Oamaru: A boutique dream
THE smell of freshly baked bagels lingers as I sit to an extravagant breakfast of rhubarb compote, muesli, lemon poppy seed muffins and an assortment of jams.
"Everything is made in-house ... those bagels were made this morning," James Glucksman says.
I'm not at the local bakery or cafe. It's better than that. I'm in the dining room of five-star historic lodge Pen-y-bryn, a $1.2million mansion which has sat gracefully on Oamaru's South Hill since 1889.
Original furniture decorates the 836sq m boutique hotel, which is thought to be the largest single-storey home in the South Island.
The ceiling was imported from Florence, the wall-size bookshelf on my left was carved in England and the fireplace was carved in Milan, forming an international vibe and a raft of history stories. It makes sense, considering owners James Glucksman, 47, and his partner James Boussy, 43, have travelled the world.
Glucksman, who was a health-care consultant, speaks eight languages including Hebrew, Russian and Chinese. Boussy, originally a dentist, isn't too shabby with languages, either.
The American couple moved to Oamaru 15 months ago after spending three years in Beijing, China's busy capital. They went from living among 19.6 million people to just 12,000. And, Glucksman says, they are living their dream.
The couple had never really worked in the hospitality industry before, but it is evident that some old timers could learn a thing or two from "The Jameses".
Boussy is the gardener who maintains the property's colourful landscape, and Glucksman is the cook who makes everything from scratch using local produce.
He makes sure my cup is topped up with freshly brewed coffee before proudly showing me the local newspaper. Splashed across the front page are The Jameses with their unique homemade gingerbread house.
This isn't just any old gingerbread house. It replicates the Christchurch Cathedral - before its unfortunate destruction in the February 22 earthquake.
The duo spent around 100 hours creating the model of the 130-year-old cathedral, complete with intricately detailed stained glass windows made out of hundreds and thousands.
"Like many throughout the country we were devastated to learn that this beautiful historic building will be partly demolished and will never look the same again," Glucksman says.
"It seemed absolutely fitting that for our second Christmas celebration in New Zealand we would create something that paid homage to the original building, while also fundraising to help Christchurch rise up and get back on its feet."
The creation took six batches of cookie dough. But, Boussy says, it's not wise to eat the house which has been on display.
"We make mini gingerbread men out of the same dough so people can still taste it if they like," Boussy said. Eventually, the gingerbread cathedral will be broken up and enjoyed by the property's birds.
Glucksman and Boussy have been replicating iconic buildings for 14 years, inspired by celebrity cook Martha Stewart. They began by recreating their own home in Virginia, and moved on to more challenging architecture, including the Royal Palace Temples of Thailand, Potala Palace in Tibet, the Moscow Cathedral of the Saviour and the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
It is the second day of my stay at Pen-y-bryn and The Jameses have already made me feel at home with their witty personalities and relaxed attitudes. These men really know how to turn five-star accommodation into an unforgettable experience through exquisite food and good conversation.
"The restaurant doesn't have a menu, our guests don't know what they're having until it's in front of them," Glucksman says in explanation of their point of difference.
"I ask what the guests can't or won't eat and I just cook what I feel like that day."
Glucksman says he likes to cook international food, from Brazilian to Moroccan, using local ingredients such as Jersey Benne potatoes, Whitestone cheeses and Ormandy Kakanui tomatoes.
I am lucky enough to have eaten his cuisine the night before, from an impressive menu of Havoc pork belly alla Porchetta and steam pudding of Palmerston asparagus followed by sachertorte and lodge-churned salted butter caramel icecream.
That was after tasting canapes that included a citrus and vodka-cured salmon rolled around a mixture of creme fraiche, capers and dill, served with local wine in the comfortable and stylish drawing room. Yes, all of it was home-made by Glucksman.
For a man who has no cooking qualifications, he's impressive.
When I ask him how he became such a good cook he replies simply, "I have been eating food for 47 years."
But it's the range of conversation that grabs me as I listen to the Jameses tell intriguing anecdotes of their time in Beijing and in other parts of the world. Like walking, talking encyclopaedias, their conversation never runs dry.
I take a quick moment to flick through the Pen-y-bryn guest book and it appears there is only one problem with this lodge - no-one wants to leave.