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This is the Essence of Tairāwhiti, a one day event celebrating local producers and providers, hunter gatherers, and performers. All of these elements collide to produce an energetic vibe for sharing kai. Unlike other food festival models that provide space for vendors to compete for customers, Essence of Tairāwhiti provides a space of equal footing; where your all-inclusive ticket enables you to taste everything from everyone. That’s a lot of kai. You could say it’s a real ‘bang for your buck’, or more so, for your puku. 

We’re talking 1kg worth of kai. Can you handle it? But what’s even better is that the kai is locally sourced from passionate hunter gatherers of our region, from Ruatoria all the way down to Morere, “from both sides of the maunga and moana”. The freshly caught kai is then publicly prepared by incredible local chefs. And if you’re not already plump with anticipation, the kai is also cleverly paired with wines from local wineries such as Long Bush, Spade Oak, TW and Bushmere. This is a foodie’s Utopia.  

Already floundering for a ticket?

Surely you’re as interested as I was to find out who is delivering a food festival of this magnitude. I recently had the pleasure of meeting local foodies Katie and Drew Hill, and their fellow collaborator Stephane Dussau. The trio tautoko the vision of this kaupapa; to feed souls with goodness through sharing local produce and knowledge.

The trio understand more than the recipes one can scribe up in the kitchen. What better way to manaaki visitors than with a philosophy that emulsifies community through food?  

Drew and Katie are also producers of The Food Cartel, with a business model that simmers with the same philosophy; sharing local kai, supporting and educating diets. Stephane Dussau, ex-owner and Chef of Marina Restaurant adds a flame to this mix. Not only with his focus on quality (and we’re talking Michelin star quality!), but because he has a deep desire to celebrate this region.

It’s starting to sound as though the trio have always been destined to do this. In fact, in watching Drew and Katie interact with Stephane, you too would have sworn that they had known one another for years. Lounging over the backyard couches and seamlessly bouncing kōrero off of one another. Lifelong friends, surely. Stephane told me that he’s been hanging out with the pair for only one month. I was shucked.

The value and philosophy behind Essence of Tairāwhiti is clearly contagious, with local businesses offering support by way of time and resources. They’ve snagged local hunter gatherers from all over the motu, such as Sam the trap man, Hunting with Tui and many more who will demonstrate their knowledge and share their passions for hunting and gathering kai and kaimoana. 

Essence of Tairāwhiti also aims to educate diets. The trio shared with me a story of their own journey, where they recently headed down to the beach to collect seaweed to see if they could cook it. They collected neptune’s necklace and brown kelp and made seaweed fritters,

“We’re learning things as well. Seaweed tastes like mushroom and aubergine. Then we added kelp, and kelp is like chilli!”

The three often reflect back to lockdown, where we all learnt that one can definitely not eat money. However one can learn how to be self-sufficient and sustainable; how to grow and gather kai, and Essence of Tairāwhiti aims to demonstrate just how accessible kai can be in our region.

To help you along on your own educational journey, food passports showcasing the 22 tastings will be provided. The idea behind this kaupapa is not only to guide your memory (after one too many wines), but also provide a recipe for each tasting so that you’ll be able to recreate these dishes for your whānau and friends. Now that’s clever.

How will I get there you ask? Well, Essence of Tairāwhiti have got you covered. A bus ticket to and from the festival is all-inclusive to ensure you travel safe. Your destination is the dreamy stables of the A&P Showgrounds where you will be greeted with an etched glass and tote bag for your own hunting and gathering. Representatives from each hapu and iwi of Tairāwhiti will be at the showgrounds to greet and welcome you through pōwhiri.

Stepping into the space you’ll be greeted with an intimate environment; boutique furniture and umbrellas beckoning you to sit, relax and be merry.  A retail space will be selling platters and locally made craft wares. There will even be spot prizes. 

And what’s a celebration without music? There will be DJ sets from locals Steve King and Campbell Ngata, as well as live music from the Lazy Fifty. These tunes are sure to have you muddling on the dance floor, if not happily poaching in your seat. A festival saturating you in good vibes.

This unique kaupapa of celebrating our region through kai is what we’ve all been waiting for. Surf and Turf made from venison, wild hare and paua? Yum, yes please.

Essence of Tairāwhiti will be opening its doors to your palate on the 27th of February, starting at 3pm sharp all the way to boogie town, 8pm. Go on, you should probably get that ticket.

Story by Jordan Walker

Photograph X Tink Lockett @uniquelytinkphotography

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