Corn dogs, crayfish and multiple gin tastings convert a cynical ex-Wellingtonian to the joys of Tāmaki Makaurau’s annual food festival.
Arriving at The Cloud (or, as I like to call it, the Great Corporate Sandworm of Arrakis) for Taste of Auckland, my cynical-meter immediately goes into the red zone. Bizarrely, all ticket holders need to fill out a kind of arrivals card with their name, phone number and email before entering. Why? Not only does it create a logjam of punters scrambling for any available pen, it just seems a massive overreach of personal information farming.
Once in, I’m directed to the the “Crown Card” counter. These kinds of festival cards have become pretty standard at all major events of late and for some reason they eat away at my soul. I fully understand the reasons behind them (the festival will be collecting a percentage of each sale), but they just feel like a good way to collect up a bunch of unspent dollars from people who don’t remember to cash out when they leave.
Once you have your card you’re directed to the glassware table, where for $6 you can purchase a pretty shonky plastic wine tumbler enabling you to purchase drinks. I dunno, it just feels a bit ungenerous to me. And it really front-loads your experience with admin and spending. Which isn’t helped by the first few stalls being, essentially, advertising. Including a large Ryvita stand. According to the homepage, ToA is a “celebration of our city and the huge bounty it has to offer” – and nothing says Auckland bounty like Ryvita. I mean, the shelf space they occupy at Countdown is very impressive.
I’m writing my grumpy article in my head as I shuffle past the crackers and sidle up to a gin tasting. Drinking warm straight gin is usually pretty gross, but it’s tasty, the distiller is charming, and it floods my empty stomach with a sense of calm so I decide to follow it up with another gin tasting. Fifteen little hits of straight spirits later and I’m pretty sure Taste of Auckland is totally rad and that like this gin guy is like fully my best friend.
At this point I need to eat something delicious fast. The right snack will fully zorb me out of my default grump setting. I wander over to Shed 10, already feeling better to be out of The White Worm. Culprit/Lowbrow has set up the coolest zone. With a neon light installation from Angus Muir zig-zagging across the old wharf building and easily the longest queue, it feels like I would be stupid not to line up.
I order a lamb corn dog and their ‘icon dish’, the bone marrow with parsley salad and aged gouda toast. In this environment, away from the comfort of your own restaurant, many things could go wrong with these dishes. Badly rendered bone marrow is yuck, and deep-frying slow-cooked meat can result in a sluggish dry mess. Both dishes come out perfect, as far as I’m concerned. The bone marrow is as juicy and satisfying as the Fergus Henderson classic it is clearly based on, but it builds on the original with the bright, fresh pickle gel and by swapping the chargrilled sourdough for Vogel’s toast with a dusting of sharp cheese, it connects the dish to New Zealand. It almost feels like you’re wiping cheese on toast through the bottom of roasting pan. I’m OK with that sensation.
The lamb corn dog is super crispy on the outside but filled with rich, damp lamb. It’s a home run, and only $8, which seems nuts for something so delicious and well executed. The Culprit crew have a lock on Auckland food right now. I am really into their fast-casual offshoot Lowbrow, the perfect balance of really good cooking (disguised as junk food), a kids’ menu and natural wine to satisfy wine-bores like myself. It’s where I go with my dad and my sons and basically everyone leaves happy.
Culprit is a welcome left-field choice to seemingly be the centrepiece restaurant of the event. Co-owner and co-chef Jordan MacDonald tells me they do the event because “it’s awesome to be able to hangout at an event with other chefs, people you’re mates with”. He also readily admits that they bring a different vibe and the light installations that make their zone feel “on brand” are essential.
A delicious blood orange sour from Funk Estate is the final slap in the face I need. I am now, officially, thoroughly enjoying myself. “Big boss food ed” Alice Neville summons me to the Baduzzi tent to feast on crayfish with Ginny Grant. Now my enjoyment is heading into some sort of ego blowout meltdown.
“FEED ME YE CRUSTACEANS OF THE DEEP, FOR I AM A FOOD WRITER WHO DINES WITH THE GODS!” I scream at the top of lungs as tiny samples of Kaikoura cheese rain forth from the grey Auckland skies. I am coated in a soft, almost sweet goat’s curd like a Mazda Bongo Friendee minivan in the pre-wash sudsing in a mid-priced car wash. I am tearing the flesh from orange sea beasts with my bare hands. I am burning my tongue on boiling hot eggplant chips. I am food-fest Frankenstein and I am making a monster in my belly.
At this point the wind has given me a Cousin It hairdo and I wander deranged from stall to stall to lap up every morsel. Becs Caughey of Cook & Nelson plies me with delicious Seedlip booze-free cocktails. I thought Seedlip was a silly idea, but as is often the case when you talk to the right person and taste something in the right context, a new food or drink idea can suddenly make a lot more sense. They are the perfect foil for me to then try about 17 New New New Corporation beers.
As I finally destroy myself with a couple of scoops of Duck Island (Hamilton’s finest) ice cream, I start to wonder about the Auckland aspect of Taste of Auckland. I’ve arrived, in all honesty, feeling like I’m not going to enjoy it. I have enjoyed it immensely. But I’ve been enjoying beer from Tauranga and Dunedin, cheese from Kaikōura, Seedlip drinks from the UK. Wandering around eating and drinking delicious stuff and, more importantly, talking to cooks and craftspeople is wonderful – it’s my favourite pastime – but something is nagging at the back of my brain. If you want a genuine taste of Auckland, then I suggest the Auckland International Cultural Festival at the Mt Roskill War Memorial Park, held each year in autumn – entry is free and the food is every bit as good.
But ToA offered up a pretty good event, I reckon. The music lineup was not too shabby at all, and the stall holders seemed to be really enjoying having a focused and, I presume, cashed-up Auckland audience. Culprit set the bar with their site, much as Garage Project do every year at Beervana, and I’d love to see more of that drive to create cool environments within the festival. I’d also like to see a more diverse reflection of what makes Auckland’s food scene unique. Without that, it’s just not living up to the name.
As I cash out my dumb credit card thingy, Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘I’ll Follow You Into The Dark’ blares across the plastic bloated belly of The Cloud. A sad song of death that feels as out of place at this kind of event as I usually do. I’ve never really liked Death Cab, and I’ve never really liked food festivals or events at The Cloud, but weighed down with goodies to take home, finding there is no queue and that cashing out is actually quite painless, I am liking it all. I’ll probably come back next year (especially if Culprit is here again) and maybe I’ll even go home and listen to Death Cab for Cutie (well probably not, but The Postal Service were pretty good, right?).