Cooking with Tea and My Real High Tea Experience

I have had a real epiphany and it involves a revolution in my life were I now drink buckets of tea. I know it may sound strange but when I recently entered the Dilmah Real High tea competition with Auckland’s Waitakere estate and I didn’t realise what was about to happen to me.

It was a three week turn-around from me treating tea as tea bag in, tea bag out, 2 sugars, milk and don’t even put anything other than English Breakfast tea near my cup to adjusting to “which flavour will I have” fruit, green, black and making sure I brew for the correct amount of time.

I have now tried every single Dilmah tea and there are some really special and unique teas. For example the Italian Almond is just brilliant and taste like eating wedding cake and the Green tea with lemongrass and lemon is very refreshing and zingy.

So the challenge was to create a high tea experience for 3 judges highlighting tea within the food and to match the food. The emphasis though must be on the tea and the brewing. Me and Hae Hwa my high tea chef set out on finding some great food products first of all and then I would move onto cocktails.

After trying the teas I decided on a menu that reads something like this:

Goats cheese balls and pineapple braised pork belly served with Bucks Fizz using Lively Lime and Orange Sensation tea.

Tea smoked duck breast and free range chicken, native cress and wholegrain mustard mayo sandwiches served with a Rainforest inspired Iced Tea

Pistachio and olive oil cake and Italian Almond tea explosion chocolate cup served with a “Not toddy” (A hot toddy but using tea not alcohol)

Cardamon and orange crème brulee with Earl Grey Tea

Dilmah Berry Sensation Tea jelly with mango served with a Green tea with Lemongrass and Lemon Tea Martini

The pistachio cake and the chocolate cup were definitely the highlights and are actually now served on my own high tea menu that is how the competition has affected me. The chocolate cup is tempered chocolate, then an amaretto syrup which is then topped with an almond flavoured chocolate mousse using the Almond Tea and the flavour of the tea leaves is just sensational. The pistachio cake is soft, moist and green which represented the surrounding rainforest around Auckland’s Waitakere Estate.

For the drinks it was a case of testing and changing, I’ve never made cocktails and I was very happy with the flavours I had created especially in the martini.


There was one more element and that was presentation and probably the element we had most fun with. I came up with this idea of re-creating on the table what we can see out of the Waitakere Estate restaurant window. Those elements are rainforest, city and sea. So I set out the table with a colour theme of blue, white and a hint of green.

For the rainforest I had a huge vase of silver and green ferns, for the city I bought and made a huge Sky Tower model and the most popular with the judges was I bought 3 fish and 3 fish bowls all three named after the judges! They brought a lot of attention and now reside in the pond at Auckland’s Waitakere Estate.

Competition Day!

After managing to get all the ingredients from the rainforest to the viaduct intact we had a briefing before setting up the table, it looked perfect and in my own opinion I thought quietly that our table was probably the most thought out with a nice idea and a great story, hopefully the judges would agree.


The tension was building and the lack of cocktail and tea making experience was really laying heavy on my mind but we were here and it was our turn to cook. We had 30 minutes to prepare and 20 minutes to serve. We had an issue to begin with in the way that the team before us (they were instructed to so not really their fault) left an absolute mess in the kitchen which the porters were cleaning but me and Hae Hwa lost a good three minutes just cleaning a three minute period which would be vital.


The 30 minutes flew by and with 10 seconds to go we had to just flip out the jelly and it looked a little rugged. Oh those three minutes would have been great. So we were faced with the judges and I would make the drinks whilst Hae Hwa served the food, she did her job perfectly and I couldn’t have asked for more. The drinks on the other hand….. the Bucks Fizz was ok but not as I remember in the planning stage, the not toddy turned out how I wanted until I was told by Dilhan Fernando (son of Meril Fernando, founder of Dilmah) that using Cassia Bark (cinnamon stick) as a straw actually was a no-no as it is a carcinogenic something I never knew! The iced tea for me was perfect and so refreshing but judges thought it needed more tea, I believe I brewed my Earl Grey perfectly which was a plus for me and then the disaster………All competitors were told at the start to use the full 30 minutes, don’t clear down and leave the presentation plate in the kitchen also for photography. So clearly the previous to us did that and because they fell behind the porters were pressured and in the process of making sure it didn’t happen again not only threw away my presentation plate but also my ingredients for the last cocktail! GUTTED!  So I had to explain to the judges that I couldn’t make what was easily the best cocktail we had created!


Onto the feedback and it was generally ok, especially desserts the main fault throughout was everything was too big, something I had picked up from the instruction video, I had seen all these big desserts so I increased our sizes! Never mind, the lesson for next time is stick to what you do best and don’t change an already successful high tea.


Overall it was a great competition and we learnt so much. We won BRONZE in the end which was a great token for the work we had done over the three weeks, I now drink a huge amount of tea and have already started planning for next year, I have pretty much decided on the layout for next year. I have promised one of the judges whilst collecting my bronze that next year I will be back for gold!


Thanks to Dilmah for such a well-run competition and I truly can’t wait for next year. Congratulations to the Langham hotel, AUT and especially Kermadec these establishments all won gold with Kermadec being the eventual overall winners.