Discovering the taste of Dunedin

Food plays a huge part in people’s identity and connection with a place, so Dunedin’s Precinct Food is out to investigate what foods people feel are part of the city's history and culture as part of Dine Dunedin.

Rebecca Fox talks to Liz Christensen about what it takes to tell a food story.

Hokey pokey ice cream, chop suey patties, instant coffee, chocolate, frozen lamb, cheese - once chef Liz Christensen and her team got to thinking, the list of foods they associated with Dunedin seemed endless.

While they could not find definitive origins on the Dunedin links for some foods, just like the pavlova story’s questionable past, all the foods have a special place in the city’s food lore - like the hokey pokey ice cream coming about after people put Dunedin’s Cadbury factory Crunchie seconds into vanilla ice cream.

The list has been the starting point of a food experience being created for the city’s annual August food celebration Dine Dunedin. The aim, to create a four-course meal highlighting foods that tell a story around the city’s food culture, past and present.

Christensen, who specialises in food experiences through her catering company, is excited about the challenge.

"I love doing these events, they’re really fun, but they are a lot of work."

She and her team have been brainstorming food ideas to come up with a menu reflecting on foods they hope people associate with Dunedin.

The key, she says, is to ensure the food tastes good as well as tells a story.

"We really want to bring the story to life."

With key moments in New Zealand’s food history happening in Dunedin - including the first frozen meat shipment, the influx of Chinese immigrants during the gold rush, New Zealand’s first cheesefactory and the country’s first instant coffee factory - there was plenty of material to build on.

The Precinct team add a little drama to an event. PHOTO: FENELLA CHIGNELL
The Precinct team add a little drama to an event. PHOTO: FENELLA CHIGNELL
Then of course, there is Dunedin’s contemporary food culture with the development of craft beer and spirit distillers, craft chocolate, clam harvesting, coffee roasting and many others.

The key to the menu, says Christensen, is surprise. So she could not reveal too much except to say each course will feature something that reflects that food culture.

The first course will reflect the nature of Dunedin as a coastal town and the city’s renowned chop suey patty served with a twist while the second will showcase the city’s coffee heritage and the third will feature New Zealand lamb. Dessert will reflect the city’s sweet heritage combining chocolate, ice cream and pavlova in an unexpected way.

But it’s not all about the food. There will be some theatrical touches in presentation and music to tie things together.

These sorts of events do not come along that often for Christensen but she has loved doing them ever since getting a taste while studying for her culinary arts degree.

A former oncology nurse, Christensen realised while she was a stay-at-home mum, cooking for school and youth group camps and events, that she enjoyed cooking for large crowds so looked to do a short food course at Otago Polytechnic. Instead she was directed to its first culinary arts degree programme.

"I went from doing a part-time course to a full-time degree course in 24 hours, completely changed tack."

It was while doing the course she discovered a love for immersive and interactive food events that built a menu around telling a story. She still remembers helping design her first event, a gala dinner for the International Food Design Experience in Dunedin which was inspired by the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition held in the city in 1925. Another highlight was re-creating dishes reflecting her lecturers’ favourite childhood foods.

More recent events have seen her do a play on Covid, with traffic light coloured amuse-bouches, serve courses on long planks of wood, foods hidden in a can and make edible balloons.

"It’s all a lot of fun and sometimes a little bit stressful."

When she finished the degree course she had the opportunity to buy Inspired Pantry, then on Helensburgh Rd, but she soon outgrew that site. So when the opportunity came to "realise a dream" of creating her own space in the re-development of a building in the warehouse district she took it.

At that stage she only planned to have a coffee and takeaway nook with the rest of the space retained for special events and catering.

"We saw it as a changing concept space."

Only it soon became apparent that people wanted a wider offering and table and chairs.

"I gave in and we set up a cafe and it’s been fantastic, it’s really grown the business."

Liz Christensen puts the finishing touches on a food experience. PHOTO: FENELLA CHIGNELL
Liz Christensen puts the finishing touches on a food experience. PHOTO: FENELLA CHIGNELL

These days the cafe makes up half her business and the catering the other half. While the events side feeds her creative juices, she also tries to challenge people a little in her cafe offerings, which works sometimes and not others.

"I’ve been bringing in stracciatella, a stringy Italian cheese, from Auckland, each week but people were not trying it enough to make it viable. You have to be responsive to the market especially at the moment."

She has also just invested in a food trailer to enable them to do large events which required a more casual food truck service or to cook or serve food on site.

There was not enough event work for it to be financially viable to do full-time.

"It takes a lot of personal effort and time."

Each experience requires a lot of investigation and thought to ensure that while they tell the story, they are subtle enough "not to turn into a kids birthday party".

"You don’t want to have to explain it all and there is probably quite a bit that people don’t pick up on," she says.

She is also using aspects of the Dine event in an upcoming conference dinner she is doing.

"Normally these events are one-offs so to get the opportunity to roll it out again is really good."

The dinner is one of a range of events happening for Dine Dunedin (August 5-21) including a first for the celebration, Dinner on the Tracks, a night food market at the Dunedin Railway Station.

Dine Dunedin’s Nic McConnell says with Dunedin hospitality still struggling with the impact of Covid and winter illnesses and the past two years having events scuttled by lockdowns, it is great to see businesses still supporting Dine.

One event - a beer-tasting train trip to Arc Brewing at Waitati with Richard Emerson - has sold out.

The events range from a cocktail-making masterclass at Dog with Two Tails to top Lyttelton chef Giulio Sturla coming back for an exclusive dinner and then a collaboration with Prohibition Smokehouse for a butchery and cookery lesson at Otago Farmers Market.

Also back are degustation menus at Glenfalloch, The Press Club, Bracken and Titi as well as a formal dinner at Olveston.


Dine Dunedin, August 5-21

Taste of Dunedin Dinner: Saturday, August 13, 7-10pm, Precinct Food, 125 Vogel St, Dunedin.