much like Nikau’s food, I'll keep this simple. There is no better breakfast in Wellington (and I’ve had my fair share) than their sage fried eggs and stewed tomatoes. It is the simplicity of the dish that allows them to celebrate the exceptional produce from around the region. Nikau don’t even serve it with toast but instead a perfectly chewy baguette that IT would be a crime to toast, fluffy white pillows perfect for mopping up all that sage butter.
The Japanese have the most amazing adjective - wabi-sabi which I think applies to Nikau. Which is essentially the beauty in simplicity and imperfection. Does that not perfectly describe Nikau? Each dish is unpretentious in its description, clean in its flavours and rustic in presentation. Maybe the only thing imperfect about Nikau is that those stewed tomatoes are only available for four months of the year. But luckily we get the feijoa danishes this time of year instead.
I stole a quiet moment in a very busy day with Paul and Kelda...
How did you come to open up Nikau?
Paul: I went into partnership with two others. In 1998.
Paul: Yes, exactly - far out!
Kelda: Ancient history, way back in the dawn of time.
Paul: We just celebrated our 15th birthday. When we opened, Kelda bought in after 18 months, so pretty much from the get-go. We were floundering along until Kelda came along and shook the kitchen up. Then we bought the other partners out three years later.
What were you both doing before Nikau?
Kelda: I’ve been cooking in Wellington cafés since '91. We met because my first cooking job was for Paul’s mother-in-law Lois Daish, and working for her changed my point of view and the way I like to cook.
Paul: I used to walk past Olive everyday where Kelda used to work, when we had just opened. Knowing perfectly well that our food wasn’t quite right. I would go for dinner at Olive and have Kelda's food in front of me and think “ahhh this is it, this is what we want.”
Kelda: I had decided to take some time off from there and that is when Paul approached me about working at Nikau.
What is the philosophy behind Nikau?
Paul: Our idea when we opened was that Wellington was overrun with “Line up, wait for your coffee, get your panini and blueberry muffin” cafes, and we thought there was a space for a more formal approach to that scene. Still being a café, but more like a daytime restaurant. So having an à la carte menu, serving breakfast in the same way.
When did you decide you wanted to be in the food industry?
Kelda: I’d decided from a young age that I wanted to cook.
Paul: I trained as a primary school teacher and then went to Melbourne, thinking I would pursue art gallery education. But I grew up in a restaurant family; my uncle was a caterer, my grandparents had a tearoom in Timaru, it was in my blood. I realised later on that the restaurant game was quite a good game, particularly in Melbourne. Florentino was staffed by 70-year-old Italian men who had worked there their whole lives. It makes you realise there is some legitimacy to the game.
Interesting you mention art gallery education, did that influence your decision to open in your current location?
Paul: No, well…possibly. The site just came up, the previous tenants had done a runner. This used to be The City Bar and Bistro - Al Brown cooked here. Their gin and tonics were famous. For the first five or six years of Nikau being here, people would walk through the café and go to where the bar had been to have one of these gin and tonics.
Has traveling overseas influenced the way you cook?
Kelda: I went to Italy when I was quite young and did a bit of WWOOFing. I was there for three months and I was lucky to stay with a family that was really into food. I learned a lot about how they eat, how they put together their menus and how they think about flavour. They always had a three-course meal - it might have been simple, but they would always all sit down and eat together.
Where do you find inspiration?
Kelda: I do lots and lots of reading - cookbooks and the wide world of the internet. But the food isn’t going to have any integrity unless it is re-imagined as your own. That is what I feel and it is important to trust your own instincts in terms of having a café.
Paul: And certainly after this length of time you get better at it, it’s not always right and it’s not formulaic, but there is a certain template that applies.
Have you seen changes in the way Wellingtonians eat?
Kelda: People are much more adventurous. There is a large number of people who eat out a lot, who are interested in food and trust us. They are always keen to try what is new on the menu.
Paul: That wealth of knowledge and travel has made people more adventurous.
Do you have a signature dish?
Kelda: It would be the Kedgeree, but in a way I don’t see that as representative of what I’m interested in cooking, apart from the fact that we put really high quality ingredients into it - nice fish that we smoke ourselves and fair-trade rice. But in terms of having a local, organic, seasonal type of approach it doesn’t really apply.
Do you have a favourite dish?
Kelda: Whatever is new on the menu. Something that seems right and appropriate for the day and catches that moment. That is my thing. But you should really answer that Paul?
Paul: Because I eat a lot, don’t I? At the moment it is anything that comes from those big black pigs from Longbush Free Range Pork. They are ridiculously good. It doesn’t matter how they are presented or what cut it is, it is just tasty pork.
Kelda: We also render the fat down for our potatoes. Boy, they are good.
Who do you admire in the industry?
Paul: Fergus Henderson from St John in the UK, who is uncompromising. He has the ability to put a bowl of peas, still in their pod, on the menu and that perfect bowl of peas is legitimate as a dish in his restaurant. That speaks of his integrity.
Kelda: It is very cook-centric there. If the pork is ready at 11.30am and runs out before dinner, it runs out. So customers are fully participating in the experience of being there.
Paul: I admire Lois [Daish] of course.
Kelda: Way back, she was doing seasonal, beautiful, simple food and supporting local farmers. She would change her menu everyday; she would type it on a typewriter. I’m also interested in what is going on in the States. I really admire Sean Brock, He is a real locavore chef. Or the really amazing bowls of homemade pasta at Flour and Water. That reinterpreted idea of traditional Italian food in a restaurant context. Their pasta is quite gestural, the way it is served on a plate.
Where do you eat in Wellington?
Kelda: I’m currently obsessed with Tatsushi. There is something really nice about eating something I could never cook. I don’t have the knowledge to do that well - I don’t even think I could make a decent dashi. I enjoy those nice clean flavours.
Paul: The Beijing in Newtown is a regular. I have a lot of respect for someone like Ben at Milk Crate, who decided that he wanted a little hole in the wall that just made egg sandwiches. That is a really pure little vision and he has worked his butt off. Same with Mike from Zany Zeus.
What challenges do you face?
Kelda: Awwwww. I think that having a restaurant can be all process, so it is about rising above that, enjoying what you are doing and not getting caught up in the everydayness of it.
Do you have challenges finding certain ingredients?
Kelda: I use a lot of small organic suppliers so it can be a bit of a struggle - people will have a certain amount of produce and then they will run out. The suppliers I have now are good at communicating. I wish there were more local suppliers, and I think it will happen; you can see the infrastructure forming.
On a day off what do you make?
Paul: A drink!
Kelda: I always cook diner, I’m a chef that eats a lot at home. If I’m lucky and I have enough going on in the garden I’ll start with that and build a dish around it.
What ingredient could you not live with out?
Paul: Vogel’s Toast.
Kelda: Toast is a beautiful thing.
Paul: And butter. Toast and butter.
What would you have for your last supper
Paul: Woah. I would have Jewish artichoke - whole fried artichoke - and the beef on the bone that Karen Martini used to make at the Melbourne Wine Room.
Kelda: The dessert had better be mine!
Paul: I was getting there! Kelda's tangelo crème caramel. It would be washed down with a Barcelona beer for the artichoke and a blousy California red with the beef and a cleansing jasmine pearl tea to finish.
Kelda: Geez, that’s a spring meal, you had better die in spring.
Paul: I will time my death accordingly!
Do you have a favourite junk food
Kelda: Laksa. I suppose it is “junk” because of the non-organic chicken component.
Paul: In Kilbirnie I go to Hey George, a little pie shop, and always have a caramel milkshake. I’m supposed to be over the road at Commonsense Organics to buy stuff, but I always stop and get a caramel milkshake.
Do you have a vivid childhood memory around food?
Kelda: I have very strong memories of foraging in my friend’s parents' garden, picking gooseberries and eating carrots.
Paul: I got really sad at school one time when I was a five-year-old. My dad came and picked me up and took me across the road to Dot’s Tea House in Crofton Downs. He said I could have anything I liked. So I ordered a Ham and Dijon mustard sandwich, probably a day old as the ends were all curled up a little bit. And because I was with my dad and feeling all grown up I thought I should have a cup of tea and even though it was awful I ate all of it. I just thought that is what an adult ate.
What is the future of Nikau?
Kelda: I like being here, I prefer to be in the kitchen. I don’t know what it would be like to change anything.
That is music to my ears Kelda, if it ain't broke....
Nikau Cafe, 1 Wakefield St, Wellington 6011
(04) 801 4168