6 Aug 2023

A conversation in the cookhouse

From Country Life, 10:17 am on 6 August 2023
Jen Chrisp, cook at Puketoro Station

Jen Chrisp, cook at Puketoro Station Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

Miles inland at the end of a rough country road, Jen Chrisp is spooning batter into muffin tins for tomorrow's "smoko".

She is in the cookhouse at Puketoro Station, carrying on the tradition of providing hearty meals for shepherds and other farm workers at one of New Zealand's large and remote back country farms.

She can feed up to 14 workers every day when the 8500-hectare sheep and beef property is fully staffed - morning teas, packed lunches and dinner.

"Roast macaroni cheese and chops is an absolute favourite and they don't like sultanas."

The cookhouse tradition has been around since the early days of Aotearoa's vast sheep runs when hundreds of men would descend on a station at shearing time, needing a good feed. 

But it appears it is a dying custom, according to Puketoro co-owner Leigh McNeil.

"It started way back when, in the days of the huge stations and young single boys who need a good meal at the end of a long day.

"Not that many places run big cookhouses any more because there's less staff and they're expensive to run."

Getting people to come and cook is not easy either, she said.

But Chrisp's previous jobs as a nanny, polo pony groom and caterer have been good preparation for this one although she now makes sure she cooks more than enough to cater for hungry appetites.

"I'm farm-bred ... I used to be kind of a shepherd for Dad and other stations as well so I kind of know what it's all about," Chrisp said.

Head of the cookhouse is a busy role involving three-weekly trips to the stores, preparing the food and keeping a vegetable garden so there is not a lot of time left to enjoy getting out on the farm.

"I love being with the boys and being amongst all the stock."

The woolshed at Puketoro Station

The woolshed at Puketoro Station Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

Two big trollies at the supermarket raise a few eyebrows but she has to shop in bulk and keeps a neat store room to the side of the kitchen.

What happens when they get cut off as they did recently during Cyclone Gabrielle?

"Scream," she jokes.

"When you're on a farm like this you have to have bulk."

There are generators, gas-topped cookers and barbecues and even a helicopter dropping in supplies in an emergency like Gabrielle.

Chrisp has few rules in the cookhouse apart from making sure her diners have cleaned off the farm mud before they enter her spick and span kitchen with its huge table at one end.

"It fits 22 at a squeeze but you have to have your elbows in.

"It's had a few parties on it," she added.