Idealog's Most Innovative in Food and Beverage: Pūhā & Pākehā

The winner of Idealog's Most Innovative Companies in Food and Beverage is Pūhā & Pākehā. For a country so proud of its cultural heritage, there’s a bit of an irony at the heart of New Zealand cuisine: we haven’t capitalised on our roots when it comes to Kiwi fare. “In the New Zealand food business, you have to do something different,” says Jarrad McKay, one half of the team behind Pūhā & Pākehā, the Kiwi fusion eatery currently changing the way New Zealanders think about traditional Kiwi kai. “To really do something different in New Zealand, you have to do New Zealand food!”

Along with Pūhā & Pākehā co-founder Belinda McKay, the pair have been doing just that, winning converts and providing curious Kiwi palates with traditional Māori food with a highly modern twist.

Formed in 2014 with the intention of reconnecting Kiwis to their rich food heritage, the entrepreneurial duo started small, “with one trestle table, a gazebo and a pop up-tent”, as well as a burning desire to bring modern flavours and cooking methods to Māori and native New Zealand ingredients.

“We were just going to all these markets and events around Auckland and there just seemed to be such a lack of representation of anything native New Zealand or Māori,” says Belinda.

“So we thought, 'Wow, there's a bit for a gap here – wouldn't it be cool if we could really engage people and get them excited about native New Zealand kai again?’”

Cool is exactly what it is, and it certainly seems like an idea whose time has come.

“New Zealanders all love doing OEs and everyone's bringing ideas back about cuisines they've experienced overseas, but I think our native New Zealand kai has got lost in that process a little bit,” says Belinda. “But now there seems to be a little more talk about what New Zealand cuisine is and how Māori kai fits into that. People are starting to look inward again.”

Jarrad concurs: “In the last 29 or 30 years, only top-end chefs did New Zealand stuff, but when they did use Kiwi ingredients, they would use just one. They would have twenty things on the menu and they would say ‘look, we are now using horopito on the menu’, or ‘hey, we've now got a kawakawa sorbet’. With us, every single menu item has an element, homage or heroes a natives New Zealand ingredient. That just hasn't been done before.”

So far, that pioneering approach is working. From trestle table to food truck, and now, brick and mortar digs in Grey Lynn, the pair seem to have struck a nerve with Kiwis hungry for something different, yet familiar.

“All of the feedback we’ve been getting so far is that people are really connecting with what we’re doing,” says Belinda. “They find it really refreshing that there is somewhere that they can call their own.”

“People seem to feel a real sense of ownership about what we do, as if they can consider it ‘ours’ [in the broadest sense]. We feel the same. This is us. That's why we're doing it.”

For all the talk of tradition, however, the food is plenty hip: Horopito-spiced piri piri chicken salads? Check. Hangi-cooked pulled pork and slaw sandwiches? Double check. Panko-crumbed kūmara balls served with a sweet horopito sauce? Oh my.

“Taking an original product like hangi-cooked kumara, mashing it with coconut cream, rolling it in panko crumbs and coconut makes quite a different beast to a traditional hangi meal,” says Jarrad, “so we've had to take people along on that journey.”

“We're doing modern Māori fusion, taking these elements and elevating them, and people are connecting to that concept really, really quickly.”

But for all its early success, Pūhā & Pākehā is still a passion project for the duo that they’re planning on building slowly.

“I'm passionate about being a Kiwi, I love everything about New Zealand and I think, as we've gone on, it has become more than just the food,” says Belinda.

“We didn't start out on this journey with the idea that we were going to build this food empire. Now, we have the big thinking and the big goals, but at the same time, it’s little steps until we get the resources to be able to do it.”

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