When Ethan Neville heard about two mates opening up a brand-new restaurant called Kingi in Hotel Britomart which championed sustainability, he knew he had to investigate. The result: a fishing trip, and one of the best dining experiences he's ever had.
The birds circled in clouds before raining from the sky, and the glass-like ocean was soon a mess of white flashes and small eruptions. There were four of us on the boat – myself, NZFN Deputy Editor Miah Dixon, and our two guests, Josh Helm and Tom Hishon. As is normal in these situations, we did nothing but stare for a few minutes in a kind of stunned wonder. Except for Josh, of course. He was already nosing about the cockpit in search of a rod. We soon joined him, and it wasn’t long before we were casting our lures into the commotion – another splash in the wash of diving gannets and jumping fish.
While Tom and Josh’s rods were quickly bent over by pannie snapper, my soft-bait’s meandering progress was easy pickings for a solid kahawai. I cranked my drag and bullied it to the boat – in my mind, kahawai are just speedbumps on the way down to the snapper. Tom, however, seemed far more excited about the kahawai than his own hooked snap, and by the time I had it on deck, he was already hovering with his knife.
I know not to take a blade from a chef’s hand, so I stood aside and watched him bleed the catch. Aged raw kahawai, it turns out, is on his menu at Kingi – Tom and Josh’s recently opened seafood restaurant in Hotel Britomart. It would be another week before I would taste this dish myself, but the way he spoke about seafood already had me convinced I should be giving kahawai more respect.
The kahawai is aged before it is served raw.
Tom and Josh, you see, are not your run-of-the-mill, everyday restaurateurs. For these two, seafood represents far more than just great tasting kai. It’s nourishment, an indelible part of a fragile ecosystem, and their menu is an expression of their passion.
They are, after all, Kiwi fishermen.
It all started for Tom and Josh in London. As Kiwis seem to do in almost every part of this small planet, the pair stumbled into each other in a foreign city and quickly became mates. Tom was floating between different kitchens in London working as a chef, while Josh did a variety of a jobs on his OE – not least spending considerable time and effort cultivating his passion for wine.
“We were not your typical Kiwis doing their OE’s,” Tom explained on the boat between casts. “The two of us would head out for wines and nice dinners.”
But Josh was quick to interrupt: they did, he confirmed, have their fair share of typical Kiwi experiences with some not so flash drinks in less wholesome establishments. This set both of them off laughing, which turned out to be a common feature of the day (they are, after all, Kiwi fishermen). It was their mutual love for food and drink that cemented their bond, however, and it didn’t take long for the dreaming to begin.
When they returned to NZ in 2012, this dreaming soon turned to planning.
“We kept talking about opening up a restaurant,” Josh recalled, “and I basically found a site in Ponsonby, and whipped up a business plan and said, ‘Hey look, I found a location, do you want to do the restaurant?’ And he (Tom) said ‘yep’!”
The result: a 40-seat artisanal restaurant in the heart of Ponsonby, Central Auckland. With “a laughable amount of budget”, as Tom put it, which saw them building the furniture themselves and working ridiculous hours, the restored 1912 Victorian villa became Orphans Kitchen.
While Tom has always had a passion for sustainability and organic produce, it was in the early days of Orphans Kitchen that his strong values surrounding the NZ fisheries were developed.
“When we opened Orphan’s Kitchen seven years ago, I used to buy fish directly from two of the big five players (Moana and Sanfords),” he explained. “Each day I would drive down to their fish factory to collect, and saw first-hand what was getting pulled up by way of bottom trawling. It blew my mind a bit.”
“I did a little research and looked into the environmental and biodiversity impacts that this had and searched for an alternative. The way we are harvesting fish currently means that our resource is finite. That means our children and their children may not be able to do what inherently makes us Kiwis. Something needs to give and if it’s not our fishing methods then it will be our ocean’s ecosystem and fish species that will suffer.”
This research changed everything for Tom.
“The ethics around catch methods, our quota management system and seafood export are all areas that once understood had a profound impact to the way I see things now.”
Josh, of course, was right on board with this approach. Being able to catch fish is pretty important to him.
“I don’t know where (my passion) for fishing came from,” he told me. “My dad was a hopeless fisherman. He kind of got me into it and I just took the bug hard. I’ve just been a hugely passionate fisherman basically. Any waking chance when I didn’t have kids I was out fishing – but that’s kind of slowly dried up lately. As soon as the kids get older though, I’ll be out there any chance I can get!”
Considering their deep understanding and relationship with the ocean, a seafood restaurant was the next logical step. And with Orphans Kitchen flourishing, and Daily Bread – a chain of bakeries the pair started in 2018 – ticking along, this opportunity came about sooner than expected. September 2020, to be exact.
Kingi is the culmination of Josh and Tom’s philosophy towards seafood and sustainability – and it’s bloody delicious.
Every item on the menu celebrates independent fishermen - and is delicious!
Miah, myself, and our respective partners who refused to be left behind, locked in a time with Tom, and made our way to Hotel Britomart one Tuesday evening. We found Kingi down a bustling paved laneway, which flowed into the outdoor seating and wide entrance of the restaurant itself. The open dining room appears understated, natural – a resurrected Victorian lobby with fading brick and homely wooden floors – but at closer inspection is intelligently modern. Suspended glass shimmers over the diners like scales, and leather-topped green, brown and beige stools sit under a magnificent kauri counter. We sat at this “bar,” which is no more than a masquerade. Rather than pour drinks, the chefs handpick oysters from behind the timber benchtop before shucking and plating them – something we had clear view of the whole evening.
The seafood bar at Kingi is something to behold.
To be honest, I was a touch embarrassed. With a solid ten years under my belt of catching and cooking seafood, you’d think I’d have discovered some of the flavours these chefs were producing, but I can assure you that’s not the case. Oysters, diamond shell clams, wood roasted oyster mushrooms, octopus carpaccio, kina on toast, and, of course, dry aged kahawai were the first to show up, and each was fresh and simple – twists on old favourites. Next came the kingfish burger, buttermilk blue cod wings (the waitress told us to think of these as KFC – Kentucky Fried Cod), a cray roll and whole flounder. They tasted as good they sound, and the four of us spent a considerable amount of the evening in a stunned silent reverence – a similar experience to watching gannets dive.
The buttermilk blue cod wings are one of the most popular items on the Kingi menu.
More impressive was Tom’s knowledge of the ingredients.
The blue cod, he informed us, is from the Chathams, “the last fishing village in NZ.”
“It’s a logistical nightmare as there are only two flights a week, but we make it work... All the fish are caught in pots – they are amazing at protecting their inshore stocks and they set their own rules in the community.”
And the best part: Tom orders the wings, which are only offcuts for most restaurateurs and recreational fishermen.
But it’s not just the blue cod. Every single fish they sell is caught by independent NZ fishermen using sustainable methods, and the back of the menu tells you as much. They name every one of their suppliers, as well as the technique they use to acquire their catch. Tom actually spent a day aboard one of his supplier’s longlining boats recently to see first-hand where the fish come from and is hoping to get over to the Chathams soon for the very same reason.
Tom giving the writer and his partner Lucy a rundown of the menu.
“I consider myself extremely fortunate to get to work with these people. They care so much about what they do and what they are fighting to protect. Many of them are from intergenerational fishing families and villages who have been through the ups and downs, seen the once abundant stocks… and the decline since the introduction of the QMS. I see them as our ocean guardians, our kaitiakitanga.”
“I’d like to say our menu is a celebration of our independent fishermen and women from around New Zealand. It is for everybody, it has a sense of nostalgia and speaks to the main ingredient.”
There’s no doubt in my mind that Tom has achieved his goal. While no amount of culinary prowess will convince me to enjoy kina, every other dish was immaculate – soulful, was actually the word that came to mind. It is very much an expression of both Tom’s and Josh’s personalities, which we got a great taste of on the boat.
Tom ended up spending two hours in the water with his new spear gun, exploring the waters around Flat Rock (‘exploring’ is the nice way to say he didn’t shoot anything, something I’m sure Josh hasn’t let him forget) and Josh himself didn’t give up on his saltwater fly gear, eventually nabbing two kahawai (I didn’t need to remind him to smile for the photo). These two have an undeniable passion for the ocean, and I never once doubted they practice what they preach.
The boil ups around Flat Rock kept the crew entertained for a couple of hours.
We left both the boat ramp and the restaurant content. Our fisheries aren’t in the best shape, but with guys like these leading the way, there’s a lot to be hopeful about. They are a firm reminder that the status quo is not immovable. Seafood restaurants can buy local, support small-scale operators and still be successful. As consumers and recreational fishermen, we can use our wallets to show support for the places that do precisely these things – and Kingi might not be a bad place to start.
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