Digging In

. October 27, 2015
Photography by Josh Griggs.
Digging In

It’s hard to imagine a scene more serene: families and friends lazing about on picnic blankets, knees stained from the lush grass; a rogue lamb providing the loudest sound as groups wander Auckland’s Kelmarna Community Gardens foraging, listening to the mellow music from a central tent or waiting for the hāngi that’s about to fill 300 empty plates. 

Yet it’s this last element that had Tom Hishon, the head chef and co-owner of Ponsonby restaurant Orphans Kitchen, shaking in his sneakers during the Kelmarna Spring Festival. The chef is used to cooking for dozens of hungry diners each night, but creating a feast for a few hundred people at once, particularly as they look on expectantly, isn’t so familiar. With plates at the ready, they surrounded the pit that Tom and his team, led by Jason Pipi, had dug the previous day. 

“It was my first attempt at a hāngi, so I was lucky to have my good mate Jason there – he’d done a few before,” Tom explains. “I was still super-nervous. When we started digging in there was a huge sense of anticipation, from myself and everyone else. Then the steam started gushing up and there was cheering. I took that as a really good sign.”

But there was more than a few hundred lunches riding on the outcome of the hāngi. Like many local restaurateurs, Tom had been tending a plot at Kelmarna for several years and offered the idea of a hāngi as a fundraiser after he found out the gardens had lost their funding. 

Bordering Cox’s Bay, Grey Lynn and Herne Bay, Kelmarna Organic Gardens have been operating since 1981. In 1992, the gardens became a therapeutic centre run by health and disabilities services provider Framework, which ended its sublease at the beginning of this year. The Kelmarna Community Garden Trust leases the land from Auckland Council and is now looking for ways to keep the space running. Like Tom, many see the gardens as an inner-city oasis and are willing to work hard to preserve it. Orphans Kitchen was founded with the aim of connecting people in a beautiful and relaxed setting, and Tom says the gardens are capable of doing the same. 

“I feel sometimes within a large city like Auckland we’re losing that sense of community and Kelmarna’s a really unique place to bring that back. Just to be able to connect with people who are all from the same neighbourhood is really special,” he says.

Bordering Cox’s Bay, Grey Lynn and Herne Bay, the Kelmarna Gardens have been operating since 1981. From 1992, the gardens were a therapeutic centre by health and disabilities services provider Framework, who ended their sublease at the beginning of this year. The Kelmarna Community Garden Trust leases the land from Auckland Council and is currently looking for ways to keep the space running. Like Tom, many see the gardens as an inner-city oasis, and are willing to work hard to preserve it. 

Tom and his team arrived before sunrise on the Sunday of the hāngi, having dug the hole and built the fire the day before. After they’d lit the fire and let it burn for over three hours they got stuck in with spades and “dug like crazy” to create the earth oven.

“There was a team of about ten of us, taking turns in five-second intervals because it was so hot – your skin would almost be blistering,” Tom says.

Cooking with goat, mutton and pork donated by Zeal Fresh, Tom says he was keen to make sure the meat was perfectly marinated and tender, as often meat cooked in a hāngi can be “quite dry and bland”.

“I tried put my own spin on things and incorporate flavours that don’t necessarily get used in a hāngi,” he says. “Brining came to mind instantly. The mutton was rubbed heavily with rosemary black pepper and olive oil; the pork shoulder was marinated in a sweet feijoa paste we made last autumn. All the meat and vegetables were wrapped in banana leaves before being placed in the baskets. We also made a beautiful big salad from the gardens, which was all foraged on the day. Everyone was chipping in.”

While the countdown to the hāngi ticked on, for a small koha, Spring Festival-goers could take part in tea-brewing workshops, beekeeping classes or a foraging expedition led by Kelmarna’s garden manager, Adrian Roche. 

The Organic Mechanic was on site serving fresh smoothies; Kelmarna’s store offered cake and salads from Little Bird Unbakery, as well as produce picked fresh from the gardens right outside. 

Needless to say, Tom’s hāngi, which had everyone’s plates brimming with food for a mere $15 a ticket, was a hit with the hungry crowd and the festival raised over $7000 to help keep the gardens open. What’s more, he says there are plans to hold a similar event during the summer months. After nervous beginnings Tom counts the day as a definite success.

“Probably the best thing on the day for me was seeing so many neighbours coming together. It was really exciting to see lots of smiley faces there and knowing so many people were keen to support the cause and help us out.”