> Features

Mind to menu: Peter Gordon’s beef pesto

Mind to menu: Peter Gordon’s beef pesto

by Peter Gordon 17 June 2016

If the king of fusion cuisine is known for one dish, it's his beef pesto – an unusual but absolutely delicious mix of fillet steak, pesto, beetroot and olives. Peter Gordon tells us how he came up with the combination.

View more from this series:

Beef pesto is a dish I’ve been thinking a lot about in the past few years. It’s a dish I created and put on the menu at the original Sugar Club in Wellington in 1987. It was then on the two subsequent Sugar Clubs in Notting Hill (1995) and Soho (1998). When I opened the newest incarnation of The Sugar Club three years ago, on the fifty-third floor of the Sky Tower in Auckland, I put it back on the menu with a sense of trepidation. I wondered if it would stand the test of time. It certainly has. It became our biggest seller and there were many customers who remembered it from those earlier days and said it was exactly the same – which it should be as I’ve really not changed the recipe (apart from using tamari instead of soy sauce, due to an increasing amount of customers with a gluten intolerance).

We hosted a dinner celebrating The Sugar Club at The Providores two years ago and served this as one of the courses and it went down a storm. So we put it on the menu and it soon became our bestselling meat dish. I loved the fact it had a new audience and people began to speak of it as a classic.

I’ve been asked by my chefs many times how I came up with the idea of it, the combination of beef fillet marinated in soy, garlic, vinegar and a little chilli. Why, they asked, then grill it and sit on a warm salad of raw beetroot julienne (raw – really!), steamed Swiss chard and courgettes, tossed with a grain mustard dressing? Then why oh why dollop pesto on top and serve with black olives and a drizzle of jus? It’s a good question and one that possibly won’t make any sense to anyone but me. But I’ll try.

The marinade

I’d eaten teriyaki chicken at Japanese restaurants and loved the sweet and salty savouriness of the marinade. I’d also had beef done the same way, but hadn’t really enjoyed that as much. I had just returned from a year of backpacking around South East Asia and had fallen in love with chillies and the acidity of lemons or limes. I initially began marinating secondary cuts of beef in lemon zest and juice, lemongrass, garlic, ginger and soy. To be honest it wasn’t that good. Or rather, I thought it was a little complicated.

I then tried using beef fillet which seemed a little wrong, even to me, as I felt the delicacy of the meat was possibly going to be destroyed by the strength of the marinade itself. It still didn’t quite seem right, until one day I decided to swap out the lemon juice and zest as I wanted to have a sourness, but without a hint of lemon flavour. I’d previously used a mixture of rock salt, vinegar and kecap manis (sweet soy sauce from Indonesia and Malaysia) to cure lamb and venison loin, producing a sort of bresaola, and had enjoyed that so I applied some of that thinking to this more liquid marinade and I was really happy with the result. The meat tightened up as moisture was drawn out of it into the vinegary salty mixture. Tamari (and other soy sauces) add umami of course so in some way the meat tasted even meatier. So, that was the protein sorted.

The salad

Ask any New Zealander about beetroot and we’ll tell you we eat it by the truckload. Pickled slices appear in salads and burgers and as a teenager I’d discovered the joys of raw grated beetroot and carrot mixed with sultanas and dressed with a salad cream made from condensed milk, mustard and malt vinegar. In New Zealand we call Swiss chard ‘Silverbeet’ – which I have to say is a much nicer title. I like it barely cooked, but I also like its texture when left in salad dressing for a wee while, so I decided to mix it up with lightly steamed julienned courgettes (which were in season at the time) and the raw julienned beetroot.

The dressing is a garlicky, vinegary and grain mustard emulsion that coats the three vegetables with deliciousness. As a salad on its own it’s also a delicious side dish.

Then there was the Italian pesto – served with a Japanese-inspired, soy-marinated piece of meat. Well, it just seemed like a good idea at the time!

The acidity, freshness and slight crunchiness of the veggie salad and the savouriness of the marinade worked perfectly well with the oily aromatic pesto. I’m a huge fan of soy and dairy combinations in dishes – add soy sauce or miso paste to your next risotto instead of salt, or add a dash of soy to your next cream-based sauce to drizzle over fish or poultry. People have commented that beef just shouldn’t go with pesto – but I figure it works so I ignore the naysayers.

The fusion

I guess I just added the olives for some dramatic colour and to add some more savouriness. The dish is almost a little sweet from the beetroot in the salad and the Parmesan in the pesto. The olives add another level of complexity. I suppose in a way this is how I create most of my dishes. I picture a specific hero ingredient in my head – perhaps squid, lamb, mango or burrata. Then I think of an amalgam of influences I’d like to give it – and this is why I love cooking fusion dishes. If we think of Japan and Spain then this can lead onto a myriad of possibilities which might well be soba noodles and sesame combined with smoked paprika. Or it might be deep-fried silken tofu and Sancho peppers combined with Spanish cherries and sherry. In the mix will be other flavours of course, and simple components like potatoes or rice might provide the body to turn it into a main course. In fact, when I ask one of my chefs to create a new dish, I might say ‘I want a new duck dish and it needs to have some Thai and some English culinary influence’. It’s fascinating to see what that can produce.

I’m really proud that this dish is so good. It’s been enjoyed by people in numerous countries for almost thirty years now and it will continue to do so I’m sure. It is a strange combination, but it’s one that defies all odds and is much loved.

Fancy cooking Peter's famous dish at home? Find the recipe here.

Get in touch

Mind to menu: Peter Gordon’s beef pesto


Please enter text

The message must have at least characters

The message must be less than characters

Unfortunately, a problem occured and we are not able to send your comment. Please try again later.

Technical details: