Food for the People

Posted: 5:07pm / 28.01.2013
WORDS BY BETH - PHOTOS BY ALICE

There has been a lot of talk about street food on Eat & Greet - I’ve also eaten my fair share of street-side delights around the world: takoyaki in Japan, hot dogs in USA, roti in Malaysia and... purely for the story... deep-fried scorpions in China. Hang around with me long enough and you’ll hear me (and others I’ve interviewed) MOAN about the lack of street food culture in NZ. However, a chance meeting changed that opinion. I was down at the Underground Market and got talking to Greg Churcher from Food for the People. he described his menu, (including the perfect bacon buttY, M.L.T. {Mussel fritter, lettuce and Tomato} and whitebait fritters) as “almost gourmet New Zealand street food”, which then got me thinking. Actually that is our version of street food. Those $1 sausage sizzles outside The Warehouse on a Saturday - that's Street food. Whitebait fritters and bacon butties down at the veggie markets is totally street food and I’d just written it all off, because (while so much more delicious) it wasn’t as exotic as “stinky tofu”, another of my more regretable street delicacies.

It was lovely to meet Greg, true blue New Zealander and his best friend Paul Sellars, a British import, and hear their wonderful story about how they came to set up Food for the People - a small, unassuming stand that bangs out great “almost gourmet” New Zealand fare.

Greg and Paul have their priorities in the right place. We meet over lunch and they insisted we get a bottle of wine. I knew we would get along just fine.

How did you two meet?

Greg: Shall we top up everyone’s drinks before we start?
Paul: I moved to New Zealand seven years ago and moved into Greg’s flat.
Greg: The night Paul arrived I said, “Leave your bags in the car, I have a drink on the table for you...”
Paul: “...and get in the kitchen!”
Greg: Pretty much! I knew he was a chef so I had got all these gourmet ingredients and just hoped he would cook us dinner. The bags got unloaded from the car at 2am! He was the perfect flatmate; he could look in the fridge at ingredients in various stages of disrepair and he would knock up a gourmet feast without even thinking about it.

How did you come to set up Food for the People?

Greg: We lived in a beautiful house with an amazing kitchen so we did a lot of cooking, socialising, entertaining and drinking together. When the time came for us to go our separate ways we didn’t want it to end. At the time I was moonlighting from my day job in IT, for Harringtons at the Hill Street Farmers Market, selling their bacon and egg butties. Harringtons were moving away from that sort of thing, so one night over a few drinks we thought we would carry on the friendship and good times by creating a business together and took over the bacon butties and added a few more of our own items.

What are your backgrounds?

Paul: Have you heard of a guy called Rick Stein? I was a chef in his restaurant in Cornwall for seven years. I then opened my own restaurant in Cornwall for another seven years and just as I was about to give it up, Rick asked if I was interested in running his cooking school, so I did that for five years. I then lived in France for a year and because I didn’t want to move back to England, I decided to move to New Zealand. I had always thought about NZ but it seemed so far away. Since moving here I’ve worked for Ruth Pretty, done events with Rick if he is in town and I was teaching at the Horowhenua Learning Centre.
Greg: My mum would always invite foreigners into her home, so growing up I had exposure to a wide range of food and she had a real emphasis on socialising around food. As a result I became naturally attracted to anyone who can cook. When I left school I followed in my dad's footsteps and got into IT but the friends I was making were restaurateurs - I would spend more time in kitchens than in the restaurant with my IT friends.
Paul: I also want to just point out now that this guy has one of the best palates I’ve ever met and that is having worked with a lot of chefs. This guy knows about flavour, smells, why some things work and some things don’t. After three bottles of wine it’s not so good but he really is a natural. Rick Stein was a natural too and in some ways there are a lot of similarities between Rick and Greg.
Greg: Yeah! (They high five)

Why did you call your business Food for the People?

Paul: Well it was going to be called “Fun in a Bun” but for a semi-serious-almost-gourmet business it didn't quite sit right. We thought about opening a restaurant or a cafe, but in the current economic climate people are careful with what they spend. They want something special so we thought, “Well we can do gourmet, but why don’t we be almost-gourmet?” It takes the overheads out of the business. If we get a BBQ off Trademe, a cheap marquee and produce almost-gourmet food, it is so much more accessible.

What makes Food for the People special?

Paul: Not thinking we are special.
Greg: We care about our food and care about our suppliers. We are interested in who the people are behind the food. We want to go out and meet them and see what they are about and say thank you for creating these great products. We also like that we are on the same level as our customers, we are right there cooking for them and we can talk to them and get to know our customers. We like that we can reach out and touch them... not too much touching though... more figurative touching!

Who are some of those suppliers that you love?

Greg: Harringtons Small Goods - they have been so great to us, and their dry-cured bacon is second to none and their black pudding is frickin’ amazing if that is your thing.  Benniks Eggs - they were the first farmers to go cage free. 

Who has been your biggest mentor?

Greg: A restaurateur named Erol. He was one of the first guys to have a kebab shop in Wellington, and he taught me a few things about the restaurant business - what to do and what not to do. My mum and father for bringing me up around good food. And a guy called Seth Godin - he is a writer. He doesn’t know I exist, but he has taught me to keep asking questions.
Paul: My mum - she was a crap cook. She could burn boiled potatoes, so I had to learn to fend for myself. I guess that was the start of it all. But it has got to be Rick, I was a chef for a number of years before working with him, but up until that point it didn’t click. He makes everything so simple. I was lucky to work with him in the kitchen, which not many people have done because after I left he went off and did his TV shows. Greg has also been an inspiration to me. I’ve had a tough time the last couple of years and he has helped me through a lot and he has got us to this point we are at in the business, so thank you Greg.
Greg: Pleasure, mate.

Do you consider yourself a cook or a chef?

Paul: I don't like being a called a chef; a cook is a much more natural thing, whereas being a chef is a trade. Although I am a trained “chef”, whereas Greg is a natural cook.
Greg: It comes out in our “Test Kitchen” when I’m like, “This doesn’t taste right so let’s frick with it,” which messes with the French-trained chef - but then he will so something in front of me and I’ll think, “I wish I could cook like that.” So we have the best of both worlds.

What is your favourite item on the menu?

Paul: The bacon and egg butty - it is what started this whole thing and it’s just so simple. But our mussel fritter sandwich (aka M.L.T.) is what I’m most proud of because we created it together and spent a lot of time developing it in the Test Kitchen.
Greg: There was a lot of drinking involved and we had to rework it a lot of times. But the M.L.T. is my favourite; it reminds me of low tide, hanging out at the rocks at the beach, the smell of the seaweed and shellfish. It is really nice.

What ingredient can you not live without?

Paul: Does that include wine?
Greg: Eggs.
Paul: And salt.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced so far?

Greg: The wind, hands-down, is the biggest nightmare for a tent-based kitchen. The bacon sometimes flies out of the bacon butty and when you look for it, the customer who is waiting is wearing it. On a good day the bacon will flip itself on the BBQ.

Do you have trouble finding certain ingredients?

Greg: We have calling cards out for fresh anchovies left, right and centre. So if you know anyone...

Where do you like to eat in Wellington?

Paul: Chocolate Fish Cafe is my new favourite place. I love the concept and the simplicity of it all.
Greg: KC Cafe do a mean salt and pepper chicken and Sichuan:Spice at the markets.

What do you make for yourself on a day off?

Paul: Coffee and a cigarette
Greg: I like cooking Thai and Cambodian food, I’ve never been there though, but I hope to one day.

What food trends do you see popping up?

Greg: There is more and more street food turning up in Wellington. The economic climate is pretty tricky, so it is great for people that don’t have the capital to open a restaurant or cafe.

What would you request for your last meal?

Paul: Fruits de Mer (Fruits of the Sea in French), which is a whole platter of seafood. Crab is my absolute favourite.
Greg: Mum's roast chicken and gravy.

What is your favourite junk food?

Greg: Oh, a Big Mac. There is something about that sauce... but only once in a while.
Paul: Coffee and a cigarette!

What is your most vivid childhood food memory?

Paul: My Grandad was a butcher and came from a long line of butchers. He would come down to Cornwall with these homemade sausages and a slab of beef and would cook up a classic Sunday roast. For me and for any English person really, a roast dinner is filled with memories because it’s such a family thing.

Do you have a Favourite Cookbook?

Paul: Anything by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I love his whole approach to food: growing it yourself and creating it yourself, which is what I did in France. We made our own cheese and had our own animals. I was living the dream that year.

What ingredient/dish would you like to try but haven’t yet?

Paul: I almost ate a huhu grub! I got it near my mouth but it didn’t get any further.
Greg: I’m quick to act. So once I hear about an ingredient that I want to try, I’ll go out of my way to track it down, which is easy with places like Moore Wilson's and all the Asian grocery stores. Nothing on the list at the moment, but talk to me next week.

What is the future of Food for the People?

Greg: We want to grab a campervan and tour around these suppliers, meet the people and bring their stories back. We are hoping to expand down the coast a few days a week.

 

No wonder we got along so well: in a way their philosophy of wanting to get to know their suppliers and find out their stories aligns with the the whole reason we started Eat & Greet and “meet the people behind the plate.” There really are some interesting stories out there. Who knew we had Rick Stein’s right hand man cooking up your bacon butty on Sunday while you pick up your weekly vegetables!

I also want to thank Greg for that little epiphany; turns out we do have our own street food and although it’s not exotic, it is damn tasty - that’s all that matters really.

I’d be interested in what you all think, too. Any other NZ street food you can think of? Do you think NZ street food is a thing? Have any stories of dicey street delights you've consumed overseas?

 

Food for the People - hit them on up Twitter and Facebook
and find them at the following markets...
Underground Market - Saturdays, 10am - 4pm
Paraparaumu Beach Market - Saturdays, 9am - 4pm
Harbourside City Market - Sundays, 7.30am - 1pm