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.