Meet The Chefs Redefining Auckland's Vegan Food Scene

Rebecca Zephyr Thomas meets the Auckland chefs ensuring vegan food is delicious and pious-free

Kira Ghidoni holds the garden sensory experience, complete with dry ice. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

With The Economist deeming 2019 the year of the vegan, it’s fair to say that plant-based eating is no longer the preserve of hippies and tree-huggers. While celebrities from director James Cameron (who owns a vegan deli in Wairarapa), to power couple Jay Z and Beyonce and eco-living icon Livia Firth all proclaim the virtues of avoiding meat and dairy, can we as a nation raised on a meat-and-three-vege mentality embrace the trend?

READ: Why Hemp-Based Food Is On The Rise In New Zealand

Veganism is much more than a what you eat, of course. It is a multi-faceted movement that touches on how people choose to live ethically and environmentally. According to its legion of passionate believers veganism has the ability to save the planet from climate change disaster: cutting back or eliminating meat and dairy is one of the simplest ways to reduce your personal contribution to climate change.

But what to eat on a plant-based diet? Does it all have to be mung beans and tofu? Luckily, vegan food has moved on considerably in the last few years and there are options that won’t disappoint the most passionate foodie. From the traditional pies and slices of Tart Bakery to the fine dining menu at The Grove, the sophisticated fare at The Butcher’s Son or the raw food originator Little Bird, the Auckland vegan food scene is thriving.

Little Bird Organics owner Megan May. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

FINE DINING VEGAN: Kira Ghidoni, chef at The Grove
Last year Kira Ghidoni hit the headlines when her work at Auckland restaurant The Grove caught the eye of website TripAdvisor, which name-checked it as the ninth best place in the world to eat. The Swiss-born 32-year-old came to New Zealand after stints in London at culinary hotspots Claridge’s and Murano, and Vue de Monde in Melbourne. Her vegan degustation menu at The Grove needs to be seen, smelled and tasted to be believed and takes vegan food to a new level of sophistication.

What have been some of the challenges and surprises constructing The Grove’s vegan offering?
For me, it’s nothing new, every time I’m off work I cook vegetables because my body craves that. I eat meat and I love to cook that as well, but cooking vegetables properly is a challenge.

To have interesting things for vegans and vegetarians on the menu is really special and important to me; imagine a table of five coming in and two are vegetarian or vegan, and you say “oh sorry, you can’t do seven courses because we have nothing for you”. The table of five might leave and say we’re not coming back here because you don’t have any option. So in 2019, for me, it’s really important to get everything covered. We try our best to be creative with the food so it’s not boring for our vegan diners.

We have amazing supplier collaborators. For example, we get vegan cheese from Auda Finan, she makes everything from scratch from cashew nuts, her company is called Savour Cheese. I am not vegan, but this is amazing.

Little Bird's hemp tacos with charred corn, kale, cauliflower and jalapeno ranch dressing. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

It’s quite unusual to have vegan fine dining...
It’s unusual yes. You have a lot of cafes that do vegan and vegetarian, that’s normal, but this is a completely different business. For fine dining at this level I think it’s crazy to do what we do, but I am so proud because every single vegetarian and vegan that walks into this restaurant says “wow, this is incredible”, and that’s rewarding.

Are there any new ingredients that you’ve discovered since being here in NZ?
Yes, I love Kiwi ingredients and I think it’s really important when you move to another country to adapt rather than say “this is what I do and this is what I’ve always done”. What I have embraced in New Zealand is foraging, I discovered manuka, kanuka, kawakawa, and we actually use that in the menu. It’s so connected to here and a lot of our customers are foreign so this is like “bang, this is New Zealand in a plate”.

At the moment there is kanuka in the vegan menu, it is the sister tree of manuka. Manuka grows only to 60 years old but kanuka is 400 years old. Manuka is famous for the honey but kanuka not so much. I was on a road trip recently and I was like “oh what’s this tree?” and I rubbed it in my hands and it smelled like rosemary. I have been roasting some potatoes with that.

Megan first brought raw, dairy- and sugar-free eating to Auckland in 2012. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

If you were eating a plant-based meal at home on your day off what would it be?
I love veges, I would go for a really nice salad; cauliflower, courgettes and green beans are all the things I love. Just boil cauliflower and then add really good olive oil, salt, pepper and balsamic, that’s it. Green beans sauteed with onions, shallots, garlic and olive oil. Honestly, at home, I cook simple food. I am always cooking, most other chefs don’t do that, they are like “why would I cook, I’ve just spent 80 hours at work, why would I do that?” A glass of wine in your hand, a bit of music, it’s relaxing.

What do you like most about the lifestyle here in New Zealand as opposed to back home in Europe?
It’s so easy to get out of the city, I love the green. The country where I am from, Switzerland, is really similar but we don’t have the sea, so every time I am off work I just go somewhere, camp and cook outside and enjoy nature.

Kira Ghidoni holds the garden sensory experience, complete with dry ice. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

THE SOPHISTICATED NEWCOMER: Chris Kinnell, owner-operator at The Butcher’s Son
Most of us return from a holiday in Bali with a tan, but Chris Kinnell and friends James and Louise Logan came back to Auckland inspired to shake up the dining scene with a new type of vegan eatery. Their mission is to make delicious, mainstream vegan food that is elevated above the usual cafe fare. They have been open for just over a year and offer brunch on the weekends, with lunch and dinner options week round and have recently added beer and wine matching for the hedonistic vegan diner.

Did you have a traditional New Zealand food upbringing with roasts and veges?
Yes, Sunday roasts and fish and chips. My parents were surprised when I went vegan. They are surprised and delighted how well it’s going at The Butcher’s Son, and they love it now; although they haven’t really changed their eating habits because of me. I still reserve the right to eat whatever my mother puts in front of me when I go home for dinner, but Mum wouldn’t put a steak in front of me anymore. It was maybe two and a half years ago I started trying to be a vegetarian, mostly for the health benefits at first. It was difficult but I stuck with it and got used to it. Then when I started introducing animal products or meat into my diet again I had lost the taste for it.

The Grove’s stuffed courgette flower with tofu, green beans and yellow and green courgette. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

What are some common reactions you get from your customers, either vegans or meat eaters?
When we first opened we had some guests who were literally in tears because they could choose anything on the menu, people who were used to being pushed down to one item at the bottom of the menu and never had any choice. Some just can’t believe that they can go to a restaurant that feels like this, that feels normal and they can have absolutely everything. So that is one reaction. The other reaction is when vegans or vegetarians come in and bring their friends or family and they are all suspicious or sceptical and they all find something on the menu that they love, something that they recognise. That is a big part of the idea, that the menu is approachable, familiar.

Can you tell us about your food and drink matching, because you have a completely vegan wine selection?
Yes, not everyone is a kombucha-drinking vegan. People are looking for a plant-based restaurant more than a cafe. The Butcher’s Son is really becoming a lunch and dinner concept that does breakfast on the weekend. We’re about to stock Garage Project for the beer and do beer matching.

What are your favourite plant-based restaurants?
I like Hectors, which has a lot of plant-based and vegan options, that’s in the Heritage Hotel on Hobson St, that’s a bit more fine dining. I love Tart — the savoury scrolls are awesome. I love the food at Little Bird, Gorilla Kitchen and Kaiaroha.

What is next for vegan food?
That it will just become more normalised. We opened this restaurant at the right time. A few years ago it was too early and a few years later we would have missed the first-mover advantage. We want to make this feel normal, not a glorified salad bar or a hippie hang-out. I think people who identify as vegans will become more mainstream and eventually eating animal products will become the unusual choice.

Kira's vegan degustation at The Grove takes vegan food to a new level. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

THE TRADITIONAL KIWI BAKER: Philippa Stephenson, owner of Tart Bakery
With sites in Grey Lynn and Saint Kevin’s Arcade, Philippa Stephenson’s business, Tart Bakery, is going from strength to strength. You can find Philippa at work surrounded by her millennial staff and her son, who sparked her personal food transformation as a plant-based baker. Philippa is all about giving back to the community; she donates food to three charities every week. She is a passionate environmental advocate with boundless charm and energy and is on a mission to tempt the most hardened meat eaters with her pastries and pies.

I heard that you became interested in vegan food when your son became a vegan — is that true?
It was his first year at university, and he got radicalised, became a feminist, and passionate about the environment. He said we can use ourselves as an economic model to stop the madness. He said he’d changed, that he didn’t want to live a life based on exploitation. You wouldn’t eat your dog or your cat, so why are you eating a chicken?

It was pretty radical but that is what you send them to university for. That is the purpose of education, to think about things that you didn’t think about, particularly in regard to feminism and racism, sexism, all that stuff.

The Grove's chocolate ganache, peanut brittle and non-dairy plum ice cream. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

What is the customer split between vegans and non-vegans at Tart?
The key thing these days is you can’t tell, enlightenment is happening across the board, to all kinds of people. If you are doing a morning shift here, at 6am it is full of workers in overalls. A lot of the tradies saw their dads with the big pot bellies and their really appalling diets and have said to themselves they don’t want to be like that.

Do you think this idea that your food choices are connected to environmental consequences is getting more mainstream?
I don’t think people understand that they can be powerful; I don’t think they understand how much power they have by simply walking past the dairy cabinet in the supermarket and going to a soy icecream. It sends a message to the people who order the soy, “get more of this and less of that” and eventually that will send a message to the people making it.

I really hope in the future that eating meat will become like cigarettes, we will go “what were we thinking? What were we doing?” We don’t have a choice anymore, we have run out of choices.

Do you have any tricks up your sleeve for making vegan baking delicious?
Get any basic, good vegan cookbook and take the time to go and source the ingredients. You have got used to cracking an egg, but once you have cooked with chickpea flour it’s easy. It’s in our interest to get this right. There is no other thing we should be talking about. It’s our planet and we are screwed through our own greed and stupidity.

Chris Kinnell, owner-operator at The Butcher’s Son. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

How do you create such clever vegan alternatives?
After a while you get a really good knowledge. In this fridge I have about 10 sorts of [vegan] cheese, I have parmesan, I have cheddar, I have mozzarella, I have sour cream, cream cheese... I have ham if I want to eat ham, I have chicken, I have about five types of chicken. The quality of the fish is so good, if you weren’t told it was all vegan, you would not know the difference. You tell me one thing that you lack and I can make it — I’m a baker.

What’s next for Tart Bakery?
We’re looking to expand out of Auckland and also into night-time Uber Eats, because there’s nothing for vegans to eat at night that’s cost effective. There’s lots of expensive stuff or you can go to the supermarket, but there’s nothing in-between if you’re knackered and want something that’s yum and reasonably priced. We need to keep vegan food cheap and not elite. We need as many people as possible to eat this stuff.

Vegans can order everything from the menu at The Butcher's Son. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

THE ORIGINAL: Megan May, owner-operator at Little Bird
Growing up with food allergies prompted Megan May to try a raw, dairy-and- meat-free diet, which then inspired her business Little Bird Organics, which she founded with her partner in 2012. The softly spoken entrepreneur is committed to helping people try new ways of eating, whether it’s visiting her cafe, buying her “unbaked” snacks or picking up one of her three cookbooks, which have brought her worldwide acclaim. The Little Bird Cafe in Auckland is one of the originators of raw, vegan food and has a cult following.

What was it like opening a raw, dairy- and sugar-free establishment back in 2012?
It was pretty scary to open something so different and that wasn’t really here in New Zealand at all. But after a week Viva and other media did some stuff on us and we were so busy. The reception was quite overwhelming. It was a lot more popular than I anticipated. We hadn’t planned for more than 15 people to come in per day and all of our manufacturing staff had to stop making stuff and come in and help in the cafe. It was super lo-fi, our first place in Kingsland, we spent about $15,000 doing it up ourselves.

Did people get the concept quite quickly?
Yes, there was a lot of education. People were into the food and the flavours and genuinely excited that there was something new that wasn’t offered here. The flavours were familiar but it was healthier so I think people really got into that.

Tart Bakery owner Philippa Stephenson. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Do you think your customers are inspired to make changes in the rest of their diet?
Yes, I think a lot of people came in the early days and they hadn’t necessarily been taught about plant-based food before, I think that was one of the key things that inspired people because they thought “I can eat this way and feel really good and feel really satisfied” and take that home.

Little Bird has been a catalyst for places having a lot more plant-based options on their menus because it’s not seen as such a fringe idea. We’ve been going nine years and it’s not seen as weird anymore. You can make delicious, desirable food that is plant-based. You don’t have to have a lentil loaf on your menu, there’s so many things you can make. I think we’ve inspired people to see that there’s endless opportunity and it’s nice having that little restriction there because it makes you more creative. We’ve had a lot of chefs come and work with us and they’ve really enjoyed that restriction .

You quit dairy as a health move initially. Do you hear from customers who have done the same?
Yes, I get emails and people coming into the store with their stories. I had one lady with rheumatoid arthritis, she’s used the cookbooks and done raw eating and now she is almost pain-free. It is about inspiring people to do their own thing, you’ve just offered a different approach.

(Left) Peach cronut and mille-feuille with berries, served with turmeric latte. Photos / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Do you think the public is aware of the environmental consequences of their food choices?
That’s the big reason we have Little Bird, to show people that you can eat delicious food that has a minimal impact on the environment and a positive impact on your health. People don’t want to acknowledge how much of an impact our food systems are having on the environment, it can all seem a bit hard to get your head around.

It doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots; that what we’re eating and where that comes from, like everything that we’re purchasing, does make an impact. Collectively that impact is huge if we’re not being conscious about it.

What are your thoughts about animal rights — do you think people are starting to understand the concept of speciesism; the idea that we don’t treat a pig, sheep or cow in the same way as a cat or a dog?
It can be a hard thing for people to connect with, but I do think it’s gradually getting across to the younger generation. People are seeing that if I love my dog then why am I eating a cow, they are really no different, they are a different animal but they all have feelings and emotions. I know growing up on a farm, we killed our own animals and we were very connected to that process. I am quite aware of the torture that goes on for those animals [with industrial farming] and I don’t want to be a part of any side of that. I definitely know which one I would be supporting if I was choosing to consume meat.

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