Giulio Sturla on bringing the Mugaritz ethos to New Zealand

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Giulio Sturla is a chef and the former chef owner of Roots in Lyttelton, New Zealand. 

The Chilean-born chef started cooking when he finished school. Having grown up in Ecuador, he returned to Chile to do a cooking degree, then travelled to the US, Mexico, back to Chile and Ecuador before going to Spain, where he worked at Mugaritz under infamous chef Andoni Luis Aduriz. 

"That's where I found my cooking style and my way of thinking about food," he said.

The chef moved to New Zealand eleven years ago and, in 2011, opened his own restaurant. Roots received international acclaim, despite being one of the only fine-dining restaurants outside of Auckland. 

He closed the award-winning restaurant in May, and has since made numerous guest appearances at restaurants in New Zealand and abroad - including Atlas in Wellington, but also in Bali and Malaysia. 

While the chef is planning on opening another restaurant in due course, he is in no rush, relishing the opportunity to explore different concepts and ideas. He wishes to host events of his own in particular locations, "more like a destination, where you have to travel to eat, focusing more on the experience than cooking with someone else," he said.

Frozen honey, rhubarb and preserve red elderberries, pickled plums, wood sorrel and a piece of honeycomb from backyard hive

Dispelling preconceptions 

Getting Roots on the map was hard, he said, "because nobody really knew who I was. Being an immigrant in New Zealand with a very crazy concept - it was really hard to put yourself out there." 

But as people discovered his brand of cooking - unusual as it was - "the word spread fast," he said. 

"With Roots I created an experience. I opened this restaurant in the wrong place - you don't open a restaurant like this in Lyttelton. People were really impressed with what I did to the town, because I actually changed the whole perception of this place, people were travelling from all over the world to eat food in Lyttelton. It was crazy." 

His style of cooking is very creative, he explained, "and very nature driven." 

"Nature for me is going outside, finding what is edible and trying to create and replicate flavours, connecting my memories with New Zealand ingredients." 

"I don't like to cook things that people can cook at home. For me it has to be an experience that for them is inspiring. I want it to be unique and clever and an experience about them." 

The chef lives inside a volcano - where the soil is very rich, allowing him to grow his own fruit and vegetables, and where wild quails and pheasants are aplenty. 

"The laws about hunting in the wild are open to all people; I can actually eat animals from the wild, for normal consumption."

His food revolves around the use of native ingredients including seaweed, mushrooms, fish, fresh and aged, abalone - or pāua, in Māori - as well as fruit, such as feijoa - an ancient fruit which tastes almost like a pineapple, used by Giulio to ferment with fish and black garlic.

"Some of these ingredients are really hard to find, we're talking hundreds of dollars a kilo for a live abalone. These things are already seen as a luxury product; normal people won't buy them." 

Lamb rump, hemp
milk cream,
hemp seeds and
confit leeks in hemp oil

"When you get hold of this stuff and you feed it to normal people, it's very unique for them. A lot of kiwis have never tasted this product because of the price of it. And it grows everywhere." 

New Zealand, a food paradise

When he arrived in New Zealand, the chef said he had an idea of it being "very green and very pure" place, but what he found was very different. High quality produce was tricky to find. 

"I always saw the best of New Zealand from the outside. When I moved here, I was like: 'oh my God, what is this, where is the food?'" 

His epiphany came when an earthquake struck New Zealand, during which emergency food supplies had to be delivered by the army. 

"I started to look outside; there was nothing to do other than eat at home. I started to walk a lot and I found all these wild fruit trees.

"I said: 'why are we not eating all of this stuff? Why are we getting fed by an army boat, eating canned and preserved stuff? The food is right here.

"I started to wonder why there is all this fruit that nobody uses and I started to read a lot about the wild ingredients of New Zealand and there are quite a lot of native ingredients, unique to the country and very special." 

 "By being so disconnected from the system after the earthquake, we felt we needed to open a restaurant that could feed itself with what we found around Queenstown." 

As well as native ingredients, the chef discovered farms producing pineapples, bananas, coffee, sugar cane and avocados, "things you would never have thought would grow in New Zealand." 

"It's incredible, when you start asking questions, looking so deeply into what people are doing, it takes you to new places." 

Koura (NZ freshwater
crayfish), koji butter
fermented purple
potato cracker, watercress

Why more chefs should go to New Zealand

Defining New Zealand's cuisine, he explained, is nearby impossible because it is such a blend of different cultures. 

"But the uniqueness of growing stuff here is what is so special. Nothing tastes like it was grown in New Zealand, anywhere else in the world." 

"We're an island that's so skinny that there's always a new cloud. The sun is so strong that it's very good for the grass that grows at the bottom - all this stuff makes it a very lucky place to produce food, and animals. That's why the lamb is delicious - you can't find such grass fed animals anywhere else in the world."

Chefs, he said, should come and discover New Zealand, its restaurants and its produce - even though it's so hard to find. 

"A lot of chefs come to New Zealand to look for it, but not very many restaurants [use good produce]." 

Now, he said, "it's a lot easier." 

"It's not going to be like Latin America or the Nordic countries, because those are old cultures and this is the opportunity that New Zealand has. It's a new culture, it's a new country, but it's in a geographic location that nobody else has."

"For me to discover those flavours, it's lucky that people can come to New Zealand and work and enjoy it. It's a very good place to be."

He names other great restaurants around the country, such as Amisfield in Queenstown, Arbour in Blenheim, Pasture in Auckland, Sugar Club and Terra Restaurant. 

"When I moved to New Zealand eleven years ago, there were one or two restaurants like this. Now there are a lot more concepts and ideas."

The next step

As for his next venture, Giulio said,  it is not a case of sooner rather than later.

"[Roots] took its toll, it was a lot of psychological pressure. I want to enjoy my daughters, find my time, find myself and that's where I'm at at the moment.

"I could open a restaurant tomorrow if I wanted to but I never saw it as a business, I'm a creative person."

"I'm waiting for the right moment, the right place, the right time. And it will come." 



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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 25th November 2019

Giulio Sturla on bringing the Mugaritz ethos to New Zealand