring onion oil and mayonnaise.
Meat isn’t intended to be the star of the show – van Prehn prefers to celebrate “underrated ingredients, often vegetables”. She adds, “Cooking vegetables as the main dish, but using animal fats to do so, is a much more interesting approach to me.”
Van Prehn is set on creating a drinks experience that also defies the norm. Alta serves predominantly natural wines but the real inventiveness lies in the cocktail and non-alcoholic lists. There you could find an olive oil-infused Martini, a rhubarb Cosmopolitan, or a blueberry milk punch.
She swears her non-alcoholic Negroni tastes like the real deal – house-made juniper and grapefruit “stocks” act as the gin and Campari, and a “vermouth” is made from cherry and spices. Orange “wine” has been concocted with turmeric for colour and dill for flavour. The chef’s currently working on a red wine, soaking woodchips to try to capture oak and tannin aromas.
Van Prehn faced every restaurant owner-operator’s nightmare when she opened her business last year, navigating Auckland’s 107-day lockdown, which she succinctly describes as “just incredibly stressful”. Her salvation was nurturing a now-thriving herb and vegetable garden from seed in Alta’s rear courtyard, where people can enjoy a drink.
Gardening kept van Prehn sane, but also gave her inspiration for some kind of paddock-to-plate future for Alta. It’s not always easy to source truly organic vegetables, she says, so her mind is on leasing land and growing a variety of good quality, interesting produce.
Despite the challenges she’s faced since opening Alta, van Prehn remains fully invested in her culinary craft, to the benefit of all those who dine there. “Being able to turn up to work every day and do something I get genuine enjoyment out of [seems] like a no-brainer to me,” she says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
366 Karangahape Road, Auckland
Tues to Sat 5.30pm–late
This story was originally published on May 10 and has been updated to reflect changes in the menu offering, from set menu to a la carte.