A visit to Aro-Ha located just outside Queenstown on the road to Glenorchy, is a must-do for anyone who loves the wild and pristine beauty of this rugged region, and if you are passionate about health and well-being, or simply need to destress and detox, so much the better.
A stay at Aro-Ha will, without doubt, remain imbedded in your memory for ever for so many reasons, not least of all because the food you will be served is unforgettable in every way. Plant-based, nourishing, mouth-wateringly delicious and plated to perfection, each new dish is lovingly created by chef Jenny Lomas who is the foodie mastermind behind it all. Verve chats to Jenny about her life, her love for delicious plant-based cuisine, and her life at Aro-Ha.
Tell us a bit about yourself Jenny?
I came to cheffing later in life, in a roundabout yet perfect path. I am from London, and after college I found myself in the advertising industry. After a decade of that nonsense, I decided I wanted to retrain so did a Bachelor of Science degree in nutritional medicine which changed both my diet and my life. After graduating I spent a couple of years doing private nutritional medicine consultancy work and I also became interested at that time in Buddhism and meditation; I came to realise that we need to take care of our bodies and our minds. At one point I flew all the way to New Zealand from the UK to sit a meditation retreat with a highly regarded visiting teacher. That visit was truly seminal—not only did I find a rich meaningful spiritual path, but I watched the cooks on that retreat prepare our vegetarian meals and I decided in that moment I would be a chef, and specifically, cook in retreats centres. Back in London I quit my job, took an unpaid role as a kitchen hand in a café which was situated in a Buddhist centre in central London, and my life kind of unfolded from there! I came to New Zealand in 2011, and worked in four other retreat centres before taking in the head chef position at Aro-Ha in 2017. I share a house with our head housekeeper who is from Switzerland, and I have a super cute dog called Pema.
Describe your job.
Along with my three sous chefs, we serve breakfast lunch and dinner for our retreat guests, plus daily herbal teas and tonics. I devise the menu which is in constant evolution, as the seasons and new inspiration arrives!
I am in daily contact with our garden team to see what we can harvest each week for the menu, and discuss what they will plant for the upcoming seasons. We put a lot of consideration into how we present every meal on the plate. The guest meals are plated by the kitchen team, and we also serve at the table and talk to the guests about each meal we prepare.
We also offer kitchen classes to the guests. Currently we are offering a class which is inspired by Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat cookbook, where we get guests to taste the affects of salt and acid in cooking. We also run a ‘healthy gut, happy life’ class, where we share the latest research on the link between gut health and mental health, and teach guests how to make simple fermented foods like kombucha and sauerkraut.
The kitchen crew also take care of all the staff meals; it’s a good place to test out new recipe ideas that might make it on to the guest menu.
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced since starting out with Aro-Ha?
For me personally it was taking the leap frombeing a vegetarian chef to a plant-based chef. My learning curve in year one was very steep, but ethically and from a nutrition stand-point I am convinced of the benefits of a plant-based diet, so it was a challenge I was very happy to take on.
What are some of the principles that guide your work in the kitchen?
There are several. Firstly, every single meal we serve is health promoting. That means we are resolute in shunning sugar, caffeine, alcohol, deep fried food, excessive salt, refined foods and commercial vegan products like butter and cheese. We are unwavering in only using whole foods, which is why I much prefer the term whole food plant-based to describe our food, rather than vegan.
Secondly, I want our guests to feel welcome and cared for. Whilst they are under our roof we have full responsibility for their wellbeing so we take time to get to know each and every guest and see that they are feeling well and that their needs are met. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of hospitality to affect a person’s health and mind-state.
Thirdly, I just try and be a good person. I’m not claiming I always achieve this, but I try to be honest and straight-forward, and to keep a beginner’s mind. There is still so much for me to learn.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job ?
It’s when a guest tells me that they are inspired to make even small changes towards a plant-based diet. Every small change in that direction will make a significant different to their health, and to the health of the planet. And of course, when we hear a guest describe the whole Aro-Ha experience as ‘life-changing’, to be part of the team that delivered that experience is incredibly rewarding.
Are there any personal beliefs that you have with regard to the overall food system that make their way into your everyday business, such as curbing food waste, sustainable sourcing and local sourcing?
All of the above really. We don’t have a perfect system at Aro-Ha, but we do grow a lot of our own food: 30-40 percent, I emphasise seasonal and local for the remainder, and we compost all our food waste.
Tips for those wishing to consume a more plant-based diet?
Yotam Ottolenghi was my first food hero. His book, Plenty, was my bible when I first went vegetarian, and it’s still the book I recommend the most to others. So, get a great veggie cook book, and start off by just introducing a few meat-free meals per week rather than doing a 180-degree conversion. Experiment a lot, and if you have the opportunity, travel a lot! Plant-based meals are the norm in large parts of Asia and the Middle East, and these cuisines are just bursting with flavour.
Also, just read a little about the scientific research into plant-based diets. It was my nutritional medicine studies that make me lose my appetite for meat and milk—once you understand the basics of nutrition you will have stronger motivation. And once you’ve started on a plant-based diet, you will feel so much happier and healthier, the deal will be sealed. Try not to get seduced by ‘products’ such as vegan sausages and vegan bacon!
If you could get the general population to change one aspect of their eating habits, what would it be?
Give up processed and convenience foods. If you want to eat chocolate, make it yourself. It’s three ingredients (cacao powder, cacao butter and a sweetener, such as coconut nectar) and takes less than five minutes. Ditto, make your own burgers and bake your own bread and cakes. It’s the additives that make most of our diets unhealthy.
Your earliest food memory?
To be honest, as a child in the ’70s I didn’t think much about food! It was neither pleasure nor nutrition—I just wanted to scoff down my mum’s shepherds pie so I could go out and play on my bike. I started to fall in love with food when I was in my late teens and early 20s. I can remember being absolutely mind-blown the first time I ate a sun dried tomato. Later, the biggest perk of working in the advertising industry was the client lunches. I never knew food could taste, or look, so phenomenal.
What’s always in the Aro-Ha fridge? How do you like to use it?
In the big walk in chiller are crates and crates of fresh produce. Admittedly, it’s a vision of abundance, but there’s nothing especially rare or exotic in there. We have lots of leeks, potatoes, pumpkins, carrots, beetroot, broccoli, cauli, spinach, kale, rainbow chard, capsicums, tomatoes, courgettes, lemons, limes, ginger, apples, pears, plums and so many containers of garden herbs such as parsley, coriander, mint, sage, rosemary and thyme.
For me, a successful dish has multiple elements. We joke in the kitchen that our meals follow a predictable format—lots of fresh produce, a nice sauce and something crunchy! Our meals are typically a bit more creative than just those three elements but its not a bad place to start!
Your good food wish?
That the Aro-Ha bosses would recognise coffee as a superfood and allow it – we all have a vice right?!