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Kitchen Tips

Why Dunedin’s No7 Balmac should be on your foodie bucket list

Living off the land, keeping things simple, and catering to what the customer – or her five kids – want, are all part of No7 Balmac head chef Penny Allan’s fresh, organic approach to food.

Simplicity is key for Penny Allan. Working 50-60 hours a week as head chef at Dunedin's No7 Balmac restaurant, the 41-year-old takes it slow at home – pottering in the garden, cooking no-fuss meals for the family, and strolling down to her local coffee shop in Port Chalmers, the seaside Otago suburb where she lives with her husband and five kids.

Heart and soul

It's not surprising the Australian chef yearns for peace at home. Not long after Penny took on the head chef role at the Maori Hill eatery, a devastating fire left her tight-knit team without a restaurant for 10 months. In true southern spirit, they "gathered themselves", opened a pop-up and continued to serve their brand of neighbourhood classics while the restaurant was being refurbished. "It was awesome and inspiring," says Penny of the way they all banded together. There's a "real good sense of belonging and togetherness".
It's a family – literally. Penny and husband Billy have a share in the business, and in fact Penny took over her role from Billy (her first time as head chef after a number of sous-chef stints in New Zealand and Australia and a few moves around the No7 Balmac kitchen). Billy now works part time at owner Katrina Toovey's other restaurant, the Esplanade, while the couple's eldest son, Freddie, is a No7 kitchen hand.
Most of the full-time staff stayed on through the pop-up and reopening. The community rallied around the beloved restaurant as well, with many of the regulars dining there as usual. Now the team are back at their home base, with a refreshed restaurant and menu featuring more hints of Penny's Greek-Lebanese heritage.

Easy does it

Penny's easy approach applies to cooking too. "I like quite basic food, food that I know a lot of people can relate to," she says. "I just like to keep it simple and think about who I'm cooking for."
No7 Balmac is a neighbourhood eatery (named for its 7 Balmacewen Rd address) so they're not trying to reinvent the wheel, but just do the classics really well.
"I like to offer something for everybody," Penny says. That includes those who can't eat garlic or onion, or who have a gluten or nut allergy. Penny brings in hints of spice and elements from different cultures but in a way that "tempts rather than overpowers".
Wood-fired cooking is an integral part of the menu, as is making everything from scratch – from sauces to bread and doughnuts (a big student drawcard). Cooking with fewer ingredients – but utilising more of each ingredient – is important too, both to keep things simple and minimise waste.
At home Penny cooks things she knows the kids will like – sushi or nachos are favourites. Daughter Adelphi is vegetarian, so Penny makes a lot of vege meals, sometimes adding a meat component for the others.
"I don't want to stress myself out in the kitchen at home so I just try to do something that's going to feed everyone and we can all relax and enjoy it."
Wood-grilled tandoori octopus with eggplant pickle, coriander yoghurt and turmeric oil, served with homemade flatbread.
Find the recipe for No7 Balmac's gorgeous condensed milk flan with orange marmalade here.

Garden growth

Penny grows her own organic produce at work and home. No7 Balmac's garden is full of herbs, vegetables and fruit – there's even a grapevine and pear trees – and chefs work in shifts alongside gardener Brendan Delvin.
"It's really good to get in there and identify what's ready to be picked," says Penny. "You get a better respect for using the entire vegetable rather than just the centrepiece."
Baby broccoli leaves, for instance, are never wasted, and when there weren't many grapes on the vine, Penny used the leaves to make dolmades.
She doesn't get much time to tend her own garden, so Penny grows hardy veges that will self-seed. There's always rhubarb, rocket, spring onion, sorrel, parsley and silverbeet. "All those leafy greens grow really well in Dunedin."
She's got fruit trees too, and forages around Port Chalmers for more to sustain her juicing habit. "That's one of my favourite things to give me a boost."
No7 Balmac's garden is integral to its sustainable ethos.

Moderation (most of the time)

While her love of baking is legendary – she started at No7 Balmac six years ago as a pastry chef – Penny says she doesn't struggle with temptation unless something is fresh from the oven.
"That's my biggest danger area. If I've just cooked pita bread or something, you'll probably see me eating it straight away. Otherwise I'm fairly good. With a lot of kids, moderation is pretty easy because we need to ration!"
When it comes to healthy eating, a big thing for Penny is listening to her body, and honouring when she might need a meat meal, or a lighter, spicier rice dish. And while she loves baking, she tries not too use too much butter at home or eat too much junk food.
In their colourful Port Chalmers home, Penny likes to feed the kids good, simple food.

Local inspiration

While waiting for the restaurant to reopen, Penny and owner Katrina visited Los Angeles to research ideas for the new menu. Penny's big takeaway from the trip was that the desire for local, seasonal produce and healthy food is not going away.
"People are really conscious of what they eat, the quality of the food, what they're drinking, where it's coming from," Penny says.
"It helped me think, 'What other local stuff is there to offer people?' It made me appreciate what we have here and wonder how we can start using more of it.
"We're committed to our surroundings – the garden, the people in our neighbourhood and the local produce that's grown around us in Otago and the South Island."
After a fire damaged it last year, the interior was redesigned by Cheshire Architects and the menu updated.
7 Balmacewan Road
Maori Hill
Dunedin
OPEN 7 DAYS:
Monday - Friday 7am-10pm
Saturday 8am-10pm
Sunday 8am-5pm

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