I feel like you can really judge a place by their fries. I mean it is essentially three ingredients - potato, oil and salt. Yet how is it that something so simple and so basic can be so different across the board. It levels the playing field - a local fish and chip shop can be right up there with a top restaurant.
I came to this startlingly obvious and I’m sure unoriginal conclusion while writing a few chip reviews for my friend’s blog Sex, Fries and Lookie-Likies (worth a look for the amazingly awkward dating stories). It was through my extensive research I can say with utmost confidence that Ti Kouka have THE best fries in Wellington. Good quality potatoes, hand cut and thrice cooked....THRICE! That is the kind of dedication and respect for the potato I’m willing to get behind.
But it wasn’t just the fries that keep me going back to Ti Kouka, it is that I have never had anything less than an astounding meal there. Every time I’ve left feeling like I should have paid double for the level of skill and combination of flavours that I found on my plate. It is intelligent cafe food, we have progressed past the cranberry and brie paninis of the 90s and now it is about new and exciting flavours, it's about challenging our palates and yet still keeping a few top quality staples, because what is lunch without fries.
If there is something Eat and Greet can relate to, it’s a family venture – Ti Kouka was opened by brothers Jesse and Shepherd and I’d say they are onto something good. I sat down with the salt and pepper haired Shepherd to find out how it all got started.
When did you decide to open Ti Kouka?
I had been wanting to open my own place since the late 90s, I was working at Logan Brown, but I was young and had no idea. I think I was a bit ambitious back in those days so I was probably lucky that it didn’t happen then. I headed overseas for number of years, then I came back to Wellington and was back to working at Logan Brown and still wanting to open my own place. I got close when the whole economy went out the window and no one wanted to come near it. So I stuck it out for a while until my brother Jesse moved back to Wellington, he was working for Fuel and at a birthday dinner we decided “let’s do it, let’s open a cafe”.
Where did the name Ti Kouka come from?
Jesse's dad is the leading botanist on cabbage trees in New zealand so I said what about “Cabbage Tree Cafe” because I liked the family connection but, yeah, it didn’t sound quite right so Jesse said "what about Ti Kouka" (the maori name for cabbage trees) and it had a nice ring to it. So Ti Kouka cafe was born.
Had you always intended to open a cafe?
Originally I wanted to open a restaurant. When I first started thinking about it I wanted a fine dining place. But opening a cafe gives me a bit more freedom and for my first business I thought a cafe would be a bit easier, a restaurant is a bit more serious and harder to make work.
Do you feel like people are heading away from fine dining?
No, I don’t think people are heading away from fine dining, but because people are eating out more there is a bigger spread of places to eat. And you are seeing more places like Ti Kouka that are a bit more laid back and cheaper that you can go out to more often. Places like The Larder and Cafe Polo that are doing good food but you don’t spend a fortune. But I think fine dining still has its place, people still want to go out, get dressed up and feel special.
What makes Ti Kouka special?
We wanted quality – quality service, quality food and quality coffee. We wanted to open a cafe that was at the top of its game in all of those areas and a little bit different from everywhere else as we knew there was a saturation of cafes around Wellington. Because of my background in restaurants, I wanted to use that and have restaurant-quality food. Jesse had strong coffee training and we teamed up with Flight Coffee as they are young, passionate and we liked what they were doing.
You feature on the Conscious Consumers website, was that a deliberate decision for you?
Yeah, I’ve been interested in the slow food movement from when I was in Sydney. So when we started Ti Kouka I got into the idea of where my food was coming from and ends up and that all ties in with recycling and being sustainable. At first we tried being 100% local and 100% organic but realised it wasn’t that economical, so had to cut back a bit in the first year. We're getting back into being local and I’m working with farmers, mainly in the Wairarapa. One farm in particular Eco Farm, they are CSA, so the idea is that people pay up front and they grow their veges for them. Everything is organically grown. They are all about looking after the soil and they will keep you informed of what’s going on for them - maybe why potatoes didn’t work out this year or what is good this time of year, they have a story behind their products, which I really enjoy. Conscious Consumer is doing a great job. I have been working with them to try and define what is local. How can you say if something is local or not? Where do you draw the line? There is no easy fix.
What challenges do you have finding ingredients?
There is only a small number of local suppliers, because of the way Wellington is set up there isn't that much really locally, you have to go to Wairarapa and Kapiti. I also think because of our climate we are very limited to what we can grow. Especially over winter and the change of seasons, there has been a lot of Cauliflower and Jerusalem Artichokes recently! Coming back from Sydney, to New Zealand and I had the realisation that we are so dependent on seasons here and the seasons change so dramatically, so the biggest challenge for me is to follow those seasons. I still don’t do it 100%, if I was there would be no tomato sauce over winter or I would be making hundreds of litres of it over the summer to get me through the off months! So that is the hardest thing and then it’s having the time to find the farmers who are doing the things I like. There is a farmer in Martinborough called Longbush Free Range Pork and they raise large black pigs. They are awesome, the pigs were almost extinct in NZ, it’s a slow growing pig with heaps of fat and it’s just a beautiful, beautiful pig. So it’s just about finding the growers and farmers who are doing these amazing products. So I do that whenever I can, usually with a change of menu I will hunt around and find what I can get. Wellington on a Plate was great for bringing together local suppliers.
How long have you worked as a chef?
I started as a kitchen hand 19 years ago, then worked as a chef mainly just to travel. But then I realised I kind of liked it and that was what I wanted to do!
Who influenced you?
My first experience working with a proper chef was with Al at Logan Brown, so that initial time there was huge for me, I was a 20 year old and had no idea what I was doing. I think Al changed me from a cook into a chef. My 3 years in London was worth a lifetime working here, it was insane. The first 6 months I was there I worked at an Italian Restaurant, 6 days a week, 15 hour days. And Sydney was when I first ran my own kitchen, I worked with David Campbell at the Book Kitchen.
What makes a good chef?
This is a hard question, I think about it a lot in terms of training. I think the biggest thing is you have to want to do it. It's not a job you do for fun, you want to really have to do it. Then dedication to detail, which is often why the training comes in handy. Everything has to be done consistently. That is the hardest thing for a chef – being consistent day in and day out. I struggle with that myself.
What's your favourite dish on the menu and why?
I love the smoked fish dish at the moment. We have had it on the menu since we opened, it’s changed a bit each time but it’s nice to do something different with fish.
Is that also your favourite dish to cook?
Not necessarily, it’s not just one thing for me. We have done a couple degustation evenings and that is what I love to do and what I would like to do in the future. I enjoy playing with food, I enjoy coming up with new ideas and trying them out and that is what degustation meals are there to do. You can freak people out a bit and they don’t really mind as it’s just one dish. And because it is small, diners can enjoy it without getting too overwhelmed.
Where do you like to eat out for dinner?
What do you make for yourself at the end of a long day
Something simple as possible, my wife always complains that she is married to a chef but never gets to taste any of my food. But yeah it has to be simple so it’s usually steak, salad and chips and I always make sure we eat together.
Do you have cure for a hangover?
I’m kind of done with hangovers, but I have a great cure for a cold!
Lemon, honey, ginger, garlic and chilli with ½ litre of water in a pot, boil it up for a few minutes and then let it cool down, strain it off and drink it all in one go.
Lastly...what makes your fries so damn good?
Quality potatoes are a good start.  Shep decided to share his secret to the perfect thrice cooked chip!
Ti Kouka, 76 Willis Street, Wellington.