Green Shoots for Hospitality in New Zealand: A Q&A with Sarah Meikle

Wellington On A Plate is New Zealand’s flagship food and drink Festival. We sat down with Chief Executive Wellington Culinary Events Trust Sarah Meikle to talk hospitality recovery, food curation tips, destination marketing and what’s lined up for the 2020 Program.

How would you describe the food scene in Wellington, New Zealand?

Wellington has a very dynamic, vibrant food scene. I’d describe it as refined, casual dining –we’re often likened to Melbourne. Wellington is a compact city and easy to get about on foot, which means you’re always surrounded by cafes, restaurants and bars. 

In regard to the effects of COVID-19, it's a challenge for all hospo businesses everywhere, and Wellington’s no different. But we are working together as an industry to help everyone as much as we can. 

The Wellington hospitality scene is well known for is its close community, industry and consumer friendships, and capacity to collaborate and support one another. Everyone is very friendly and knows one another – we think that’s where much of our strength comes from. 

What’s happening in the beverage sector? What are the popular drops? 

Wellington has always led the way when it comes to beverages; often driven by boutique, independent businesses. 

New Zealand’s national obsession with coffee was born in Wellington in the ‘90s. And in the last decade, Wellington has led the way with a boom of craft breweries, which has seen us gain the title of the Craft Beer Capital of New Zealand. At present we’re seeing the rise of craft spirits, with more than 15 distilleries (and counting) popping up in the last two years. The fact we have one of the country’s top wine regions over the hill in the Wairarapa, solidifies the fact that we do libations very well!

We’re also seeing an increase in local businesses making kombucha, sodas, juices, hard seltzer and soda syrups, many incorporating New Zealand native natural ingredients.

Tell us about the annual program of events you deliver.

Visa Wellington On A Plate is comparable to Melbourne Food and Wine Festival – it’s a multi-layered, month-long festival, with foodie events, such as pop ups, degustations, family outings, masterclasses and eclectic eating experiences. In the first two weeks we have Dine Wellington, where restaurants present dishes especially created for the festival. Over the next two weeks Garage Project presents Burger Wellington. Cocktail Wellington runs over the entire month, with cocktails and their non-alc counterparts served with matched food pairings. 

What’s wonderful is how Wellingtonians – young, old and in-between, from foodies to families to students – support the festival. There really is something for everyone.  

Of course, we use the festival to promote the entire region’s culinary offering with a focus on the lower North Island of New Zealand. This doesn’t just include restaurants, bars and cafes, but also producers. Dine Wellington dishes must showcase a locally produced ingredient, and while optional for events, burgers and cocktails, we are starting to see venues doing this of their own accord.

What are the changes you have had to make to deliver this year’s event?

Hospitality is at the heart of what makes Wellington such a vibrant place to live, and safely continuing with Visa Wellington On A Plate was extremely important for us to support the industry. Although we’ve moved from August to October, we have a comparable number of entries for Dine Wellington, Burger Wellington and Cocktail Wellington, with over 100 events for people to attend. 

Another change is being unable to host the Chef Collaborations Series presented by Singapore Airlines, but instead we have more than 20 local chef collaborations now taking place. We’ve put our printed guide on hold and the whole program will be online. 

Following consultation with the industry, we've also decided not to have public ratings or Festival Awards for Burger, Cocktail, Dine Wellington – this year we're all about collaboration, community and lifting everyone up rather than competition. 

What changes have you seen in the hospitality sector from operators through to customers that are encouraging? 

There’s no question the health and safety of customer and hospitality members is our number one priority. 

The industry in Wellington has been very adaptable and quick to accommodate change between lockdown levels, revising their business models to stay connected with consumers. While not the same as being open for business under normal circumstances, it showed us how innovative and resourceful our hospitality industry is, as are consumers. 

What are some of your all-time favourite food experiences in your time at Wellington Culinary Events Trust? 

Hiakai Hāngi (hosted by Wellington chef, Monique Fiso of Hiakai with a line up of international chefs), the Remutaka Prison Gate to Plate (hosted at Remutaka Prison with a dining experience designed, prepared and served by the prisoners, who are mentored by Wellington chef, Martin Bosley), and international chef collabs with our local chefs are always special experiences. 

Also, any event which celebrates New Zealand. Last year, Egmont St. Eatery hosted Te Wheke, centred around one of the first stories of Te Whanganui-ā-tara (the Māori name for Wellington Harbour) as told by Kiwi actor, Rachel House, with key parts of the mythology reflected in the courses. 

Loads of the pop ups we've had over the years have been wonderful and created a lot of joy too, as they attract a variety of festival goers, The Oyster Saloon, which ran for a few festivals, was simply a caravan plonked in the middle of a carpark. People rocked on up, chose their variety of oysters and hung around the tables, laden with lemons, vinaigrettes and hot sauces, drinking drink beers and bevvies until their order was shucked or fried. It had a lovely, community vibe. 

During my last visit I learnt about the word ‘kai’, the Māori word for ‘food’. Tell us about some of the Māori ingredients and rituals that can be experienced in New Zealand. 

Māori ingredients are becoming more commonplace on restaurant menus. I was looking through this year’s Visa Wellington On A Plate Dine dishes and they’re full of native flora like kawakawa and pikopiko – around around 35% of Dine dishes are using native ingredients. 

We‘ve seen a lot of Wellington chefs experimenting with traditional cooking methods too: cooking in the ground (in umu or hāngi), baking rēwena Māori bread and using more ingredients from the sea, like kelps, sea grass and native shellfish. We’re also seeing a lot of mindfulness around the resource of native species, with restaurants overwhelmingly sourcing kaimoana from sustainable producers, and forgoing species under threat.

One of the things we hope the festival does do is give consumers more confidence and familiarity when trying these ingredients and cuisine, as well as gaining more knowledge and awareness on sustainable sourcing of ingredients. 

When the borders open between our countries what are some of the mouth-watering experiences you can recommend to visitors?

Some of New Zealand’s best food experiences are a combination of amazing food, amazing location and an amazing provider. 

It might be fish and chips on the beach in Nelson or crayfish under the cliffs in Kaikoura or spending time with a local kaitiaki (a te reo Māori word used for the concept of a guardian for the sky, sea and land) on the beaches of Hawkes Bay and enjoying kaimoana (te reo Māori for ‘seafood’). Those experiences aren’t just about the food, but the people you’re with and the environment you are sharing.

For more details On Wellington On A Plate 1 to 31 October 2020