Chasing tales

For Wellington chef Kelda Hains, storytelling is the key to a truly memorable dining experience

 

My favourite restaurants have stories to tell. We are all hungry for a story. At Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York a few years ago, we were served a long lunch. I couldn’t tell you how many courses we had, but I think it lasted five hours. I remember only a few of those courses but firmly imprinted on my mind is the story they told about sustainability. Our lunch came from the farm and a couple of others in the area and it consisted of mostly vegetables, and very little meat. The waiters spent a considerable amount of time speaking to the provenance of the ingredients as each course was served. The story told was one about sustainable agriculture. It was a graphic representation; this is what our plates will look like if we work with the land. Industrial agriculture allows us to eat much larger quantities of meat than is realistic, and disconnects us from the source of our food. Although I did know this intellectually, having the experience made it alive and urgent and provided a pathway to envision doing it myself. Storytelling has power.

I don’t think fine dining is the only place to find a good story, though. I find it in any place where the owners have invested something of their own personal vision; they create something particular, idiosyncratic. They have their hands in the dough, shaping their place on a daily basis. We could call it authenticity, but that word invites notions of right and wrong. That’s probably an unhelpful notion, if the personal is going to be valued.

Tatsushi is one of the places in Wellington that epitomises this for me. The kitchen is open and the cooks greet customers as they come in the door. At the front of the menu there’s a handwritten, photocopied sheet of the weekly specials. This is chef Tatsushi Mikuni’s personal expression of what’s good to eat. It’s a joy for me to eat there, and in a way I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why, because it is more than the delicious food.

Restaurants have their own life. A mentor of mine once described owning a restaurant as being very similar to having a child. Even though it’s your creation, it grows and evolves in ways you might not have envisioned. Then the task is to listen and observe, and guide those changes. Because there are many other forces at work on a restaurant. It is a great collaboration of staff, customers and suppliers. It has to be a public endeavour to work. In Tatsushi’s case, he’s just moved to different premises and I will enjoy watching the shifts that will happen with this change of context.

Because of this, it’s hard for me to see a restaurant primarily as a business, although of course it absolutely has to be to be self-sustaining. Certainly there seems to be more financial pressure than ever, and it’s too much hard work for it not to be financially rewarding. I’m not convinced it should be the first and most important value driving decision making. It’s my hope that our restaurants can reflect wider values. Values are what dining public will truly respond to, not a concept or a business plan.

When people choose to be our regulars, they become part of the fabric of the place, and add to our story. It’s the same with our employees and suppliers. Each person who we choose to work with brings their own ideas and energy. This unique assemblage of people who come to work with us are our collaborators and each person incrementally influences the whole entity.

At Rita we make simple three-course menus. My hope is that our menu itself is a story; describing a moment. The ingredients we choose intersect to tell us where we are in the year. Every day the menu is reshaped and the story shifts a little. We invite people into our house to experience this. Restaurants are a highly stylised and idealised version of how things should be. A little like theatre, we put on a new show every day.

I like to try to restrict our ingredients to what is truly in season. Building our tradition in the way all cuisine is built, by interacting with our immediate environment. We shape something delicious from what we can get our hands on each day. I hope that by making these self-imposed conditions we can work towards a more singular style of food. The continual challenge is to avoid over-complicating our plates. Simplicity is often the hardest thing to achieve.

Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, has long been a touchstone for me, helping me remember how beautiful this particular approach to food can be. When I go there, there’s the feeling that every ingredient is carefully chosen and then coaxed into being more itself. The simplicity on the plate is deceptive and indeed I have read reviews where the diner does not get the point at all. But there is true unshakeable confidence in this approach at Chez Panisse. This 47-year-old restaurant has a story to tell about how to see food and cooking. Supporting the farmers who grow great produce, then showing their diners that beauty, helping us connect to the source of our food.

When we opened Rita, our vision of a set menu was partly about making a small space work, but also rooted in ideas of domesticity, everyone pulling up chairs around the kitchen table. A shared experience. We wanted to think about traditional food-ways too. How we used to eat has information about our cultural identity, and our taste memory is powerful. Pulling out strands of our collective food history is a difficult task, and something I’m keen to keep exploring. I’m willing to let it slowly seep into the menu. And perhaps this will become part of our particular story, if I keep on listening.