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

by Stacey Anyan / 19 June, 2018
Kelda Hains, Nikau

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

RelatedArticlesModule - Cafe related

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. 

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.

Latest

Housing NZ to reimburse hundreds evicted on flawed meth testing
96594 2018-09-20 10:03:55Z Politics

Housing NZ to reimburse hundreds evicted on flawed…

by Jo Moir

Housing NZ has committed to compensating hundreds of tenants it evicted from state homes based on bogus meth testing, some of whom were made homeless.

Read more
Shortland Street is turning into a metaphor for the Trump White House
96588 2018-09-20 09:27:11Z Television

Shortland Street is turning into a metaphor for th…

by Diana Wichtel

An extra night of Shortland Street won’t change the psycho storylines or the mad characters who act without consequence.

Read more
Why GE grass will be the next divisive issue for the coalition Government
96475 2018-09-20 00:00:00Z Politics

Why GE grass will be the next divisive issue for t…

by Jane Clifton

As the Government gropes all over in reports and reviews for answers, it looks like GE grass may not be one.

Read more
Funny Girls gets serious about suffrage in new comedy special
96571 2018-09-20 00:00:00Z Television

Funny Girls gets serious about suffrage in new com…

by Russell Brown

A comedy special with the Funny Girls sheds light on New Zealand women’s historic winning of the right to vote.

Read more
How to ease symptoms of IBS and endometriosis with the right diet
96373 2018-09-20 00:00:00Z Nutrition

How to ease symptoms of IBS and endometriosis with…

by Jennifer Bowden

Diets low in fodmaps are a saviour for people with irritable bowel syndrome and endometriosis, helping to manage the gastrointestinal symptoms.

Read more
The web browsers’ war on user tracking
96529 2018-09-19 13:01:40Z Tech

The web browsers’ war on user tracking

by Peter Griffin

The reach of tech giants Facebook and Google goes well beyond their own websites to capture your web browsing. So how can you stop them tracking you?

Read more
Emails between Clare Curran and Derek Handley to be revealed
96499 2018-09-19 08:04:02Z Politics

Emails between Clare Curran and Derek Handley to b…

by Gia Garrick

Copies of former minister Clare Curran's personal emails to tech entrepreneur Derek Handley are expected to be released to Parliament this afternoon.

Read more
Suffrage 125th: We're not there yet, but with each generation we get closer
96160 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Social issues

Suffrage 125th: We're not there yet, but with each…

by Genevieve O’Halloran

It's 125 years since women got the vote, but full equality eludes us. The motherhood penalty curtails careers and the gender pay gap remains.

Read more