11 Nov 2017

Kelda Hains: 'I'm not into 'art on a plate'

From Saturday Morning, 8:40 am on 11 November 2017

Chef Kelda Hains is part of the team behind the new Wellington restaurant Rita. She also has a cookbook out, named after the popular cafe she co-owns, Nikau.

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Photo: Supplied

Kelda Hains talks with Kim Hill about the hotel management assignment that changed her life, the beauty of kedgeree and why she'll never use canned tomatoes.

Kelda was given her first proper restaurant job at 21 by the legendary kiwi cook Lois Daish (who happens to be Rita co-owner Paul Schrader's mother in law).

They'd first met when Kelda interviewed was interviewing restaurant owners for her hotel management assignment, which Lois asked to read.

Then came a life-changing job offer at the front door of the Brooklyn Café & Grill.

"I'm very, very grateful that she noticed something in me that was worth cultivating."

Lois served Kelda her first kedgeree, which was first put on the Nikau menu as a gap-filler, but has become the signature dish of the Civic Square cafe.

Kedgeree is well-rounded on the palate, Kelda says.

"You have the smoky flavours and creamy, there's the sweetness from the onions. Then the curry flavours are gentle, but they're compelling, as well."

The kedgeree at Nikau

The kedgeree at Nikau Photo: Flickr / Yann

Sage fried eggs is another hit on the Nikau menu.

Sage butter is cooked low and slow before the eggs are poached in it, Kelda says.

One thing you'll never find on the menu Kelda is in charge of is imported canned tomatoes.

Tomatoes in season have a flavour that just can't be replicated, she says, and she'd rather wait.

"The real point is you can buy a tomato all year round or you can use canned tomatoes all year round, but your food is going to become homogenous and generalised. Canned tomatoes are quite strong, quite acidic, quite sweet, and they will dominate your food."

Rita is in a small century-old workers cottage in the Aro Valley and named after her Kelda's grandmother.

The three-course fixed menu is seasonal, made from scratch and unfussy.

"I'm not into making art on a plate at all. I feel the 'art on a plate' movement is potentially more a male point of view."

For women, restaurant kitchens are often highly inhospitable places, Kelda says.

"[The experiences I had] were enough to make me want to work for women and work during the day. I think the drive to own my own business was somehow centred around that, as well."