Ahead of his first-ever arena performance in Auckland next month, Teeks talks to Charlotte Muru-Lanning about food on the marae, flat cooking rosters and the best music to cook pasta to.
Known for his soulful ballads and blistering R&B, Māori singer-songwriter Teeks, real name Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi (Ngāpuhi, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui), makes music that quite simply, makes you cry.
Both his 2017 EP, The Grapefruit Skies, and 2021 debut album Something to Feel brim with lyrics informed by longing and intimacy. Next month, Gardiner-Toi will deploy his heartbreaking tunes in a solo show at Auckland’s Spark Arena, in what will be his first-ever arena performance.
Breaking with tradition, we asked Gardiner-Toi about his other, less well-known passion: food.
OK, so you’re into boxing at the moment – has that had any impact on what you’re eating?
Well, that’s the thing, I have such a fast metabolism, I find it really hard to gain weight. So I’ve had to try really hard to. It’s not that I can’t eat a lot, I can eat a lot in one sitting but it’s the frequency of eating that’s a challenge for me. I’m getting a lot better. It’s just making it part of my routine. This morning after training I went to a cafe and had a big breakfast with coffee, but I swapped out the bacon and sausages for avocado and baked beans.
Why did you swap those out?
I didn’t eat meat for quite a while actually, I was pescatarian. I was flexible, I wasn’t religious about it. The important thing for me is just being conscious about what I’m eating, what I’m consuming and where it comes from. But in the past few months, I’ve thrown it all out the window because I’m trying to eat so much protein to put weight on so it’s been hard. I eat red meat from time to time, I eat chicken. I don’t eat pork. That’s the one thing I don’t eat.
What’s the motivation behind being flexitarian?
I just didn’t want to contribute to the meat industry by buying meat. The impact on the environment through farming and overproduction of meat is something I wouldn’t want to be part of. But I can’t not eat seafood because I’m Māori. So I’m not wavering on fish and seafood – especially if it’s fresh. If I go home and my dad’s gone fishing or gone diving, that’s my favourite thing.
You also don’t want to starve when you’re back home.
Even now, I still struggle with going to the marae, because mostly everything that’s served has got meat in it and I don’t see the marae going vegetarian anytime soon.
I think you’re right. Do you have a favourite kai at the marae?
Any type of seafood. I love raw fish, I love kina, I love mussels. Something I also really love is mince. Just mince stew with mashed potatoes – I love that so much. That was the one thing I missed most when I wasn’t eating meat, just mince, not even a steak.
Have you got any tactics around where you sit in the whare kai?
See, you’ve got to position yourself strategically. If you’re sitting at the wrong table like with Mum or aunties or something, the seafood is pretty much gone. You wanna sit with the ones that don’t like it.
Do you have any really early food memories?
My nan used to make bacon hock soup with veggies and stuff. It was so good. I don’t eat it anymore because I don’t eat pork, but that’s very nostalgic because it reminds me of being at my nan’s place. She’d always try to feed us when we’d go over there. She lives in Tauranga, she’s still at the same place. My parents were pretty good at cooking so I always had good food growing up. Even when they didn’t have all the money in the world, they still made do and cooked good meals. My dad’s a good cook. I think I learnt how to cook from him.
Does your dad have any specialties?
He loves to make spicy food. Sometimes he’d make a curry with chicken, he’d make that quite often, but a lot of the time it would be way too hot for anyone to eat. My spice tolerance is pretty good now, I think it’s because I had to down all that chicken curry my dad made. Pasta too. I love Italian food. I feel like I’m better than him at making pasta now. That’s something I really enjoy, cooking pasta. And I like to drink red wine.
A perfect combination really.
Exactly. That’s one of my favourite things to do: cook a meal, cook pasta, play some music, put a record on and drink wine. Even if I’m by myself. That’s my idea of a good night.
What music are you playing while you cook?
I like to listen to some classic soul joints like Marvin Gaye or Aretha. I also like to listen to world music when I cook – songs in different languages like Spanish because it gets me channeling that energy, creating an atmosphere. I’ve started my own playlist – it’s literally called “cooking”.
It’s amazing the difference music can make when you’re cooking, sometimes it feels like it can transform a whole dish.
Yeah, I believe that. It’s like it transports you. I feel like I’m in another country, I’m cooking, I’m drinking wine! I live with three of my friends who have been living together for a long time and we have a roster for cooking. I’ve made gnocchi a couple of times but then we won’t eat till after nine because it takes me so long to make the meal, so everyone’s starving. When I have those nights, I feel like I want to create a whole vibe. I find cooking therapeutic.
How long did it take you to get to the point where you had a functioning flat cooking roster?
It took maybe a year. I was the one that cooked the most because I enjoyed it but then I got to a point where I’d run out of things to make so I was like “OK guys we need to make a roster because I’m not gonna be your personal chef”. I’m also very particular about what I eat so it was a big deal for me to allow my friends to cook for me.
What are you particular about?
Um, food that tastes good. Nah they’re not too bad, they’re actually good. I just feel like my family, even when we go out we have high standards where we know what good food is. I hate going to a cafe or a restaurant and having a mediocre meal when you’re paying like 30 bucks.
Do you have any food spots that are reliably good?
For breakfast, I really like Hare and Turtle. Everything about that place is solid. The food’s always good, the coffee’s good, the staff are really nice, the atmosphere is really nice. It’s a solid place to go and eat. For dinner I like to go to Dominion Road, I like to go to Gogo’s Music Cafe. Have you been there?
Yup, love Gogo’s.
It’s such a vibe! I love that place. The aesthetic is country western, but they’re serving Chinese food. It’s just so random, but I love how chaotic it is.
Have you ever been when someone’s playing music there?
No, no, have you?
It’s very rare, but I went once and there was one guy playing guitar on stage – I’m not even sure if he was meant to be there though to be honest.
OK, wow. I was wondering if it was actually a music cafe.
What’s your order when you’re at Gogo’s?
I get the skewers now and then, but I love the spicy chicken noodles. It’s this big dish and it’s so good, like 30 bucks for the small one or 50 bucks for this massive one. That’s just so good. And the deep fried buns with the condensed milk. I like to order a Tsingtao beer tower too. It’s a good time.
An excellent choice. So if you’re cooking for yourself, is your approach the same as when you’re cooking for others?
No, I think in a way it is different. I feel like when I’m cooking for other people I am more invested in the meal. When I’m cooking for myself, I tend to be lazy. I just whip something up really quick so I can eat. When I’m cooking for other people, I don’t feel pressure, but I do feel invested in the experience for others.
I think for me, because food is such a social thing too, like breaking bread and being with friends, that’s part of the reason I love eating so much is because I get to sit down at a table with people and talk and laugh. It’s also just another form of self expression, or creativity. It’s like whether you’re making music or making a dish, it’s the same thing at the end of the process, you have this thing that you made and I like that, I like that feeling. I used to want to be a chef actually when I was young.
I worked as a kitchen hand in a restaurant. I didn’t enjoy it, the chefs just seemed very stressed out. I would have been 17 or 18. I was washing dishes and it was quite a labour intensive job – it was hard. I’m also not the most outgoing person, and sometimes I would have to go and serve tables, but I didn’t really like to go out and talk to people.
Was that the end of the hospo road for you?
Yeah that was it. But after that I did retail which was even worse.
Other than avoiding meat, is there anything else you don’t eat?
Right at this point in time, I just don’t eat pork. I’m not a fussy eater. There’s hardly anything that I won’t eat if it’s made properly and it’s cooked right. I thought I hated Brussels sprouts when I was younger because my dad, I said he was a good cook, but he used to just boil Brussels sprouts. That is not it. I just always had in my head “I hate Brussels sprouts, yuck, yuck, yuck”. But then I discovered different techniques of cooking Brussels sprouts, like roasting them. I love Cotto on Karangahape Rd, the Italian place. They make really good Brussels sprouts with balsamic glaze and they’re roasted, almost burnt.
Where is your favourite place in the world for food?
I was in New York in April and I think the variety of food in New York is crazy because it’s like a melting pot of ethnicities and different cultures. I ate so much food, and I loved everything. I love Mexican food. I love eating tacos. I love Italian food. So I ate a lot of pasta as well. Pizza was amazing. It’s the best pizza. They don’t make pizza like that here. There was this one place I went to and it was Puerto Rican, called Casa Della, and honestly, it’s not like the flashest place, it’s very homely, it’s unassuming, but the food is amazing, it’s just so tasty. You know, it tastes like there’s an old lady in the kitchen and she’s just cooking the food and it’s recipes that she’s had for ages. Even the rice – it was just white rice but I’ve never had rice like that before. I’ll take a place like that over a five star restaurant any day.
So would you pick an inexpensive place over a fancy dining experience?
There’s a duality. I have multiple personalities. One part of me likes the low-key, chill type places, like I don’t want to go somewhere where I’m going to bump into people that I know. But sometimes it’s nice to have a nice quality meal with drinks, especially if I can do it with my family and friends. I don’t mind spending money on food if it’s good.
Is there a food that has been discontinued that you miss?
I remember when I was young, my parents would always take me to Georgie Pie. I vaguely remember going there as a young kid and getting a pie. I like those memories. Obviously the restaurants are discontinued but then they started putting them out at McDonald’s. I like a good pie.
What’s your pie order?
Mince and cheese, or I love potato top if it’s a mean one, with real potato and cheese on it. They make really good pies at the Cottage Bakery in Kingsland. The pies there are so good, the potato top especially – I haven’t had that in a while.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Find tickets for Teeks at Spark Arena on Saturday 12 November 2022 here.