Hospitality can sometimes feel like a “members-only club”, and those on the outside have barely any idea of what is happening behind a kitchen's closed doors.
Over the last decade, the chef's profession has enjoyed an international PR boost, glamourising the job, creating its own television subgenre and celebrity chefs, while trailblazing the way for “foodies” and self-proclaimed Instagram food critics. However, what this rebranding often fails to relay is the hard work, long hours and complete dedication that it takes to be in the profession. During the lockdown, many people expressed their hopes for hospitality to go back to “normal”—but what if hospitality can do better?
For our series The Future Of Hospitality, Sina Honeyman interviews some of New Zealand's best chefs, getting the inside scoop on how COVID-19 has affected them and what changes they would like to see in the hospitality industry.
Note: This interview was completed after New Zealand's first Level 4 lockdown
Lucas Parkinson is one of the most sustainability-focused fine-dining chefs in New Zealand. Back in 2017, after over a decade working in the hospitality industry, Parkinson and his partner opened their restaurant, Ode, in the sunny tourist hotspot of Wanaka, New Zealand. As head chef of Ode, Parkinson is on a mission to guide New Zealanders towards a more sustainable and regenerative future. This dedication to sustainability can be found throughout the restaurant's menu; all items are seasonal, locally sourced and organic, and many are also biodynamic—meaning ingredients are cultivated using holistic and ecological methods.
The goodness found at Ode hasn't come easily though—two years ago, a fire ravished the restaurant and caused extensive damage to the interior, forcing it to shut down. However, Parkinson and his team rose like a phoenix from the ashes, obtaining new life and refusing to let the devastation caused by the fire to halt their mission. This year, the pandemic has forced Parkinson and his team to shift and reinvent once again.
In part two of our series, The Future Of Hospitality, I spoke to Parkinson about how he is combatting this new crisis and the shift he would like to see in the hospitality industry in the coming years.
How long have you been in hospitality?
Let me count—[long wait]—15 years.
So you've been in hospitality almost half your life.
Yeah, I'm 32 now. I was a panel beater first, for a couple of years, and a courier driver when I was 18; then, I found a job at a pizzeria and that was it.
I think you've made a really good choice to become a chef! Now lockdown—how was that for you personally?
For me, it was great. Obviously, the financial side and the business side was really stressful. But we live in such a beautiful place, so many good walks and the weather was really good here. I had a chance to just stop and hang out with my family and spend lots of time with our daughter. So overall, on a personal level, it was really good. [I felt] really rejuvenated. Now, on a business level it was complicated. But we're pulling through now.
How was it for you going back to "normal" after lockdown?
We had a lot of time to think and a lot of time to look over the books. So, I'm just one week into "normal", which is not normal at all. We just open three days a week and we work three and a half days. What we found was that Test Kitchen Tuesday [which provided guests with the opportunity to taste test and review an innovative five-course menu at a discounted price] was always really full and it was a good day. Wednesday and Thursday in the shoulder season was always a loss because you're a tourist town, and then Friday and Saturday we would make that money back. I decided, if my team is happy, to just do some prep on a Wednesday, Test Kitchen on Thursday and then regular service Friday [and] Saturday. So, it's just three revenue packed days. If we can add it up well, we can pull off in three days what we usually pull in five days. So here it is, a trial. We're the first restaurant to do this. So we'll see.
It will also bring more of the family balance which is so hard in hospitality.
Exactly. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are daddy-daughter days now—it's me and Lily. It's really cool, we go rock climbing on Tuesday and then Wednesday we chill. Or now that it’s ski season we can go skiing.
Have you seen much change in Queenstown hospitality in the last two months?
Yeah. I think it's been pretty devastating here. Places are closing. We know a lot of people that have lost jobs. Here in Wanaka, because we have a strong local following, no matter what, winter and summer, we are really busy. And we are a small town so we can cope with it better. And we have a really, really, really strong community spirit here.
Whereas in Queenstown, there are between 40,000 and 50,000 locals, but they have amenities for a million people a day. So they're struggling a lot more over there. I was talking to friends in the last couple days and hospitality landlords are coming through and dropping rent down to 30 percent and trying to help in those ways. But still, places are having a hard time.
Really, honestly, I think we're going to see the full impact when the subsidies wear off. That's when we are going to see the devastation. That being said, Kiwis are being good, we're all locked in our own country and it's winter. A lot of people are coming down here. So for this winter, we haven't seen too much of a slow because all the Kiwis are like, “Oh, usually we go to Bali, but let’s go Queenstown or Wanaka.”
What are the changes you would like to see and how do you think they can show up in hospitality?
I think as an industry we are really, dare I say, addicted to convenience. For chef[s] it's easy just to call three suppliers at night and everything arrives in plastic bags and crates. However, we don't know where most of this produce comes from. We don't know how it was grown, we don't know what toxic chemicals were used. We are the country with the highest use of toxic pesticides used on our produce. So, it's really alarming, especially for our children.
What I'd like to see are major suppliers introducing organics at an affordable price. Meat and fish easily accessible for the public and for hospitality. The change starts with the chefs; we set the trends. Then the rest of the country will think, “I can cook this at home” or do a rendition of it. Right now, you can't get any of that and trailblazing is hard. With Ode, we really had to cut through a jungle to get a 99 percent organic restaurant. I sit down every night and I call up to nine different suppliers and I've got different agreements with all of them.
My costs are a bit more because I have to sit there longer ordering from everyone and because it's a rarer product, it's quite often more expensive. But I've found one supplier that does a lot of good bulk organics and we've got agreements with local farms that grow for us, but it really does take a lot of groundwork to get that up. So, what I'd like to see is the big boys, the big suppliers, jumping on that boat and helping grow that side of the industry. Because we need to for the future of our country, the future of our land and our oceans.
I think it's also really important to get the message across to the customer that they're paying a price for that extra work and sourcing. You guys are doing an awesome job with that but I think most, or a lot of, restaurants are struggling to justify higher prices because people just don't understand it.
No, it is a difficult thing. So to counter that, we've done the For The People menu. I've got an agreement with Neat Meat where we pay pretty much the same price for the organic chicken wings as the Tegel free range ones. So we can put that on as entrées for 13 NZD. Local hunters are selling us their venison ribs for a really good price so I can put that on for 20 NZD as a main.
We've got a local apple supplier—and lots of apple trees here—so we have an apple crumble with oats and an apple sorbet on for 12NZD. It’s simple, delicious and it's all really affordable.
No, [our fish supplier] Nate's fish is not cheap. No, wild shot venison is not cheap. Local farmed organics cost a little bit more. If you go to the organic store it's crazy because they have to clip the ticket, pay taxes, so the price goes up for you. All of our suppliers are direct so, it's not that much more really. For example, our carrots are 3 NZD a kilo, cheaper than most other places, but it's about getting that trade line through.
It's hard to justify, but I think that in some respects, maybe we have to become bipolar restaurants... Like Ode is a full-blown bipolar restaurant where you can come in and leave completely fed for under 40 NZD. Or you can have a world class eight-course, fine dining dégustation experience; free drinks on arrival, snacks, eight courses, aperitifs, digestives. But that's 230 to 300 NZD a head. We don't want to be pigeon-holed as an industry. We just want to be lovers of this industry and be passionate about this industry and show you that we're multifaceted. Don't just stick a label on us. We need to move into an age and an era where labels dissipate, where a restaurant is a restaurant. And if that restaurant wants to serve food for the people and do something high end that the chefs can get artistic and creative with, then that's okay. And we don't have to be pigeon-holed to say fine dining is too expensive to go there.
I want people to say “Oh hey, there is Ode, I'm gonna go get some fried chicken.” Or “Oh, hey, there is Ode, I'm going to take my wife out to propose to her.”
People have spent a lot of time during lockdown cooking at home—something they did not do as frequently pre-lockdown—so I feel like there is a need for experiences that go beyond food. That might be engaging with the chef or it might be learning more about sustainability. I guess it's probably one of my favourite things when I'm in a restaurant to have the dishes explained to me.
It is big time, like a lot of places can explain the techniques they've used, the thought process behind that, whatever it is. Our main thing is, “this carrot was pulled out of the ground at 9am this morning by Paul who lives 10 minutes away,” or “we got these from this area, from this grower. This came from this fisherman. This animal was shot 30 days ago and hung for 21 days in that bush an hour away.”
So I agree; you can go somewhere when they know what they're doing then that makes the experience all the more better. That can be explained through staff or, if it's a more high-paced place, it can be explained through a written menu. It's a really important thing for people to know where it's coming from or what it is or how it was made because there’s a big illusion that's been put over us.
You know, you go into the supermarket and you see something that says "health-wise". You look on the back and you're like, “I don't know what these chemicals are? Why is there so much sugar in this product? Oh, that's not sugar, it’s just aspartame in there.” Doesn't that give you brain cancer? Now consumers are waking up to that and wondering, “Actually, what's in the damn food?” So, as restaurants, if we can break that, be the braking force, the front lines, then that's the starting point for the nation.
Absolutely. I think another big thing is the supply chain. I don't know how it was for you guys but here in Auckland, recently in the supermarket apples were much cheaper than they normally are. I think it's because normally our fruit is exported and suddenly there were no buyers overseas.
We are the people of this country. We live here. Why are we not offered these prices? First and foremost? Because when we look at what we produce, New Zealand food as a conglomerate produces food for 45 million people a year. That's great. For the 40 million that you send overseas, charge what you need to charge. For the five million people here, take the tax off and give us a fair price so we can get ahead as a country.
Yes, I think that's a really big one. We can buy New Zealand fish cheaper in Australia than we can buy it here.
Correct. Yes, crazy ... same in America and England because they send bulk over and you don't have to pay tax on export. So, straight away, that's a hell of a lot of costs taken off it. So, I think going forward, it would be nice to have residents of this country taken care of and to be given an honest and healthy supply chain of food.