After more than 50 years under the same proprietorship, Wellington’s famous Green Parrot Cafe is looking for a new owner. And Charlotte Muru-Lanning knows the perfect person to keep its legacy alive.
This is an excerpt from our weekly food newsletter, The Boil Up.
There’s a dinky little story on the NZ Herald website I find myself returning to more than any other. Published in the Herald on Sunday just ahead of the 2005 election as part of a series on political leaders cooking dinner, the headline is Dining with Winston Peters and it’s a write-up of an evening with the then-60-year-old NZ First leader as he prepares an absurdly spicy seafood-filled tom yum soup for guests. The accompanying photographs have disappeared over the course of website updates, and yet I feel they’re not even necessary – the description is vivid enough for me.
The story sticks with me for a few reasons. The first being that Peters and I – while, I can assure you, diverge quite significantly on many other points – share startlingly similar taste in kai, and by that I mean a love for kaimoana and unsociable levels of spice.
The second is that the piece is filled with delightfully colourful tidbits about the evening which, to me at least, reflect a natural aptitude for hospitality work on the part of the NZ First leader.
Let me elaborate. To make the tom yum soup for his seven guests, Peters arrives with an “enormous chiller bag of seafood” which he empties onto the bench before getting stuck into “scraping, shucking, shelling, slicing”. There is a moment where he is concentratedly dissecting squid. Sprigs of coriander are distributed with “a dramatic flick of the wrist”. “This soup – it’s all in the timing,” he notes at one point. And later in the evening he “instinctively grabs at a nearby glass to avoid another spillage”. These are all signs of a hospitality superstar.
But most remarkably, and what I think about on the regular, is the moment he shares his post-political career aspirations: “When I finish politics, I’m going to offer to work for free for a Chinese [for context, this was the same year Peters criticised immigration from Asian countries as “imported criminal activity”] restaurant for six weeks, then maybe a Greek one, then a French one, to learn more.”
The scenario is all so spectacular sounding, it could almost be a fever dream. To a point where before proceeding to write about it I got in touch with its writer, Jonathan Milne, now the managing editor at Newsroom Pro (at the time he was a press gallery reporter), to double check that the story wasn’t a piece of niche political food fiction. “It did indeed happen,” Milne confirmed over an email. And, he added, “it was a good evening”.
Can you imagine, then, if instead of returning to politics once again for this 2023 election, Peters had taken the loss at the previous election – his party garnered just 2.7% of the vote, losing all its seats in parliament – as a tohu to follow his culinary dreams? To embrace his love for kai and cooking? Well, I can, and I find myself daydreaming about it with ever more regularity as this election season chugs along.
In this alternate reality, the bleak rhetoric around Māori indigeneity and dog whistles on women’s bathrooms Peters has decided to adopt in the twilight years of his career are replaced by a legacy of beloved locally produced food travel shows or a best-selling recipe book or a successful restaurant. I, for one, would watch the television show, buy that cookbook and eat at that restaurant. After almost half a century as an energetic presence within the political landscape of Aotearoa, what a legacy that would be for Winston Peters. A part of me even wonders whether Peters’ refusal to appear on RNZ’s new political show Grilled, which sees party leaders interviewed while cooking a meal, is simply an attempt to repress this earlier ambition and his great love for kai.
And as I write this, something cosmic has happened, a tangible opportunity has appeared from nowhere: the Green Parrot, one of Wellington’s oldest and most famous cafes – and, importantly, a regular haunt of Peters – announced that it was up for sale. The cafe opened in 1926, and has been owned by the Sakoufaki family for 50 years. Peters has been a regular since the earliest days of his political career and told the Herald this morning that he is “terribly disappointed”. Like Peters, the restaurant maintains a persistent presence in the country’s political scene.
Milne, who remembers joining Peters for “a few late, late night dinners” at the Green Parrot, for which Peters would “phone ahead and tell them to stay open for him”, says he hopes Peters “now appreciates just how hard people work in the hospo industry, and the often unreasonable demands placed on them by customers. New Zealand has some wonderful chefs and restaurateurs – we don’t know how lucky we are.”
Well, there’s no better way to gain an appreciation of a particular field of work than by doing it yourself. Not anyone could meet the pressure that kind of restaurant history brings with it, so I can’t help but think, with his cheeky smile and wit, Peters would make for the best kind of host of such an establishment. Charismatic, energetic and feisty: who better to run it than someone who has been enjoying the Green Parrot’s “marvellous flounder” or squeezing lemon over their plates of scallops since the 1970s? If his interactions with journalists in recent years are any indication, just don’t ask too many (or, in fact, any) questions when you’re making your order.
To Winston, and to everyone: it’s never too late to follow your culinary dreams.