Food writer Delaney Mes has eaten at, blogged about and worked through Visa Wellington on a Plate since day one. As the countdown to this year’s festival begins, she shares her 10 favourite memories of the country’s greatest food fest.
Wellington, New Zealand. Our nation’s capital. Truly terrible weather, but consistently excellent coffee. With its compact city centre providing excellent infrastructure for drinking, and many great places to eat, a frenetic hunger descends on the city each August in the form of the Visa Wellington on a Plate food festival. For 17 days the city is taken over by one-off events, pop up restaurants, special set menus, a beer festival and thousands upon thousands of burgers.
Since its inception I’ve been an enthusiastic VWOAP participant – as a diner, a dinner host and an oyster shucker. Things escalated in 2011 when I wrote a daily blog for the festival in which I ate a burger a day for 17 days, each one on a different date. It’s a festival I love, and one whose true beauty lies in the fact you can get involved as much or as little as you like. Create yourself a burger challenge, sign up for some life-changing culinary events, or just visit a doughnut, fried chicken or toast pop-up.
Here’s a very subjective list of the ten best moments from festivals gone by, based on years of some of the most enjoyable ‘research’ I’ve ever conducted.
1. The Oyster Saloon
A line of people queue patiently in a carpark off Cuba Street. While they wait, sometimes in sideways rain, some make friends in the line, while others order drinks off the man wandering the queue with an eftpos machine. They’re waiting for oysters: five types of them, natural or beer battered, and shucked to order, served out of a silver caravan.
They arrived on blue egg carton trays, with hot sauce, cut lemons or fresh mignonette dressing as accompaniments. Over 100 dozen oysters were sold each night of the legendary Oyster Saloon, washed down with perfectly matched drinks including Wellington stout and Wairarapa chardonnay. Hospitality icon Rachel Taulelei was the brains behind the saloon. She had her entire family working for her, alongside a rotating line-up of hospitality superstar shuckers, including celebrity chef Martin Bosley.
A friend of mine went every single night after work. A partner from a local law firm had a dozen natural bluffies to himself most nights. One woman queued for an hour to purchase a single oyster. And one night I worked there I had two dozen for dinner over the course of the evening. Only in Wellington would people queue in the rain and cold in a carpark to stand around eating oysters. Magical.
2. Burger Wellington
Burger Wellington began as a way to push the creativity of local chefs and to make a contest, decided by public vote, part of the festival. Paua, venison, lamb, haloumi, veggie patties and classic beef are all put through their paces as hundreds of dining establishments take part in the battle of the burger. Capitol did lamb’s brains. Ti Kouka did ridiculous fried chicken, and last year Egmont Street Eatery did a mutton patty with calamari fries. Boulcott Street Bistro’s entry was the T-Rex burger, served on a large piece of bone; in their white-table-clothed bistro you could mow a burger with your hands. When you made a booking, a dinosaur-roar came down the phone. During Burger Wellington, the idea of what even constitutes burger itself can come under scrutiny: see Greytown’s Bar Salute, whose entry in 2012 was a dessert burger consisting of a banana and kaffir lime patty with candied tropical fruits .
3. Butchery, laneway, hotel room… prison?
One year, the Boulcott St Bistro teamed up with Preston’s Master Butchers to serve a meal in a butchery, with diners eating surrounded by butchery equipment. One diner said it was his most memorable event of Visa Wellington on a Plate: “I’ll never forget that smell.”
A dinner created through the combined efforts of Hannah’s Lane establishments transformed the laneway into to a long-tabled, banquet-laden, canopied wonderland.
There was dinner in the dark at Capitol and a roaming cocktail event through themed hotel rooms at the Bolton Hotel, which included dessert on the 18th floor overlooking the city. And there was dinner in a prison. Chef Martin Bosley undertook the challenge of his career when he began training maximum-security prisoners for the Rimutaka Prison Gate to Plate event. It has sold out in record time each subsequent year; this year a ballot system has been introduced.
In 2014 Pigfish came to town. It was an epic undertaking – a full scale pop-up restaurant in the Prefab hall, serving food sourced only from the ocean or from, well, pigs. The menu included enormous half pigs’ heads, snapper skin crackling, and a raw oyster bar. I have it on good authority the staff meals were legendary too.
5. Burgers and dating and more burgers and more dating
My burger date blogging year was 2011, and in the middle of that 17 day experiment, it snowed. I managed to nab a date with visiting actor James Nesbitt, and one with the master of overeating burgers Morgan Spurlock. I went on what was basically a double date with Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr at Logan Brown (which was memorable in more ways than one). The big ticket item though was to be Stephen Fry. He had an early shooting call for The Hobbit though – plus it snowed – and so he stood me up on my 27th birthday.
6. Set menus on a budget at Dine
Speaking of dating, the Dine menus are the perfect excuse to go out for lunch or dinner on a budget. Set menus, often with a drink included, allow poor students and young professionals and everyone in between to take part in the Wellington on a Plate experience. It’s the perfect set-up for a date; as one woman told me, having had her first date with her now husband during VWOAP many years ago means their anniversary dinners are extra special. One year my sisters came to visit and we got super fancy beyond our usual budgets on a set menu at the legendary Ortega Fish Shack.
7. Melbourne flies in with fried chicken
I asked around for people’s highlights of years gone by and over and over again they said the fried chicken from Rockwell and Sons, the legendary Melbourne chicken joint. In 2014 it featured at the Buns and Brews event and at its own Rockwell and Sons Fried Chicken pop-up. In 2015 they were back to provide the savoury balance at Garage Project’s Milk Bar, where sweet things of all kinds were served alongside beer from the beloved Wellington brewery.
8. All taste no waste
The festival isn’t just about Wellington restaurants: each year chefs from around New Zealand and overseas arrive in the city to take part. Auckland chef Kyle Street made his way to Welly last year for the Kaibosh food rescue dinner, in which he created a multi-course degustation completely out of food which would have otherwise been thrown away. I hear the highlight was the soft serve ice cream made from milk waste from host cafe Prefab. Inspired stuff.
9. (All you can eat) pizza my heart
In a former public toilet on the windy intersection of Taranaki Street and Courteney Place lies Tommy Millions, the only place for late night pizza slices, and one of Wellington’s best. At last year’s Who Ate All The (Pizza) Pies, Tommy translated the ‘90s nostalgia of all-you-can-eat Pizza Hut parties to a pizza feast in the Prefab Hall. I hear the homemade soft serve DIY dessert bar tipped some people over the edge, and I remain jealous to this day.
10. Beervana is added to the Plate
Beervana is the country’s premium beer festival, and now it’s under the umbrella of Visa Wellington on a Plate. It’s the perfect opportunity to try something new and get amongst the best of this beer-crazed town. Still thirsty? Many venues have a special cocktail for the duration, and Garage Project sponsor Burger Wellington, meaning there’s a GP beer match for every burger on sale. There are so many great excuses for an after work drink.
So, when I next update this story what will have forced its way onto the list from this year’s line-up?
Each year standards are raised, numbers are up, and the programme is bigger and better than ever. With apologies to the urban hangi masterclass, a pie and pinot event at a pub, a toast pop up, and a progressive dinner on e-bikes, here are my picks of the the festival for 2017:
Roots in the Capital: Kitchen Takeover and Attica at the Shack
In 2015 Cuisine magazine named Lyttelton’s Roots its supreme winner in the restaurant of the year awards. Now chef and owner Giulio Sturla is bringing his seasonal and foraging-focussed degustation to Wellington for one night only. It’s at Whitebait, and looks set to be a truly memorable meal. Meanwhile Melbourne based Kiwi chef (and Chef’s Table star) Ben Shewry of Attica will be cooking at Ortega. That is one not to be missed.
WBC & Jenny Gao Sichuan Soul Food Feast
Wellington’s WBC is hosting Shanghai food maven Jenny Gao and her modern Sichuan eatery Baoism. It’s a Sichuan soul food feast and it will no doubt be spectacular.
The Number of the Feast
Downtown restaurant Shepherd had only just opened when August rolled around last year. A year later, it’s embracing groups with its event ‘The Number of the Feast’. The idea is that you gather six mates for a six course adventure. After a year to gather momentum, the promise of fire and spice makes this a guaranteed good time.
Visa Wellington On a Plate, 11-27 August, is NZ’s largest food festival, with 100+ events, burgers and menus spanning 17 days. From dining in a prison to foraged degustations, popular events sell out fast – grab your tickets with the Visa pre-sale, 12pm, 19 June at VisaWOAP.com