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Lessons from the kitchen with the chef from Wellington's Nikau Cafe

Left: Nikau Cafe chef Kelda Hains. Right: Boiled fennel salad with grapes.

Nikau Cafe is a Wellington institution, much loved by locals. In a new cookbook, Kelda Hains shares kitchen lessons learnt over the past 20 years.

If two decades seem like a long time to remain in one place within the hospitality industry – well, it is. Reflecting on this, Kelda Hains reckons she’s a better cook for staying put.

“I think my repertoire, or the way I work, has been deepened by being in the same environment and having the same customers, gradually improving things all the time.”

Hains is the mainstay of Nikau Cafe, a daytime eatery tucked behind the City Gallery in Wellington’s Civic Square; the kind of place you don’t stumble upon so much as seek out. It was one of the first in the capital to offer a lunchtime table service, and was probably also one of the first to have its own rooftop garden. 

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Much of the food at Nikau is prepared from scratch; they smoke their own fish for their famed kedgeree, and Hains is a firm fan of fermentation. When North & South calls, she’s busy preserving tomatoes every which way.

“When we run out of the stuff we’ve made, that’s it,” she says. “Then we have to think really hard about what tomatoes bring to our food and work out how to bring that savoury-sweetness to a dish. Are tomatoes necessary all the time? They’re a pantry staple now, and you run the risk of your food tasting exactly the same all year if you rely on them.”

In her time at Nikau, Hains has observed people becoming “more adventurous” in their eating. “And, even if something does sound risky, they’ll trust us.” Brandade – salted fish – faltered 10 years ago; now it’s a menu staple. But she’s given up trying to convince customers that “braised” is beautiful, or that “stewed” means succulent. Instead, she simply uses the phrase “long-cooked”.

Hains’ produce-led approach to cooking has roots in her Tauranga childhood, where she plucked clementines and golden delicious apples straight from the trees.

In a time when there were only “occasional glimmers of a taste universe beyond my everyday experience”, Hains pored over Vogue Entertaining Guide and cultivated lesser-known herbs, foisting them on her whānau to the point where her dad gently suggested an approach of “one flavour at a time”.

At 47, she’s still championing lesser-known herbs; in her debut cookbook, Nikau Cafe, there are no less than seven recipes starring sorrel. Her kedgeree is there (the cafe once sold tea-towels with the recipe printed on it), as well as dishes Hains hopes will “teach a couple of tricks to home cooks interested in good food”.

She credits respected restaurateur Lois Daish for suggesting the book’s structure. “All of sudden, my thinking clicked and I went home and started writing. I was off!”

Daish is something of a fairy godmother to Hains. At 21, Hains interviewed Daish for a hospitality course assignment; afterwards, Daish offered her a job at the Brooklyn Cafe & Grill.

“I learnt so much there, not least a sense of what a restaurant could be. It was a place that brought together staff, suppliers and customers, creating a community around good food. I’ve always believed that it was an ideal to strive for.”

Several years later, Daish’s son-in-law, Paul Schrader, approached Hains to buy into Nikau. Hains calls their partnership “accidental magic” – a magic that has fortuitously propagated; the pair recently opened Rita, an intimate night-time restaurant housed in a renovated 1910 worker’s cottage in Aro Valley, offering a three-course set menu.

A great working relationship is sustaining, says Hains, who likes to garden or “mooch about home” in her time off.

“It’s a hard industry, and exhausting. But it’s enjoyable having a community of people around you; customers who’ve been coming for years, or staff who work for you for a while and then come back. That’s what it’s all about in hospitality: making sure you have good people around you looking out for each other.”  

Nikau Cafe by Kelda Hains, photography by Douglas Allen Johns (Nikau Cafe, $60), available from good bookstores, Nikau Cafe in Wellington, or order online at nikaucafe.co.nz.