Cuisine - - CONTENTS -

Alice Neville meets the ar­chi­tects try­ing to make Auck­land a bet­ter place

FIVE YEARS AGO, Nat Cheshire was sit­ting out­side in the sun, read­ing the pa­per and drink­ing a Bloody Mary, at the newly opened Brit­o­mart Coun­try Club, a bar his ar­chi­tec­ture firm had de­signed and project-man­aged. “I just stayed there all day and all night be­cause it was only the sec­ond thing we’d made, and it was magic,” he says.

About 11am an “in­cred­i­bly cool young Korean cou­ple” walked past the door and looked in, then kept walk­ing. Two min­utes later they walked past the other way, looked in and paused, then walked on. Thirty sec­onds later they were back, stood out­side the gate, had a quick con­ver­sa­tion, then hur­ried on.

“They couldn’t cross the thresh­old,” Cheshire re­calls. “It sug­gested to me that there was a door­way I couldn’t see, a door­way in­vis­i­ble to peo­ple like me but that was highly vis­i­ble to them. I mean, these kids were way cooler than I was – they de­served to be in there more than I did – but they weren’t com­fort­able cross­ing the thresh­old.”

With his fa­ther, renowned ar­chi­tect Pip Cheshire, 35-year-old Nat heads Cheshire Ar­chi­tects, a com­pany that has played a key role in the devel­op­ment of Brit­o­mart and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing re­nais­sance of in­ner-city Auck­land – the rapid trans­for­ma­tion of the heart of New Zealand’s big­gest city from an em­bar­rass­ment to a draw­card. Brit­o­mart Coun­try Club (BCC) was an early case in point. It was fun – a gar­den bar made from re­pur­posed shipping con­tain­ers, fea­tur­ing a putting green and a petanque court, a crim­son mar­ble bar, brick walls and slat­ted tim­ber decks.

So what was it that turned off the Korean cou­ple? Cheshire raised the episode with his Chi­nese-born col­league Da­jiang (DJ) Tai, with whom he worked closely on BCC, and this in­vis­i­ble door­way sparked a new fo­cus for the pair.

It’s no se­cret that Auck­land has a large, thriv­ing Asian pop­u­la­tion – ac­cord­ing to the 2013 cen­sus, 307,233 Auck­lan­ders (al­most one in four) identified with one or more Asian eth­nic groups, with 200,000 of those Asia-born. But Cheshire and Tai be­lieve there’s not a lot of in­te­gra­tion go­ing on, par­tic­u­larly on a so­cial level.

“We’re com­pletely so­cially seg­re­gated,” says Cheshire. “Come din­ner time we go to dif­fer­ent parts of the city. Come 11pm we go out drink­ing, they go out eat­ing.

“In this very new city with such a shal­low his­tory, there is enor­mous op­por­tu­nity to col­lide these cul­tures in a way that’s more prof­itable. The one road­block is that the two [cul­tures] don’t talk to each other.”

The tipping point came when Cheshire Ar­chi­tects took on the Milse project. The Hip Groupowned dessert restau­rant opened in Brit­o­mart in 2013, and the city had never seen any­thing like it.

“That place just got stormed day and night for months on end,” re­calls Cheshire. “And it got stormed by peo­ple we other­wise never saw in

“In this very new city with such a shal­low his­tory, there is enor­mous op­por­tu­nity to col­lide these cul­tures in a way that’s more prof­itable. The one road­block is that the two cul­tures don’t talk to each other.”

Brit­o­mart. That was like tak­ing those two Korean kids out­side BCC and throw­ing them at us by the hundreds.”

Milse had orig­i­nally been planned as a rub­bish-hold­ing room for the Brit­o­mart precinct. It’s a small, awk­ward space, but the Cheshire team de­cided to em­pha­sise its cave-like in­ten­sity with carved wooden Moor­ish pan­els that cover the en­tire space. A for­eign con­cept to New Zealand per­haps, but Tai says it was very fa­mil­iar for Asian im­mi­grants.

“Nar­row, in­tense, peo­ple wait­ing in a queue, shout­ing out... peo­ple hadn’t seen that be­fore here. You feel like you’re in the ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment, which is very im­por­tant for our cul­ture. We grew up amongst con­crete jun­gles, so be­ing there, see­ing a lot of peo­ple around you in a lit­tle al­ley­way, it was very dif­fer­ent in Auck­land but fa­mil­iar to us.”

The food of­fer­ing was also cru­cial – rows of beau­ti­ful dessert items laid out in a glass cabi­net – with op­tions from gelato-on-a-stick take­away to sit-down full dessert de­gus­ta­tion.

“When you go in there you can un­der­stand ev­ery­thing you see – you don’t get of­fered a menu with things you can’t un­der­stand and have to se­cretly Google,” says Tai. “It’s very di­rect. I can take my grandma to it, I can take my lit­tle niece to it – it’s for every­one.”

Cheshire has never been shy about the fact that his firm has lofty goals – they’re not just de­sign­ing build­ings, they’re try­ing to cre­ate a bet­ter city. To that end, the com­pany man­ages projects from go to whoa, tak­ing charge of ev­ery­thing from apron buttons to web de­sign to light fit­tings.

The Milse ex­pe­ri­ence made Cheshire and Tai re­alise that food was fer­tile ter­ri­tory for build­ing a com­mon ground, some­where where Asian and non-Asian cul­tures could col­lide. This idea was the ba­sis of their re­cent talk at the NZ Sym­po­sium of Gas­tron­omy, ti­tled “Un­com­mon Space, Com­mon Ground”.

The pair first col­lab­o­rated on Cafe Hanoi, which served as a flag-bearer for Brit­o­mart’s re­nais­sance when it opened in 2010. With its bright

red mis­matched chairs, bare con­crete walls and pa­per lanterns, it was cool and ex­cit­ing, but it wasn’t easy, says Cheshire.

“How do you do a Viet­namese restau­rant, never hav­ing been to Viet­nam, on the other side of the world in a 130-year-old Bri­tish bank build­ing?”

It was, he says, about “tun­nelling into the food, tun­nelling into the way that peo­ple ate, tun­nelling into the way the city [Hanoi] op­er­ated, and then mix­ing that with con­tem­po­rary Auck­land cul­ture in a way that would make it di­gestible”.

Tai, 32, who moved to New Zealand from Liaon­ing in north­ern China when he was 15, says when he first be­gan work­ing on hos­pi­tal­ity projects like Cafe Hanoi, “I re­alised my back­ground, where I come from, [meant] I can’t re­ally of­fer much be­cause I just don’t un­der­stand.”

But he soon dis­cov­ered that by dig­ging deep within him­self, he could con­jure up mem­o­ries that he could in­ject into projects. This came in par­tic­u­larly handy with Xuxu, Cafe Hanoi’s sis­ter bar that opened in 2012.

“Xuxu was try­ing to be a grownup bar – a bar where you can sit and have a con­ver­sa­tion – in a city that didn’t re­ally do grownup bars,” ex­plains Cheshire.

“And at the same time it was try­ing to be the best dumpling bar in the city, and it was try­ing to do both those things in the same space.”

They talked a lot about how by giv­ing Xuxu an “Asian” theme, “that meant es­sen­tially we were in­volved in a world of Ori­en­tal­ism – not nec­es­sar­ily all that far re­moved from the barely dis­guised ori­en­tal erot­ica of 19th-cen­tury colo­nial­ism.

“There is this col­li­sion be­tween the Euro­pean salon-type spa­ces – high ceil­ings, wain­scot­ing, mar­ble bars – with sub­tle ink paint­ings of bam­boo groves in the mist. It’s a strangely ex­oti­cised or eroti­cised white per­son’s ver­sion of an Asian space in down­town Auck­land.”

And then came Saan. Opened last year by Kr­ishna Bot­ica and Tony McGe­orge, the own­ers of Cafe Hanoi and Xuxu, the Pon­sonby restau­rant is a ve­hi­cle for the pas­sion of Thai chef Wichian “Lek” Tri­rat­tana­vatin, pre­vi­ously of Cafe Hanoi, to bring Isaan and Lanna cui­sine from the north of Thai­land to Auck­land.

The ap­proach to de­sign­ing the restau­rant, says Tai, was: “OK, if we for­get about ev­ery­thing we’ve seen about Thai restau­rants, how do we start from the very be­gin­ning of what the chef thinks about his food.”

They started with child­hood photos, sto­ries Tri­rat­tana­vatin’s grandma told him, and mem­o­ries such as the dusty lit­tle court­yard he’d squat in to eat as a child.

Ex­plain­ing the bond he forged with Tri­rat­tana­vatin, Tai says: “We come from sim­i­lar parts of the world. His English is not that great, but there were things he didn’t have to ex­plain to me – I’d just go yeah, yeah, I un­der­stand what you’re try­ing to say.”

“All the cab­i­netry is de­signed very small scale to re­flect that do­mes­tic qual­ity – it’s like go­ing to Lek’s house in­stead of vis­it­ing a big com­mer­cial restau­rant. Ev­ery­thing is hand­made, just like he makes his food.”

Tai shares the story of an el­derly Sin­ga­porean lady who was at Saan one night. “She went to the bath­room and on the way she passed the open kitchen. And she stopped and looked, and then kept go­ing, then later on came back to say to Kr­ish [Bot­ica] that ‘Oh, this scene re­minds me of my old grandma’s house’. It’s those mo­ments that go deep into peo­ple’s mem­o­ries.”

Tai would love to see a Chi­nese restau­rant with a sim­i­lar aes­thetic come to Auck­land. While both Tai and Cheshire love Do­min­ion Road, the sprawl­ing Auck­land street that boasts a plethora of cheap and cheer­ful ea­ter­ies serv­ing up some of the city’s best dumplings and noo­dles, it’s hardly so­phis­ti­cated. That, of course, is why

it is so loved – many Auck­lan­ders have a huge soft spot for the place. They like that it’s rough around the edges, that it doesn’t try too hard. Plenty of them would turn up their noses at the thought of eat­ing Chi­nese food in more salu­bri­ous sur­round­ings. Why would you go to Xuxu when you can go to bustling, brightly lit, plas­tic-ta­ble-clothed Bar­illa?

That ques­tion was much dis­cussed lead­ing up to the pair’s talk at the Sym­po­sium of Gas­tron­omy, they say.

“We love the food on Do­min­ion Road, we’ve got no is­sue with the food. We love that it’s cheap, we’ve got no is­sue with the price,” says Cheshire. “Why should it as­pire to do any­thing more?”

One of the key things, they de­cided, was that Do­min­ion Road restau­rants weren’t re­ally a place where you could linger and spend a great night out.

“Can you imag­ine spend­ing four hours in Bar­illa un­der the flu­oro lights, with the grumpy wait­ress spilling tea all over you?”

As Tai points out, “a Do­min­ion Road restau­rant doesn’t rep­re­sent what a Chi­nese restau­rant should be like. If my friends have just ar­rived from Bei­jing, and they say take me to the best Chi­nese restau­rant in Auck­land, I can’t – I have to take them to Blue Breeze Inn or some­thing. I can’t take them to Do­min­ion Road. That’s the em­bar­rass­ing thing.”

Tai re­cently wrote an ar­ti­cle in Auck­land’s Chi­nese lan­guage news­pa­per the Chi­nese Her­ald about the “ex­pen­sive bad taste”, as he puts it, of many Chi­nese Auck­lan­ders. “In the east­ern sub­urbs there’s all these wealthy peo­ple with their en­tire fam­ily liv­ing in a man­sion with two Ro­man col­umns at the front, and the neigh­bour looks ex­actly the same”, he ex­plains. The same ar­ti­cle he touched on his frus­tra­tion with Do­min­ion Road – “if the food is this good, and the cus­tomer base is this solid, why can’t it be up­graded? Why can’t it be some­thing else?”

A reader saw the ar­ti­cle and got in touch with Tai to share his thoughts. It wasn’t an of­fended How­ick man­sion owner, thank­fully, but the pro­pri­etor of the legendary Eden Noo­dles Cafe, the pint-sized, far-from-fancy Do­min­ion Road eatery that reg­u­larly has queues snaking out the door for its in­cred­i­ble Sichuan food.

Ji Zou, who runs Eden Noo­dles with his wife Tina Xiao, told Tai he’d re­cently ac­quired a large space on Do­min­ion Road and was in­ter­ested in open­ing a new joint that aimed a lit­tle higher than Eden Noo­dles. Tai and Cheshire jumped at the chance to be in­volved.

Ini­tial plans are to cre­ate a mixed­v­enue des­ti­na­tion with both Chi­nese and non-Chi­nese food and bev­er­age out­lets feed­ing off each other. “The cur­rent idea is that we take the site and we don’t just say this is one big Eden Noo­dles fac­tory, but there’s Eden Noo­dles and there’s Bar­illa Dumplings and what­ever – but there might also be Cof­fee Supreme,” says Cheshire.

“I like to think that one day,” adds Tai, “the best Chi­nese restau­rant is in Auck­land, not in China.”

So per­haps Eden Noo­dles has opened an in­vis­i­ble door for these multi-dis­ci­plinary young ar­chi­tects, with their ideas of col­lid­ing cul­tures, to go charg­ing through.

An early sketch of Saan

Da­jiang Tai’s first sketch of Xuxu

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