Tattoos and transcendental tea: a study in the sense and expression of self

‘Nature’s Nerds’ was a note I made in my phone when hastily and oh-so-cumbersomely trying to come in some way close to butterfly netting a matcha meringue, smoked quince ice cream and shaved raw quince dish I had towards the end of my meal at Pasture. The astringent, almost powdery raw fruit swept away the sweet but tealeaf-bitter marshmallowy whip and dense, silken ice cream. It was a fleeting experience, like a whispered secret, ethereal and cloudlike. Yet, like a secret, the details have settled in and seem intent on staying for good.

(And yes, I got to sit at the table of the best chef in New Zealand and all I could come up with was a box of highly processed, pebbly lolly ‘food’stuffs from my childhood. Mea culpa. But also, if we want to get deep&meaningful about it, testament to the transporting nature of food and centrality of food to one’s identity, past, present and future.)

If we were to very much over extend the candy-themed metaphor, Pasture is the nonpareils (sans lurid hues) of the New Zealand food space. (You can’t just limit these guys to being a restaurant – ecosystems come to mind.)

For Pasture is truly without equal.  

Eating there is like having a good friend come up and unexpectedly hug you tight from behind. Pasture is a comforting – and confident – reminder that you don’t need to shock to awe.

It is also a reminder to know, and to own, yourself: “At Pasture we have a combination of things that are uniquely ours and so our focus has got to be on developing what makes this place so special.”

“Trial and error and experimentation are a given – every single day.”

Laura Verner, half of the team heading up Pasture, is fiercely in-the-know about what she is about. She is also intimidatingly articulate about it. It’s awesome, and not in the overused sense of the word.

She also has some very cool tattoos: “I started being tattooed thirteen years ago and I have many I adore and a few I regret, but you live and learn and most importantly... as my body and a form of expression, I love them all.”

And Pasture too is a study in self-expression. Laura and Ed, Pasture’s head chef and Laura’s husband, have striven to share – not tell – their story through Pasture. From its drinks programme, playful playlist and beautiful wooden cutlery rests to the place’s front door.

A walk-in-the-woods mushroom and spruce tea so headily and seductively of itself I could feel the pine needles underfoot, crunching as I walked through a heavily damp forest.

A most-intriguing pairing of de-then-rehydrated potatoes and potato puree with soundly dense discs of seaweed and truffle.

Cultured butter I could – and did – eat like cheese. 

Overwhelming talent and instinct backed up by well-placed and paced drive and determination, knowledge and experience.

‘Exploded’ is the overused&abused verb for describing the arrival of an Anthony Bourdain tomato-slice-in-a-sandwich tectonic shift of a new restaurant, but it doesn’t seem right here. Pasture is there as if it always was and always should be. So strong is the sense of self and such is the self-assured nature of the restaurant and its people. Laura says they’re “very proud of the impact Pasture has had on the dining scene in New Zealand. We get a lot of feedback from our peers about the influence we have had and we can see how things we have done have been recognised.”

I anticipate Pasture’s true impact won’t be known for some time (cue the Meryl Streep Devil Wears Prada cerulean speech). It’ll take time for the flavour trails from this place to shake down and spread out.

Being such a distinctive character and so definite about who you are is no gentle wander along a pine needle-strewn stretch. As Laura notes, you have to be “very realistic and grounded” and be prepared to work yourself “into the ground with passion and dedication”. In getting to Pasture they “have faced a lot of challenges and adversity on our path and it is not easy to be different. We've had a lot of criticism as well as a lot of praise. The most important thing is for us to believe in ourselves and what we offer – integrity is something nobody can take away from us.”

“At Pasture we don't believe in hiding who we are, and it's hard to hide some of [my tattoos] as I have a full sleeve, half sleeve and a hand tattoo. I don't define myself as a tattooed person, I just happen to have quite a few.” It’s not about letting what you do or what you eat or what is on your skin define you, but about knowing what makes you distinct, and working mighty hard to bring it off, day-after-day.

 

Laura and Ed Verner are behind the forward-thinking and -leaning Pasture, the Auckland restaurant where a measure of cider is described on the drinks list as a “shimmy shake”. And where a meal can rush you in with the tide, across a sandy foreshore, and – holding your hand – run with you into the cool shade of a damp, coolly lit forest. And then land you, oh so safe-and-soundly, at the brambly edge of a field of dairy cows.

Bearing witness to their story and resolutely strong sense of self makes for a truly restorative and heart hummingly joyous experience. Pasture’s manifesto – Have fun. Be good. Be hospitable. Make it delicious. No rules – reads as last words on live-bys. Follow ‘em. I know I certainly am. And I’d also highly recommend adopting Laura’s approach to tattoos: “do not think about what [they] will look like when you are old”.

So, try to get there as soon as you can and don’t forget to leave a tip.

A wax-eye facing the wrong way but actually perfectly placed

(Nearly) start at the very beginning, right? It is, after all, the very best place to start (and no need to make a song and dance about it here – already been done – I’m looking at you, Maria).

And Kelly kind of started it all.

On our table one evening, she and I got talking and we got talking tattoos. She mentioned that her tips went towards her tattoo fund and next up was a thigh piece. So a tip was left.

A year on, that thigh tattoo has been followed by a back piece, and we caught up and sat down to talk tattoos, family and how a cheeky exchange with an airhostess as a child set the standard for customer service.   

Kelly’s favourite tattoo is her third: four wax-eyes sitting on a blossoming branch. Adorning the inside of her right forearm, Kelly runs her hand over the piece as she muses about the time an elderly diner gave her seal-of-approval, opining “good placement, dear. That place will never wrinkle.” Originally one-tone line and shading work, the piece was reworked and now gently glows with colour. Certainly no ex-lover cover up or regretful typo rehash, the birds&blossoms now blush and bloom as if hand-coloured.

The tattoo represents Kelly’s family and recalls watching wax-eyes flit around her grandparents’ back garden, drawn to a bird feeder in a blossom tree there. Describing them as “cheeky little shits”, Kelly says she related to the birds. Indeed she points out that the one closest to her elbow, which faces the opposite direction to the others – or is “going the wrong way” as she puts it – is her: "a little bit different”.

Kelly considers the staff where she works to be family too. She notes there is a definite chain of command, but also a strong sense that they are “all in it together”. The crew often catch up afterhours, for, while delicious, family meal is often rushed through and usually a single person sitting. Staff quickly hitting the floor again to meet&greet&seat diners, telling them about the daily specials and guiding them through the wine list.

Falling in with how many get their start in the hospitality industry, Kelly fell into it, only intending it to be a six or so month stint. A “good enough job while you’re thinking about what to do”.

Several years – and a few tattoos – later, Kelly shines when talking about the service aspect of the industry and what she sees as her role in it. For her it’s ultimately about wanting to make a difference to the lives of her customers. She laughs at the memory of an air hostess who cheekily poked her tongue out at a six- or seven-year-old aisle-seated Kelly who kept looking back at the seated-for-take-off hostess. She acknowledges she wants to “help make memories like that”. Kelly talks excitedly about the customers whom she considers ‘borderline friends’, the regulars whose order she knows without having to hand them a menu. The ones who hug her because she puts a special request in with the kitchen.

It’s clear she’s not ‘going the wrong way’ about being in this business: she’s in it for the customer. She says it’s about having high standards and not disappointing diners. In this, the era of celebrity chefs and the internet-educated foodie, expectations of the dining public are high, heightening the need to ensure these standards stay high.

We talk about the role of social media in driving trends and modern ideas around eating out, and Kelly points out that they sometimes have customers come in for something they’ve seen online only to find it is out-of-season, or served as part of the lunch and dinner services and not breakfast.

She thinks diners also expect more personality from their wait staff. Kelly learns to read people quickly. She says it’s about building up a good rapport and relationship over the course of only two or three courses. She admits that she’s sometimes torn between wanting to stay and chat with diners and having to top up glasses a couple of tables over. Customers have even suggested she come join them. Understandable as she has an effervescence that bubbles through.

Like tattoos, food is often a touchstone, taking us back to a certain time and place, feeling and space. Proust’s madeleine moment. We try to dream-catch and make memories over meals. And it’s people in the industry like Kelly – who kick off a konversation about tattoos and tattoo funds when they see you’ve got a fantail hanging out on your forearm – who make you remember those meals all the more. And make you want to leave a tip.

Kelly currently works as a waitress and supervisor at Floridita’s. And while her wax-eye may be facing the wrong way, it seems she’s pretty perfectly placed.

Floridita’s is a Wellington institution. Dark wood and deep red banquettes. Engaging and always accommodating service. Cuba Street scenes playing out beyond the floor to ceiling windows. Mailable menus. Elegant dining with a side of fun.

Serving breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner, the kitchen knowledgeably plays with texture and flavour pairings, consciously and consistently creating dishes that capture seasonal ingredients at their fleeting best moment. The trifle is testament to this ethos. Whether with passionfruit, quince or peach, it’s always delicious, always perfectly balanced – collect them all!

Plus – I’m calling it – the cheese and rocket scones are the best in town, and the ginger loaf is tall, dark and handsome.  

Just go. Time and again. And get the recipe book too. But still keep going.

Try the eggs (any way – they’re perfect every time) and don’t forget to leave a tip for the tattoo fund.

On showing your respect and showing up to life (and caffeine-ban breakingly good coffee)

Some staples in life: coffee, tattoos and respect. All should be great. And the last should always be shown to those who make the first two.

And Nik, well, he makes great coffee. So great, in fact, I broke an eight-month doctor-ordered caffeine ban for a flat white (albeit single shot). And will do so again. And soon.

Nik also has some great tattoos. He got his first at sixteen, having worked&saved to pay his way. His Dad, not thinking Nik would actually go through with it, said he would quite happily reimburse Nik if he came home with one. Up(double)shot is that Nik didn’t need to work&save for that first one after all. (Talk about that feeling when you hand over your fully stamped buy-ten-coffees-and-get-the-eleventh-one-free card.)

Nik has been piecemeal putting together a solid body of work ever since. From the crow on his lower back – both covering off his love of birds and covering up a piece fallen-out-of-favour – to a “thought it’d be funny” gun on his gun (it is). He has ‘Invictus’ emblazoned across his chest for the poem’s poet’s creed: “throw whatever you like at me and I’ll still come out of it”.

Working in hospo, Nik has come across the understandably curious about his tattoos and then those who couldn’t care less. He’s also come up against those who question why he would even want tattoos and be all tattooed up quote unquote. He just doesn’t “see how a tattoo is going to change the way a barista serves you”.

And you know what Aretha Franklin would say, right?

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Find out what it means to me

And according to Nik, respect in this industry means giving patrons what they want. When he goes out for a tipple he wants an Old Fashioned to “taste the way I know it should taste”, and he mirrors this approach when serving others. Making me a single shot flat white is a damned fine example of damned fine hospitality. It being a coffee order that should, frankly, come with training wheels, on the coffee hierarchy scale of fluffy to neat espresso.

Service without judgment. That’s respect. And providing such service when you yourself are judged, Nik recognises, is just how it is when working in hospitality. You open yourself up to judgment, “you’re communicating [who you are] more” and to more people. You still tamp the coffee and refill the water glasses regardless of whatever is thrown at you. Invictus indeed. 

Nik is someone who has shown up for life. A mover and a shaker (as well as an excellent coffee maker). He’s Taking Care of Business (R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Take care of TCB).

He’s the kind of person who enjoys the feeling of being tattooed, seeing how his body responds to the experience (the crow alone took about eight or nine hours – now that is something to show up to).

And he makes things happen. Having worked extensively in the hospitality trade from cocktails to coffee, both in New Zealand and overseas, he’s now putting that also solid body of work to work. He and good friend, Rewi McIntyre (also one with some fairly excellent ink), have set up STAPLE espresso bar on Victoria Street. No piecemealing about it on this one though. All in. Just like getting a tattoo. Committed.

He’s committed to making things happen for others too, promoting local producers of good stuff. (A hangover from working in an industry based on service? Not-your-usual, hair-of-the-dog cure kind of hangover.)

In stocking STAPLE with the good stuff, Nik has shown his respect for locals like Six Barrel Soda Co and Egmont Street Eatery. The latter’s catering gig, The Catering Studio, supplies salad, Jim, but not as we know it – bowled whirlwinds of flavour, colour and texture. Staple clubhouse rules apply: no limp lettuce leaf allowed.

And STAPLE may just fix everything serving up Eighthirty coffee, the first Wellington bean-there-done-that for the Auckland coffee roaster.

This place is breathing space of a place. And it’s slick. From the milk white grinder and long black-black Strada to the line-by-line design wooden accents. Make sure you check out the curves on those tables too.

Try the not-too-sweet sweet nut and fruit slice – nature’s lolly scramble goodness. I want the recipe, but I’ll just have to head back to STAPLE, break that caffeine ban and pick up a piece… for medicinal purposes only, of course.

So. Do it. Pay your respects. Make this place your staple. And don’t forget to tip.