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May 2016 Issue
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Just add water

Andrew MacDonald of Absolute Wilderness. Photo: Tim Cuff
Absolute Wilderness co-founder Andrew MacDonald is taking backcountry cuisine back to basics, one ingredient at a time.

One of the most magical parts of tramping is the moment you prop up your trail-weary feet on a weathered stone in a wild landscape and dig into your well-earned supper. Andrew MacDonald has tramping cuisine down to an art form.

It all started on a trip he took with his father, Grant. A few years ago, they were tramping in Kahurangi National Park in search of the elusive rock wren. “It was a massive mission, and when you’re that tired and hungry, anything should taste good.”

As they sat down to dinner one night, Grant pulled out one of his first freeze-dried creations: a Sicilian pasta, created in his own freeze-drying machine. Andrew’s packaged food didn’t hold a flame to his dad’s delicacy, and inspiration struck: Grant’s background in food science, paired with Andrew’s  business skills would make them the perfect team to start a freeze-dry food company.

Thus, Absolute Wilderness was born. They started simply, freeze-drying all their favourite dishes. MacDonald says it takes a good deal of fine-tuning; one of their first products, Vanilla Cream Rice, took about 80 attempts to get right. As it turns out, not all vanilla is created equal.

MacDonald remains modest about his accomplishments. He says he just cooks food that tastes good. New meal ideas are born the easy way: food cravings. One of MacDonald’s favourites, Thom Kai Gai, was made after he returned from a trip to Mt Owen where he craved the Thai dish. It’s now one of their top sellers.

Simplicity is key, says MacDonald. “The harder you make it to screw up, the better the meal is going to end up.” One of MacDonald’s favourite things is seeing someone devouring one of his creations. “It’s awesome to walk into a hut and someone starts raving about the meals, and they don’t know you’re the guy who makes them,” he says.

MacDonald studied business and design at Auckland University of Technology and used part of a $9000 grant to get Absolute Wilderness up and running. He said while he’s always loved food and hasn’t been shy to experiment, he never thought he’d be in the food industry. “I’ve always been into the outdoors and into brands, and that’s what we are trying to build – brand and trust.”

On the weekends, MacDonald takes to the playground of outdoor opportunity in his backyard of Nelson. He says he loves caving, hunting and fishing, and can’t get enough of Kahurangi National Park in nearby Golden Bay.

MacDonald has big plans for his freeze-dried meals, hoping to one day distribute internationally. His advice for other outdoor-enthusiasts and entrepreneurs? “Trust yourself,” he says. “That’s the biggest thing. You’re the best motivator of your work.”