Alex Davies at his Christchurch restaurant Gatherings (Photo: Neat Places)
Alex Davies at his Christchurch restaurant Gatherings (Photo: Neat Places)

KaiJuly 23, 2018

The carrot crusader: Meet the Christchurch chef changing the vegetarian game

Alex Davies at his Christchurch restaurant Gatherings (Photo: Neat Places)
Alex Davies at his Christchurch restaurant Gatherings (Photo: Neat Places)

Gatherings’ Alex Davies is leading a quiet revolution with quirky, delicious food that happens to be plant-based.

In just over a year since it first opened, Christchurch’s Gatherings restaurant has made a name for itself not simply for its innovative menu, but for asking us to rethink our whole attitude to food. Owner and head chef Alex Davies’ philosophy is all about trying to make “a vege shine as much as a piece of meat does”.

The earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 brought a huge amount of disruption to Christchurch, but also created opportunities. Davies grabbed one by starting to cook pizzas at a post-quake pop-up – an oven installed by the local transitional organisation Gap Filler on its site at the Commons in the city centre. Buoyed by the pop-up’s success, he went on to establish Shop Eight, one of the first destination restaurants in the centre of the reopening Christchurch. It was here that Davies first started thinking about food sustainability, cooking nose-to-tail cuisine, and challenging his diners to think not only about the cost of meat, but the amount of food that we waste.

After finishing at Shop Eight, Davies spent around a year working on an organic farm near Swannanoa in North Canterbury, an experience that further shaped his philosophy of food. During this time, he hosted a series of pop-up dining events under the Gatherings name, before finding a permanent home for it in early 2017.

Having spent his time at the organic farm time tending crops, Davies knows how much work goes into each vegetable before it makes its way to your plate. When we talk, he repeatedly brings up the importance of the farmers, and his aim for Gatherings is to “honour the growers”. In a country that was built on our primary sector exporting to the world, Davies, who grew up in the UK, thinks we should take some time to focus on our land. “We celebrate dairy and meat so much, but no one ever talks about what it takes to grow a good carrot.”

All this talk about food philosophy might sound a bit heavy, but it’s not all so serious. Davies has made a name for himself with quirky but delicious snacks that are like gateway drugs to the full menu. The carrot dawg is his most famous — it’s presented like a hot dog in a bun, but instead of a frankfurter, it’s a carrot that has been slow-roasted, then rolled in some secret flavours, briefly deep-fried, and garnished with sauerkraut. “It’s really easy to understand what we’re doing here. Everyone knows what a hot dog is, where as a carrot consommé might be a bit unusual for some people.”

Similarly, the whero-pea taco and the dirty doner kebab are vege-based versions of the comfort food we often crave on a night out drinking. These dishes are simple but effective; they are challenging the norms of what people expect from plant-based foods. Perhaps most importantly for Davies and Gatherings, it means he “gets to speak to a whole different audience”.

Two of Alex Davies’ dishes at Gatherings: gnocchi in carrot consommé and fried biodynamic wheat with chives, mash and mushroom gravy (Photos: Supplied)

After getting hooked in by a carrot dawg, you’ll be ready to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. Gatherings is tucked away in an unassuming space in the Carlton Courts building on Papanui Road, opposite a brash new-build which features a rowdy late-night venue and a Burger King. Though it isn’t flashy, there’s an attention to detail, which, like the menu, skews heavily towards local and sustainable. The furniture, made by Tim McGurk, is of salvaged and recycled wood. The crockery is all hand-potted by a woman in Takaka, and some dishes are served on slate roof tiles, originally from Wales, which were salvaged from a house being demolished in Hereford Street after the quakes. The rest of the decor is minimal, with small flowers in jars and an artwork on a lightbox that reflects the current season.

Taking you on a journey is a well-worn cliche, but it really is what Gatherings wants to do. While you can order individual dishes, or from the snack menu, Davies strongly advises diners to go for the full tasting menu. Though it isn’t cheap ($65, or $110 with a wine match), it is the best way to experience what the chef wants to do.

On the day I visit, he’s just prepared the menu for the evening, which begins with sourdough with sour butter and sour carrots, followed by gnocchi in carrot consommé. The centre of the menu is a dish of charred leeks with potato bon bons and a watercress and caper mayonnaise, then a pumpkin tart with crispy kale and mustard. Rounding things out is a dessert of clove and mandarin soufflé with salted chocolate cream.

“Some people come in here and they’re very confused by the whole thing,” he says. “Come the second or third course, you see people change, you see them relax and open up to it. By the end of it, they want to hug you.”

Gatherings, looking out onto Papanui Road (Photo: James Dann)

Though you won’t find any meat on the menu at Gatherings, it’s as much because of Davies’ insistence on eating local and eating sustainably as it is about vegetarianism. Each menu proudly states that “95% of everything on this menu comes from within 100km of the restaurant, or is organic and or fair-trade if we can’t get it here”.

I try to pin down Davies on whether Gatherings is a vegan restaurant, or a plant-based restaurant. He resists being pigeonholed — “we’re just a really good restaurant, focused on the seasons. I don’t think we’re a vegan or a vegetarian restaurant, because that’s not what drives me. What drives me is honouring the growers that are in and around us, to really showcase them and celebrate them.”

One of those growers is Cultivate, an urban farming project just over a kilometre away from the restaurant, right in the centre of town. One of the benefits of having a supplier so close by is being able to get fresh produce — especially crops that don’t keep so well — daily. It’s also important to Davies to use suppliers that have a similar ethos to his. “When you’ve done that, you’ve done justice to the people who’ve grown it.”

All the wines are natural wines, also known as living wines (as recently written about by Samuel Flynn Scott here on The Spinoff), and Gatherings carries at least one bottle from every single producer of living wine in New Zealand. The Waipara region, not far up the road from Christchurch, has nine living wine producers — the largest number in the country.

Alex Davies against a backdrop of Gatherings’ living wines (Photo: James Dann)

“A lot of the thought behind the wine was in line with what we were trying to do with the food,” says Davies. The wines are “trying to be a reflection of nature as opposed to being a reflection of what someone wants them to be”.

As well as being 100% living wine, Gatherings is 100% living wage. At every point from the farm to the table, Davies has made the choice to pay people fairly, whether they be growers or waitstaff. He knows that puts him into the more expensive end of the market, but for him, it’s just the price of doing something properly.

“Being organic and biodynamic comes at a cost, because to look after the land that way, to pick weeds by hand, it’s labour intensive. But the end result is the flavour. It is weird to have something pricier, because I’m conscious that it’s pushing people out, but at the same time, I want to look after the land for future generations, and I think that’s an important thing to consider.”

Gatherings is a quiet, humble restaurant — but with a real purpose. A slow-roasted revolution on a slate plate. Alex Davies has a singular vision, and while it may challenge some, dining here is a greatly rewarding experience — whether you want to think about all the nuances of feeding a nation in the 21st century, or simply chow down on a carrot dawg.

*Update: On Monday, 24 July, Alex Davies announced via social media that Gatherings was adding a seafood option to its tasting menu

The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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