After a year of uncertainty and disruption, the capital’s hospitality industry says Visa Wellington On a Plate will bring a much-needed boost – to spirits as well as business.
For two-and-a-half weeks in August 2018, Wellingtonians Casey and Blair Wilson worked 20-hour days, taking turns to sleep in four-hour shifts. “We had no understanding of how crazy it was going to be,” Casey admits now.
The Wilsons are not pilots or surgeons or long-haul truck drivers – they’re barbecuers. The reason for those punishing 17 days? Burgers. Close to 3,000 burgers, all the same variety: two buns encasing a tower of smoked beef short rib that had spent 10 hours on the barbecue (hence the sleep shifts), with candied bacon and boozy cheese sauce. This was Brewed to the Bone, which earned the Wilsons the coveted Best Burger title in Visa Wellington On a Plate’s Burger Wellington competition in 2018, their first year of operation.
Wilson Barbecue started life early that year as a food truck, parking up outside Tuatara’s Third Eye brew bar in central Wellington. Self-taught barbecue enthusiasts – in their wedding vows, Casey promised Blair she’d never say no to him buying another barbecue – the couple initially saw the truck as a weekend gig, but soon realised the barbecue life was more than a hobby. They hadn’t given much thought to Visa Wellington On a Plate but were encouraged to enter by the Tuatara crew. “So we drank a bottle of wine and came up with it in three hours,” says Casey. Their expectations were low. “We kind of just thought of it as a marketing experience – we never thought we would win.”
Posting a professionally shot photo of the burger to social media was the Wilsons’ first inkling it might be popular. “It went a bit crazy but we still didn’t think it was going to be that busy. We were just a food truck; Blair and I are not chefs, we have no formal training. We just had this idea and taste tested it and it tasted good.”
On the first day of Burger Wellington, they sold out of the Brewed to the Bone in an hour, and it only got busier as word spread. “Every day we’d open at 12 and there’d be these huge lines,” Casey remembers. “I’d go down the line and be like, ‘How many do you want?’ There were some days when we’d be turning people away before we even opened.
“We completely cleared the country out of ribs – it got to the point where our supplier was flying around New Zealand trying to work out where we could get more ribs from.”
Despite all this, the ever-humble Wilsons were surprised their creation was voted into the finals by festival-goers and, ultimately, was named top burger by a panel of judges. The burger frenzy took them from relative unknowns to barbecue stars.
“After that a lot more people knew who we were,” says Casey. “It catapulted what’s happened since then.”
What’s happened is the business has grown and grown, and now has its first permanent home in Johnsonville: a full restaurant with all the favourites from the Wilsons food truck, plus some extras, like brunch and booze. It opened on August 12 this year – unfortunately the same day the country shifted back to alert level two. The night before, Casey was on the way to hospital with their baby son Noah when the announcement came over the radio that community transmission was back, so it was poor timing all round. He’s fine now, but had to have a Covid-19 test, which meant the whole family had to isolate until the (thankfully negative) result came back – not ideal when you’ve got a new restaurant to run.
“It was like, ‘Oh my god, we’ve just opened this business one day ago and it’s our second day of operating and we’re not even there’.”
The team took it in their stride though, and the restaurant has been as busy as it could have been under level two restrictions. The Wilsons are now gearing up for another year of Visa Wellington On a Plate, which this year has moved out to run through the month of October. They’re doing not one but two burgers – one at the restaurant, one at the truck – plus a Dine dish and an event, BBQ Bites, which will focus on yum cha-style small plates from the barbie.
“It’s something we look forward to every year; it’s a really cool thing to be part of,” says Casey of Visa Wellington On a Plate. “It’s also the one time of the year you know you’re going to have a really good trade, which is really important in times like this when so many businesses are struggling.
“Hopefully it will give people a bit of a boost, and more support for hospo in Wellington.”
Wellington on a Plate has been held every August since 2009. In 2010, Visa came on board to back the vision of the festival’s co-founder and director Sarah Meikle, who had an ambition to celebrate the capital’s flourishing food scene and help the hospitality industry through the winter. But that ubiquitous 2020 word “unprecedented” pops up again here – Meikle says the decision was made to push this year’s festival back to October pretty early on in the first lockdown, making 2020 the first year August in Wellington hasn’t been all about Visa Wellington On a Plate.
The Spinoff spoke to Meikle in early September, when in a usual year she and the team would be letting out a deep exhale, but instead were just gearing up. “It does feel odd and ironically it’s been the warmest, best-weather August in living memory. But it is what it is – we’ve got to just go with it and keep focused on the future.”
This year’s programme had just been finalised when Covid-19 threw everything up into the air, and Meikle knew that a festival months down the track was the last thing hospo businesses wanted to be thinking about when they were wondering how they’d get through lockdown. “We kind of went, ‘We’ll come back to you in a month, don’t worry about us’,” says Meikle.
“For us it was more about making sure the festival was still there afterwards and it continues to deliver. It was about supporting the industry in other ways. What makes Wellington so special, especially in a hospitality sense, is the fact everyone works together and collaborates. You kind of have to come together in moments of crisis and go, ‘Right, we’ve got to help each other out.’”
So the Visa Wellington On a Plate team helped the industry out by setting up a website called At Yours, an online directory of Wellington eateries offering delivery and contactless takeaways in alert levels two and three.
“It was incredible, it really kick-started people again,” says Meikle. “The traffic was absurd – it was pretty overwhelming.
“And from that moment on, people were pretty keen to talk about Wellington on a Plate again.”
Some events required a rethink, while others couldn’t happen at all – those involving international chefs, for example. “We had some amazing talent lined up this year who are still desperate to come to New Zealand,” says Meikle.
“I’m disappointed we can’t do some things – we can’t get people from overseas – but I’m excited about running the festival. I actually think the industry has responded amazingly well and there’s some awesome programming domestically.”
The Wilsons are not alone in getting a boost from Burger Wellington. As the name suggests, Fryday Donuts started out focusing solely on the deep-fried holey treats, but thanks to their Burger Wellington 2019 offering, customers from all over now seek out the Porirua-based food truck for their burgers.
“A lot of people just discovered us then,” says Joy Aing, who runs Fryday with her husband Tainui Salzmann. “They came to try us and they found our burger unique, it just started spreading and we got really busy. Then after that, people travelled to us just to try our burgers.
“Now we sell way more burgers than doughnuts – we’d go through 20-30kg beef mince in three days,” says Aing.
Fryday’s 2019 offering was the Lambro, featuring the now signature fry bread bun. It’s not a Māori fry bread, more “a take on the Hungarian and Native American stretch fry bread, which is a totally different texture”, explains Aing. “I did my research!”
Either way, it’s delicious, and has become the staple of the nine or so burgers Fryday offers. Of course they have something special lined up for this year’s Burger Wellington. Our customers come to us and say, ‘What burger are you going to do this year?’ People are excited.” Sneak peek: it’s called Meatloaf – The Burger not the Singer, and features meatloaf with streaky smoked bacon, honey bourbon glaze, pickles and mayo in a crumbed doughnut bun.
It’s not just burgers that help new businesses make their mark through Visa Wellington On a Plate, however. Last year, the winning dish of the festival was simply called The Egg, on offer at Tory Street’s Grace Patisserie, which was only a few months old at the time.
The Egg wasn’t really an egg, it was a delicious piece of visual trickery comprising a white chocolate-dipped coconut mousse with a passionfruit curd yolk on a nest of hazelnut sponge and kataifi (a kind of shredded pastry).
The pastry wizard responsible was Mariah Grace, owner of Grace Patisserie. “I think our dish was the most Instagrammed dish in the festival, which really helped us to spread our name out there,” says Grace. The Egg’s popularity has no doubt contributed to the rush on tickets for the event Grace is co-hosting this year with Auckland chef Will Mordido – a four-course dessert degustation, all three sessions of which have sold out.
Businesses have caught on to the Visa Wellington On a Plate effect – the boost taking part in the festival can give newbies. Mark Faircloth and his wife Caroline, for example, are using the festival to launch their new gin company, Aurora Distillery.
Covid-19 has forced the couple to change their plans somewhat. “We started thinking about setting up our business in October last year, and our primary market was going to be cruise ships,” explains Faircloth. “It was going to be 50/50 manufacture and gin experience, but we’ve very much swung towards manufacture.”
The initial plan was to have a premises on the Petone foreshore to host the “gin experience” – a hands-on, distill-your-own-and-leave-with-a-bottle deal. They’d market directly to cruise ship passengers visiting Wellington.
For obvious reasons, cruise ship passengers are a bit thin on the ground at the moment, but thankfully there are still plenty of gin lovers in Wellington and the Hutt. Aurora was planning a soft launch in April and then to launch fully at Visa Wellington On a Plate in August, but the delay until October has worked well. “I think our plans have synced with Wellington on a Plate’s plans,” Faircloth says.
They were keen to launch through Visa Wellington On a Plate “for both emotional and cynical business reasons”, he says. Simply, they’ve always loved the festival, and have been attending every year since it began, the year after the couple migrated from the UK. “We’ve been to lots of events, it’s fantastic fun and incredible value for money.”
Launching through the festival “is low risk because you’ve got that Wellington On a Plate framework around you”, he explains. “It just makes it really easy for us. And they’ve always been really supportive.”
The launch event, Let’s Sling Some Gin Together, will let participants select their own botanicals and distill their very own gin in individual stills, all the while sampling the company’s four core gins – which will retail under the name Arrival, due to a Russian vodka company owning the Aurora trademark for spirits in New Zealand – and whipping up some cocktails, paired with a panna cotta canape. They’ll leave with a tasty keepsake of the evening – their very own gin – and hopefully with the Aurora/Arrival name firmly logged in their brains for when the core gins show up behind bars and on liquor store shelves.
Aurora Distillery was one of many businesses forced by Covid-19 to change their plans – and one of many to embrace the opportunity forged out of chaos.
Chef and restaurateur Asher Boote, a well-known name in Wellington hospo circles, took over the stalwart Tinakori Bistro three years ago. The plan was to get the place back on its feet and then sell it – to “take a place from liquidation to a profitable restaurant that’s worth something”, Boote explains.
The plan was going swimmingly, until Covid-19 hit. But Boote didn’t stew on it, and has instead set about finding a solution. “I’m a big believer in embracing the unfortunate stuff, really realising what it is and then working forward,” he explains. “I’m not eternally optimistic, all positive vibes – I’d rather go, ‘This is a bad thing, so how do you fix the bad thing?’”
He fixed it by rebranding the bistro as Daisy’s, which he sees as “more of a bistro than Tinakori Bistro ever was”.
“It’s very much about being a community-focused, neighbourhood-focused spot,” Boote says, whether you want to pop in for a drink and a snack after work or make it a special occasion. “We’re trying to be as open and welcoming as possible.”
Despite the fact Tinakori Bistro had been around for 30 years, there was no kickback to the rebrand, says Boote. “Everyone has been like, ‘Oh, this is great.’
“I see it as an evolution of Tinakori Bistro but it needed a fresh face, enough of a change to change people’s expectations when they come.”
The food is about embracing Kiwiana, he says. “It’s things people will remember from childhood tables, as well as a lot of multicultural reflections on what New Zealand is now.” That could mean slow-roasted lamb shoulder with mint jelly made to a five-generations-old recipe, or a tamarind-based pumpkin curry that’s “still very homely and soul-foody, but definitely not 40s, 50s, 60s New Zealand”.
Daisy’s Dine dish for Wellington on a Plate feeds into that – it’s a celebration of rhubarb and custard, with rhubarb grown, all going to plan, on Boote’s new farm plot in Shannon, and croissant bread and butter pudding using dough from Goods Manufactory, a few doors down from Daisy’s. Boote describes it as “somewhere in between a crumble and bread and butter pudding”. “When you eat it you’ll instantly recognise it, but it’s still ‘restaurant’, still more than you’d be able to cook at home,” he explains.
Boote’s ever-evolving eateries have been participating in Visa Wellington On a Plate for years. “I like it as you can test things out, maybe reach some new people – look at things a little bit differently,” he says.
Last year Bandersnack, Boote’s interactive dining experience at Hillside Kitchen, inspired by the Netflix interactive film Bandersnatch, was one of the biggest hits of the festival. It returns this year with a twist, and the fact that all 11 evenings had sold out the week before Visa Wellington On a Plate even launched was a sign of how popular the experience will be.
It’s reassuring, as Boote says he wasn’t sure how diners would feel about the festival this year. “I was wondering about that burnout,” he says. “The other thing is hospo’s been in the news a lot, and you don’t know if that’s necessarily going to have a positive return.
“But it does seem like the buzz is still there.”
Meikle has found the same. “We were a bit cautious with how we approached the launch,” she explains, but says the response was huge. First Bites, the limited preferential ticketing programme that gives access to tickets in advance, had its highest level of subscription ever this year, and people just seem grateful the festival is happening at all, she says.
“Every year when we launch the festival, on the first day we’ll have complaints. It’s inevitable – someone will complain about the website not working or whatever. But this year, we had not one complaint.
“I think people are just a lot more understanding. The relativity has changed – it’s not life or death if you miss out on a ticket. People are really appreciative.
“And the diehards are definitely still out there – I’ve already seen quite a few burger spreadsheets.”
Six other events not to miss
This year, seven events have received Visa Event Grants of up to $5,000, chosen because they support local businesses, are memorable “one-off” events, connect people through food and/or are highly engaging and immersive experiences
This excellent event from food rescue organisation Kaibosh has been running for five years (check out The Spinoff’s write-up on last year’s dinner), with a different chef each year, and for 2020 they’re all coming back for one big happy collaboration.
Highwater opened last year and it’s seriously good. This year’s event is all about the, well, here and now – a three-course dinner will focus on local and seasonal, and there’ll be a DJ and projected visuals throughout the night. “Guests are encouraged to dress up, lose themselves in the moment and dance in their seat.” And in 2020, isn’t that exactly what we all need?
The best of the mighty Miramar peninsula comes together in this event that takes supporting local to a whole new level, with Shelly Bay Baker milling flour to be made into pasta by Bongusto, and Kōkihi providing veg, Wooden Spoon ice cream and Double Vision beer.
The Auckland pay-as-you-feel dining concept is making the move south, with tickets to the launch event helping pay to feed vulnerable members of the community over the eight weeks of the pop-up. Chefs Dariush Lolaiy (Cazador), Laura Greenfield (Field & Green) and Hayden McMillan (Floriditas) will be on the pans.
One for the nostalgia fiends, this event will reunite the chefs and restaurateurs who made Wellington the culinary capital of NZ back in the day. The likes of Martin Bosley, Lois Daish, Grant Allen, Grant Kinnear, Jeff Kennedy and James and Julie Clark will be presenting signature dishes from legendary late 80s locales like Flipp, the Brooklyn Cafe and Toad Hall.
Pinot noir speed dating, anyone? Wairarapa winemakers have minutes to woo you with their top drops, then everyone votes for their favourites. Sounds way more fun than speed dating people.
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