Life & Leisure Article

Dancing Chef


Words: Lyn Barnes  Photographs: Aaron McLean


NATASHA MACALLER (right) has wanted to live in New Zealand since she was 12. Classmates in California, where she grew up, were Kiwis and she was intrigued. Then her sister married a New Zealander so the journeys to the other side of the world began and with them the love affair with a country she now calls home. Today she lives in the Bay of Islands where her boundless energy is spent creating new taste treats.

Natasha retired from ballet after an impressive career that culminated in a three-and-a-half-year stint in The Phantom of the Opera. She danced on Broadway in New York and Los Angeles. Now her second vocation as a pastry chef is on the rise and she’s become known as Dancing Chef. Ballet and baking may seem worlds apart but to Natasha, or Tash as she’s called, they are both performance arts, creative disciplines that demand dedication and hours of painstaking practice. Tash started ballet lessons at the age of six and turned professional at 13. During her 30 years as a professional ballerina she performed with New York’s prestigious Joffrey Ballet and the Boston Ballet.

Realizing that she could not dance forever, Tash used the time during her seasonal lay-offs to become a professional cook and set up her own catering business. For eight years she owned and operated Dancing Chef Catering, serving mainly the TV, theatre, film and food industries. She catered for events in all sorts of unusual places, from sailboats to skyscrapers. She completed an intensive 18-month cookery course at the Colorado Culinary Institute and graduated number one in her class. Success led to success. In 1996 the petite blonde created an appetizer for Team California in the Culinary Olympics in Berlin and took the gold medal.

After graduating from her culinary course she worked with iconic American chef Charlie Trotter at the MGM in Las Vegas as well as at top restaurants including Campanile and Spago in Los Angeles. At Union Restaurant and Bar in Santa Monica she not only wrote the menus but hired the staff, a demanding job when clients included John Travolta and Kelly Preston and the bigwigs from Miramax and BMW. She also created theatrical bon bons for Michael Crawford’s character Fosco in another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, The Woman in White. It was when she was working in Hawaii that she met celebrated Kiwi chef Peter Gordon. Since then they’ve become good friends and Tash is currently developing four dessert sauces to add to the Peter Gordon range.

Now she challenges herself constantly to  create new tastes, is looking to start her own cookie company and is working on a cookbook. Tash intends to spend nine months of each year in New Zealand with occasional trips to Los Angeles and London to continue consulting and teaching. Her dinner-party-dessert classes at London’s Divertimenti cooking school are always popular, as is her Art of Plated Desserts course at Westlake Academy in Los Angeles.

Since living in Northland Tash has been inspired by its subtropical flavours. “It’s such a bountiful place – paradise.” From not being able to even pronounce the word feijoa, she’s already looking forward to the next season and what this multi-talented chef can’t do with a tamarillo is not worth thinking about. She’s had some major landscaping work done on her formerly scrub-covered property and added an orchard to complement the fresh produce she buys each week at the farmers’ market in Kerikeri.

Keen to share her knowledge and passion for cookery, Tash spent an evening last May teaching students at the Culinary Institute of New Zealand in Kerikeri how to make her melting moments filled with roasted tamarillo butter cream. They were served as a finale to the Matariki Awards, the region’s first culinary competitions, which were held in Whangarei in June.

She relishes the challenges but says her strengths in the kitchen are in the starters and endings. “I do elegant comfort food,” she explains. “I can do the mains but I prefer to do desserts and entrées. I’m not into show food.” What makes Tash’s baking special is that she uses sugar as a seasoning and not as a major ingredient. “I allow the fruit and chocolate to stand centre stage by enhancing their qualities.” She adores cooking with chocolate. Bittersweet Chocolate Tart with Crème Fraiche Sorbet is a specialty, as are Espresso Brownies. However, as a dancer and always conscious of her weight, she will only ever taste rather than consume. So she gives away most of her baking, much to the delight of the landscapers.

Recently Tash made packs of her specialty cookies for NZ Life & Leisure clients as thank-you gifts. Included in each box were her Kerikeri Orange Chocolate Sparkles, melt-in-the-mouth and gluten-free to boot. Other favourites are Organic Strawberry Shortcake with Yen Ben Lemon Curd and Warmed Rhubarb and Raspberry Cobbler with Vanilla Ice Cream. She relishes the opportunity to work with New Zealand products and has incorporated award-winning Northland Mahoe Greek yoghurt into her pine-nut-cornmeal-crust tarts topped with manuka-honey-roasted fresh figs. And now she’s using Marlborough sea salt with chocolate caramel. For her the opportunities are endless.