News | 12 September 2023
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Food for thought in the capital

It wasn’t that long ago that 'meat and three veg' was standard Kiwi fare, and Cobb & Co was a family treat. Compare that with today’s burgeoning food scene and international culinary acclaim, and we may as well be on another planet. So how did Wellington develop its foodie culture?

Orsini's, the hallmark of silver service elegance for nearly 30 years in the capital, manager Phillip Temple. Photo courtesy of the Evening Post.
Philip Temple, Orsini's proprietor, presenting a bottle of wine to a customer. Photograph by Ray Pigney. Dominion Post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1988/4458/2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22334021

To investigate this dramatic change of scene we need to start with an amuse bouche: the early days of European settlement.

As an island nation, seafood was the main component of the Māori diet, but the European settlers weren’t so au fait with fish and shellfish. Instead they found themselves in a meat-eater's paradise - compared with the slim pickings back in Britain - and eating meat at every meal was a sign of success.

During early European settlement, Māori supplied the North Island with fresh produce, including potatoes, cabbage, tobacco, and wheat. By the 1880s, many of the Chinese prospectors had turned to market gardening as the gold rush slowed down south – settling along the Otaki coast as the train lines were developed.  

Wellington apple pie contest conducted by radio station 2ZB in the Town Hall, Wellington, on 23 April 1940. Radio personality Aunt Daisy (Maud Basham) stands at the front of the stage.
Aunt Daisy judges an apple pie competition run by 2ZB in the Wellington Town Hall in April 1940. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: 1/2-100928-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22339928.

The early settlers tried to recreate their homeland in all areas, including food. Ingredients weren't always easy to come by, however, so a bit of improvisation was required – for instance, the popular 'colonial' goose was actually a stuffed lamb!

As many of the early settlers were of Scottish heritage, baking also reflected Celtic traditions. Home baking was the mark of hospitality in early New Zealand, and this theme continued with recipe books dedicating most of their columns to the art of baking sweet goods.

This is best reflected in Edmonds Cookery Book. Published in 1908, it was initially publicity material for baking powder – little did they know that it would go on to become one of New Zealand’s most iconic recipe books.

Of course, we can’t mention iconic cookbooks without a nod to Maud Basham aka Aunt Daisy, whose first book 'The Aunt Daisy Cookbook with Household Hints' was published in 1954, and well over half a century later had its 22nd reprint.

Interior of Le Normandie retaurant, Cuba Street, Wellington, showing table settings and interior decoration. Photographed by K E Niven Ltd some time between 1961 and 1973.
Le Normandie was the height of sophistication in the 60s and 70s. Photo by KE Niven Ltd.

Restaurants were few and far between in the early 20th century – just six building permits were issued by the Council to establish restaurants in Wellington between 1918 and 1935.

This is largely due to the growth of the suburbs, which meant most workers left the city after work, as well as the introduction of the 6 o’clock closing times in 1917. This regulation was lifted in 1967 and alcohol licences extended to 10pm.

It wasn’t until the Greeks and Italians began arriving that commercial fishing of the natural coastal resources became common place. The restaurants they established used these products in abundance – although it was still treated with suspicion by the British community.

A Wellington institution was born in this era, when 'The Green Parrot' was set up as a milk bar in 1926 by an American seaman. It was taken over by Dalmatian Tony Marinovich in 1932, and the rest is history – except the grill made up of melted gun barrels, which is still in use today!

Kapiti MP and Consumer Affairs Minister Margaret Shields serves nephews at Porirua McDonalds as part of a McHappy promotion in 1986. Photo courtesy of Evening Post.
Kapiti MP and Consumer Affairs Minister Margaret Shields serves her nephews at Porirua McDonalds as part of a McHappy promotion in 1986. Photograph taken by Ian Mackley. Dominion Post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1986/3175/10. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23237603.

The 1960s and '70s saw a more sophisticated food culture develop in Wellington. This was thanks to a number of factors, including easier international travel and an increase in immigrants – Chinese restaurants popped up in every major city, hamburgers were all the rage with the influence of American popular culture, and "exotic" cuisine recipes started appearing in local newspaper columns.

A flurry of restaurants emerged onto the scene, from the upmarket Orsinis, Le Normandie, Des Britten’s The Coachman, and Remiro Bresolin’s Il Casino, to more relaxed establishments like Harry Seresin’s licensed BYO The Settlement and the unofficially BYO Beachcomber in Oriental Bay.

There was also great excitement on 7 June 1976 as the first McDonalds in New Zealand opened its doors in Porirua – following on from the recent successful introduction of Pizza Hutt and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The aspic-addled 70s
The aspic-addled 70s!

We’ll skip the rest of the aspic-addled, meringuey-mousse and fondue-flambéed '70s, except to mention that a decade of food that wobbles, glistens, and catches fire is fabulous retrospectively!

Oddly enough, it was Minister of Finance Roger Douglas’s economic reforms in the 1980s that led to a surge of international specialty foods becoming de rigeur, as import tariffs were abolished and import quarantine regulations relaxed.

Immigration laws also became more liberal, which saw an influx of new Asian migrants who influenced local cuisine. The Kiwi cultural cringe factor also started to shift towards a sense of local pride in place, purpose, and products.

In 2014, Peter Gordon made our Pacific Rim fusion cuisine the equivalent of the “It” girl overseas, and New Zealand wine, dairy, meat, fruit, and fish make up over 60 percent of our exported products.

Fast forward to 2023 and the food scene is still going strong. Iconic Wellington restaurant Hiakai has become one of the most acclaimed restaurants in Aotearoa, focusing on the exploration and development of Māori and Pasifika cooking techniques and ingredients. There's the community focused Everybody Eats, a pay-as-you-feel dining concept that offers three-course meals from food otherwise destined for landfill.

Quality cafes, restaurants and bars aren't confined to the inner city either - there's a raft of great options hidden away in neighbourhoods across Pōneke.

The foodie landscape is always changing, but if one thing is consistent, it's that we are spoiled for choice – and if you just can’t choose, there’s always the jewel in our crown: Moore Wilson’s!