Since taking the reins at Hugo’s Bistro two years ago, chef Alfie Ingham, along with his partner Sophie, has turned the central Auckland spot into one of the city’s finest eating establishments. With an impressive résumé that includes Sidart, Cassia and Meredith’s, Hugo’s has given Alfie the opportunity to really flex his creative muscles - and the results have garnered Hugo’s both plaudits and a dedicated clientele that includes a few members of the Crane Brothers team.
We sat down with Alfie to discuss how he got involved in cooking, his love of powerful flavours and how he’s using local produce to reinterpret traditional European dishes - and he's been kind enough to share some of his favourite simple recipes to try during lockdown.
Tell me about your background - how did you initially get inspired to pursue cooking?
I was always vaguely interested in food but I didn’t start working in restaurants until ten years or so ago, after we had left England and we were living in Melbourne. A lot of interesting chefs were at their peak at that time, and I was twenty year old looking for something to do and sort of went down the rabbit hole a little bit. Melbourne was at its peak with food, culture, and music, and it was an exciting industry to be in. I sort of realised ‘oh I actually really like cooking, this is fun’. When you’re immersed in anything you’re passionate about, you get good at it and you learn things. I did six months in Melbourne, travelled around Australia and then ended up in New Zealand.
What got you to stay here and build a career?
Sophie and I originally had six months booked in Wanaka before going home. We got a job in a restaurant and met people and we thought we’d just see out the visa and things kind of spiralled. I became the head chef at a restaurant so I was definitely thrown in the deep end and had to learn on my feet, desperately scraping things together. But it was a really exciting time and we were ambitious, so six years ago we made the decision to leave Wanaka and move to Auckland, as that was where the better restaurants were.
Tell me about the journey to leading Hugo’s.
I was working in fine dining which is the pinnacle, when you’re ambitious and you’re young. High pressure, high profile restaurants with famous chefs - that is where you learn things. I always thought you could apply some of that philosophy to a bistro environment, where normal people would eat. You can be high-minded in the kitchen and do all the clever things you want, but if it’s not someone’s lunch it’s just going to fall flat. I’ve always thought that our kitchen works like a three-hat kitchen, but it’s doing breakfast, lunch and dinner for everyday people.
Tell me about your approach to food - what do you look for when putting your stamp on a dish?
I approach everything from the perspective of ‘where in the world would I be eating this?’. If I was sitting on a beach in Italy, how would this best be done? I try not to be too clever with things, I like things that make sense. You start with something and go ‘well, this ingredient is the next logical step, and then comes that ingredient’, and that’s how you build it. I never go into something trying to reinvent it - I’m not interested in that any more. I’d rather make five great things and not muck with them too much.