Written by STEPHANIE SUMELL Photos by MICHAEL COONS
Gwithyen Thomas and his wife, Justine, put their hearts and souls into every aspect of their Westlake Village restaurant.
Gwithyen, 26, and Justine, 24, opened Aroha New Zealand Cuisine last September to provide guests with high-end dining inspired by the country Gwithyen called home for most of his life.
Aroha, which means “love” in Maori, the indigenous language of New Zealand, serves a wide selection of appetizers, entrees and desserts that reflect the vibrant quality of the Kiwi culture.
“People in the suburbs deserve great food just as much as people in downtown Los Angeles. I really care about bringing high quality food to this area,” Gwithyen says.
The chef, who hails from Auckland, New Zealand, is doing just that by using extra-fresh ingredients that are sourced locally and abroad. The clams used in several of the dishes are extracted from the ocean floor near New Zealand only six hours before they are put on a plane to the states. The butter, which is a deeper yellow than American butter, is also an import of the country known for its stunning scenery.
Gwithyen uses mostly organic produce and aims to enhance—not mask—the natural flavors of the food. He only uses sea salt to season his dishes.
Sous chef Noe Lopez, line cook Robert Stange and pastry chef Joey Miller share in Gwithyen’s vision for sophisticated cuisine.
Gwithyen said Miller rose to the occasion when he asked him to create a toasted marshmallow dessert that didn’t resemble a s’more.
“It was delicious,” he says. “(Miller) will come up with this crazy idea, plate it for me and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever had.”
That sort of innovation is what sets the restaurant apart.
Aroha is known for its horopito-crusted venison with sweet potato, cherry compote, pistachio and a vanilla parsnip puree.
The unique combination of sweet and savory flavors was a hit with celebrity chef and reality television personality Bobby Flay during a culinary event at the Breeders’ Cup last year.
“He said it was the best dish there,” Gwithyen recalls. “For someone as distinguished as him to say that meant a lot.”
Aroha, which adjusts its recipes to accommodate those with allergies, also has an impressive dessert menu that includes an assortment of homemade sorbets and ice creams.
One of the chef’s favorite offerings, aside from the toasted marshmallow dish, is the hokey pokey ice cream sandwich. The dessert pairs homemade vanilla ice cream with bits of honeycomb toffee and oatmeal cookies. The cookies, named “ANZAC” after the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, were a staple in care packages sent to World War I soldiers and remain a traditional favorite.
“It’s fantastic,” Gwithyen says. “The whole dessert screams New Zealand.”
As does the decor.
Justine, who has a background in graphic design and video editing, designed Aroha’s interior to have the same laid-back vibe of a New Zealand eatery.
“Really fine dining restaurants often feel so dark and depressing,” Justine says. “Whether it is a fancy restaurant or not, you should always feel comfortable.”
Justine, who also designs print materials for the business, says she and Gwithyen make a great team.
The couple, who are expecting their first child in the fall, describe themselves as hands-on people who took the path less traveled to get to where they are today.
Gwithyen, who quit school when he was 17 years old, got his first big break when he was part of the opening team for an upscale cafe. He was then headhunted to work as an apprentice for the renowned Chef Mohammed Arun at the Iguacu Restaurant and Bar in Auckland.
“He was old school,” Gwithyen says. “I learned so much from him in such a short amount of time.” So much so, in fact, that Arun asked Gwithyen to follow him when he took a position at the Stamford Plaza Hotel in Auckland.
Gwithyen agreed and steadily moved up the ranks at Stamford to run the à la carte restaurant where he oversaw a kitchen of 18 chefs.
It was at the hotel restaurant where he met his future wife while she was vacationing in New Zealand with her family.
Because Justine has multiple food allergies, the smitten chef made adjustments to meet her needs.
Gwithyen offered to show the family, who lived in Colorado at the time, around Auckland so he could spend some time with Justine and sparks flew.
They went on only one date before Justine returned home but their connection was undeniable. After a long-distance courtship, Gwithyen moved to Colorado. The couple tied the knot four years ago.
Six months later, they moved from Colorado to California so Justine could work at an entertainment company.
Gwithyen was working at The Local Peasant, a gastropub in Woodland Hills, and Justine opted to work as a freelance video editor before the couple decided to strike out on their own.
Both Gwithyen’s mother and Justine’s grandfather passed away of natural causes within the same week two years ago. The couple pooled life insurance, inheritance payouts and personal savings to take a chance on something they both believed in.
“My grandfather always supported my desire to have my own business and his mother had dreams for him,” Justine explains. “We thought the best way to honor both of their memories was to do something they would be proud of.”
“We said, ‘Let’s just do it. Let’s go all in,’” Gwithyen adds. “The good thing is we’re young so we can recover if this doesn’t work.”
But, so far, it’s working just fine.
The couple regularly speaks to their guests to ensure they are satisfied with their dining experience, Gwithyen says. “We legitimately care about every one of our customers.”
2 cups sliced strawberries
2 cups baby arugula
2 oz. Chevre goat cheese, crumbled
1 cup candied walnuts*
Champagne Vanilla Dressing
Combine strawberries, arugula and walnuts in a bowl. Add dressing to taste and toss salad. Transfer to individual salad plates. Top with crumbled goat cheese and serve.
*Candied walnuts are available at Whole Foods Market.
1 vanilla bean**
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 Tbsp. champagne vinegar***
1 Tbsp. hot water
1½ Tbsp. honey
½ tsp. Dijon mustard
Split the vanilla bean and scrape out the seeds. Combine vanilla bean seeds, champagne vinegar, honey and Dijon mustard in a mixing bowl. Slowly add the extra virgin olive oil and hot water to mix, using a handheld blender on high.
** Whole vanilla beans are available at Sprouts; 1 tsp. vanilla extract may be substituted.
***Available at Sur La Table and other specialty stores.
½ cup sliced shallots
1 tsp. chopped garlic
12 Prince Edward Island mussels*
6 New England clams*
4 oz. Atlantic salmon, diced*
4 oz. Pacific rockfish, diced*
4 cups fish stock
½ tsp. saffron
2 tsp. chili flakes (if desired)
4 slices lemon
4 slices crusty sourdough bread
Saute shallots and garlic until lightly cooked in a large frying pan. Add clams, mussels, and saffron. Add chili flakes, if desired. Add fish stock and fish. Once shellfish are open, usually in about four minutes, season with salt. Cover frying pan and simmer seafood until cooked, about 8 minutes. Place in a bowl with broth and slice of crusty sourdough bread. Garnish with lemon. Serve immediately.
4 lamb top sirloin*
4 large purple potatoes
4 cups apple wood chips
2 Tbsp. cumin seeds
4 Tbsp. garlic aioli**
1 cup Pine Nut Raisin Vinaigrette
Fresh mint to garnish
Place wood chips and cumin seeds in a roasting tray and place on stovetop. Place potatoes in a steamer tray. Then place steamer tray on top of wood chips. Cover with foil. Smoke for 3 minutes on medium heat. Season lamb with salt and sear in a hot pan for 1 minute on each side. Place in the oven on 380º for 7 minutes. After removing lamb from the oven, allow it to rest for 2 minutes before cutting. Slice each smoked potato into 6 pieces. Place a generous spoonful of garlic aioli on the bottom of each dinner plate. Place the potatoes on top of the aioli. Top with serving of sliced lamb, served medium rare. Spoon Pine Nut Raisin Vinaigrette around outside of plate. Garnish with mint and serve immediately.
*Lamb top sirloin is available at Bristol Farms.
**Garlic aioli is available at Whole Foods Market and most major supermarkets.
1 packet Jell-O*
½ cup fresh strawberries, sliced
½ cup fresh raspberries
½ cup fresh blackberries
2 cups dark chocolate
2 cups vanilla ice cream
Powdered sugar for garnish
Melt dark chocolate over double broiler. Once melted, pour onto cookie sheet, about 1/8” thick, and place in fridge to set. Prepare Jell-O mix according to package instructions. Add fresh berries and allow to set. Break off a piece of chocolate sheet and place on bottom of individual plate, topping it with a scoop of ice cream. Place another piece of chocolate on top of ice cream. Top with spoonful of fruit Jell-O. Garnish with a sprinkle of powdered sugar. Serve immediately.