Field Notes: Tim Fenwick

Tim Fenwick is deeply passionate about food and hospitality. He participated in Venn’s Summer Conference (2019) and is married to Ashlea, a Residential Fellowship alumna (2016/17). Tim is a trained chef and currently works in the food industry, as a General Manager for Five Percent Limited. Pictured above is Tim, with Ashlea, serving friends on their wedding day. In this interview, Tim shares his love of food and hospitality and reflects on the people who helped shape this passion.

Tell us about your family upbringing in Christchurch—what were your family rhythms around hospitality and food, and how did they influence you?

I grew up in Christchurch, and I’m the youngest child of three. Peter, my father, worked just shy of 50 years for the Ministry of Education. He worked pretty hard through those years, and his loyalty to that organisation was above reproach. If Dad was the engine propelling us forward, I guess Mum was all of those optional extras. She kept us safe, and comfortable, and warm. And she met that role of mother with complete abandon.                    

The oldest of us is Ruth, with whom I share a certain playfulness, perhaps a sense of humour; it’s probably best described as absurdist. And my brother’s name is Luke [Fenwick, a Senior Teaching Fellow at Venn]. He’s also based up here in Auckland, which is great because we both share this passion for food and wine. Plus his cellar is conveniently much bigger than mine.

I’ve grown to be incredibly grateful that we, as a family, always sat around the dinner table when we were kids. I remember thinking it was so cool that some friends sat around the TV eating dinner because we never did that. That would have been the easiest option for my parents. But I do think that delayed gratification certainly nurtured a better outcome.

As far as I remember, Mum’s always spent a lot of time in the kitchen. For family dinners, birthdays, and Christmases, of course, but also in the service of others, whether it’s making meals for families who are going through a hard time or making sweets for presents. Lately, it’s been refined, sugar-free slices that she’ll bring out over a game of cards after dinner. Witnessing her commitment to hospitality, and her selfless service, was probably the key formative experience that led to me choosing professional cookery as a career.

I saw how much people appreciated Mum’s cooking. I saw how something kind of small made people’s lives easier and  maybe just better. People still talk about certain delicacies, like Mum’s Wellington Slice at Christmas or other sweet things she’d whip up and give to people just because she had some time. I guess people love it and appreciate it. Observing that great gratitude allowed me to see learning to cook as an honourable pursuit. There’s something about sharing good food with others that’s elevated; it’s greater than the sum of its parts.

What were your family’s celebrations growing up. What do you remember and how have they evolved over the years?

During celebrations when I was younger, like birthday parties, we would play heaps of games. Ruth would make piñatas with balloons and papier-mâché. We’d play the Chocolate Fish Game, you know the one where little marshmallow chocolate fish would be hung bespoke to your height, so it’s guaranteed to make you look foolish regardless of your stature. And we’d have some preposterous creation from the Australian Woman’s Weekly Birthday Cake Book.

The food culture in our family has evolved over the last 10 years; things have started to get a little bit extra. Celebrations have become an opportunity to cook the recipes that we’ve wanted to cook for a while—project recipes, if you like. And so for birthdays or Christmas Day, it all starts with the menu planning and then the shopping. You’ve got to get the right ingredients: you might hit up a supermarket or two, then the farmers market, the Mediterranean store, the bakery, the butchery, the fishmonger, and the specialty food store. You’ve run around town all day and collected all the ingredients. Then there’s the prep, which might start a couple of days early. On the day of the event, you’ve got to get stuck in and get everything on. And it’s all really wonderful.

We’d have all these elements ready to go; we’d be preparing beforehand, and Mum would be right there alongside me, doing it all. We’d listen to Leonard Cohen or Roy Orbison or Nina Simone, and we’d just be prepping away. Ruth would always bring a banger of a dish too—usually something pasta—and she’d bring a bottle of fizz or I’d make Negroni. And then, once all the food is on the table—after the heightened heart rate and the rush to get everything ready on time—once all that has waned and we’re sitting at the dinner table, and we’re all together, that’s the moment when we know it’s so worth it: the food has met the celebration. And we can take pleasure in those moments.

When we’re together as a family or apart, we would toast absent friends. It’s an acknowledgment of those who are no longer with us and who might have been there otherwise—a reflection perhaps of their contribution to our lives. I think engaging in celebration leads to the betterment of being. It encourages us to acknowledge something bigger than ourselves, whether that’s someone’s personal achievement, a graduation, a new job, or a birthday, an anniversary, Christmas, or a significant holiday. Good food helps mark that occasion. We make memories in those moments, and these moments feed our soul.

The whole Fenwick family together at Kinross in Gibbston Valley after a wine tasting. We were staying in Central Otago for a few days in May, 2021 celebrating Mum and Dad’s 40th wedding anniversary.

Tell us how you view celebration—what are the key components of a good celebration for you?

I think it’s important to define celebration. Part of the ceremony of celebration is actually acknowledging that there is a celebration: naming it, giving it form and tangible clarity. Celebration needs to be separated from my everyday life; in a sense, we have to create the sacred space in order to savour it.

Life is busy, and it’s hard. So I think it’s important to do everything we can to take the opportunities to celebrate, and relish them even in the moments that are also, perhaps, saturated with fear and pain and suffering. The experience that taught me to start putting a name to celebration was my years in youth group leadership in Christchurch. I have an inclination toward enjoying cigars. But there was something of a friction between that enjoyment and the leadership team. So I started to describe cigars as celebratory, something to be savoured. That seemed to justify it, in a sense, and my enjoyment of cigars became perfectly acceptable from that point.

My friend and I, who were doing youth leadership at the time, we started to celebrate a whole lot more. I mean, some would condemn our celebrations as trivial. It would be my birthday, and we’d celebrate; or he’d buy a new camera, and we’d celebrate; or maybe I’d finish an entire shift at work and celebrate. It can be easily written off as frivolous. But I learned to recognise and take pleasure in the small wins and the things of this life that I think are so often taken for granted.

Celebration is an easy excuse to eat some good food. But good food can also be the impetus for celebration. Like securing a good price for something, like a wheel of cheese, and inviting a few people over to enjoy it together. That’s pretty cool. I lived in Spain for a year, and the number of festivals over there that celebrate particular ingredients—it’s like they’ll take any excuse to have a celebration! You’ve heard of the running of the bulls in Pamplona or La Tomatina, the tomato-throwing festival. But there are festivals and small towns that you’ve never even heard of celebrating razor clams. They’d shut down the town for a whole day to light coals in the street so they can barbecue the clams. They’d cook and celebrate white asparagus, or there’d be truffle festivals that would last a week, or there’d be saffron festivals. I was working in Calahorra, an ancient Roman city known as the city of vegetables. They had a few days of festival every year dedicated to celebrating vegetables. The place shuts down, and everyone’s on the street. They’re in their communities, having a barbecue basically, and cooking various locally-grown agricultural delights.

You said your Mum shaped your decision to go into cooking as a career. What type of work did you do upon leaving high school?

I got to the end of high school and didn’t particularly know what to do. Not having a clear path forward led me to fall back on something I knew. In the last few months of seventh form (final year of high school), I was a kitchen hand at Strawberry Fare, a dessert restaurant in town. It was a busy restaurant, and I had to work hard. Washing dishes in a restaurant forces you to create a process, to work efficiently. If you’re battling greasy pots and pans, along with knives and forks and crockery, you’re forced to develop a process of rinsing, washing, getting things back correctly and quickly to the chefs and front-of-house.

It created links in my brain that allow me to approach things methodically. That’s helped immensely with my work as a chef but also just my regular work now. I’m grateful for that. I worked three months at Strawberry Fare, then nine months at The George Hotel, which had a couple of fine-dining restaurants: a bistro and a degustation restaurant. Being in that environment, I got to see what went into making a dish worthy of a restaurant like that. It was a wonderful experience. This is long before YouTube, or Instagram, or Facebook, or anything that shows behind the scenes of a kitchen. The only way to get this experience was to actually be there. As part of my cooking course, I did a trial week at a wine bar, and then, they wanted to hire me. I went in my second year and started working at Annie’s Wine Bar in the middle of Christchurch’s Art Centre.

So you were working in hospitality and studying cookery? 

That’s generally how it works in hospitality: you work full time and study full time. You might start at seven or eight for Polytech and study until two or three pm. Then you’d go and start your shift and work until close. Annie’s Wine Bar wasn’t so bad because they’re in the Art Centre and their licence ran out at eleven, so I was generally home by 11:30pm. Not every day would be like that, but that was the general trend.  

That side of hospitality never appealed to me—it’s so brutal. Working as a chef and being constantly on my feet, lifting up so much stuff, and then cleaning down at the end of the night. It’s tiring work. There’s an immense physicality to being a chef and working in a kitchen.

I earned a Certificate of Professional Cookery from Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. It’s an internationally recognised qualification from an authority in the United Kingdom. After graduating, I worked at Annie’s for maybe two-and-a-half years. A couple of friends of mine were setting up a café in Christchurch, and they asked me to come and offer my opinion on their set-up. So I went along and they ended up asking: “Do you want to work here? The pay is not great and you’ll be by yourself.” And I was like, “Yeah, where do I sign up?”

The café was Addington Coffee Co-op. I finished up their good work establishing the kitchen and had my first shift in the weeks before opening. The kitchen was very small and had a domestic oven; I was working with an older man named Owen and it was high intensity. I learned to make things with very few resources. The quality of each dish was a bit touch and go, especially at volume. I had support from my parents to do the job: I was living at home and wasn’t getting paid. I started in October, and, by Christmas, I think we got handed $1,000 or something like that. But the purpose upon which the café was founded was a wonderful cause, and I was proud to have been a part of its narrative.

I worked at Addington Coffee for just over two years and, after that, I decided to go back to university: I wanted to study more. I didn’t see a future in hospitality; I didn’t particularly like what I was doing as a job, and I much preferred to be sitting down eating the food than in the kitchen.

I ended up pursuing a Bachelor of Commerce in International Business and a Diploma of Spanish Language. At the end of my first year, I went to Argentina for a couple of months and stayed with a young family, who were generous enough to let me sleep on the floor of their workshop in Bariloche, Patagonia. That was, again, a really wonderful experience of living in someone’s home and being on the family’s wavelength for that period of time. I’m sure they got sick of me, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and it was able to provide more context to my learning of the Spanish language. When I returned, I ended up finishing the three-year Diploma and moved to Spain for a year.

I taught English in a programme that the Spanish government runs, and I was based in La Rioja, which is a small, very gastronomically-focussed wine-growing area, nestled below Basque country in the north. I loved it so much. I came back to New Zealand to go to Luke’s wedding in 2015 and then finished my remaining semester for my business degree.

During that semester, there was a competition called the Shanghai Shout, put on by the Global China Connection. It was like a Dragon’s Den, Shark Tank competition, and I put together a business proposal for Westland Milk Products, which is a milk company on the West Coast of the South Island. It was New Zealand’s second largest dairy cooperative, until it was procured by foreign ownership.

I was lucky enough to win the competition, and the prize was flights over to Shanghai and an all-expenses-paid two-month internship at their office. Once again, I was able to observe a very different culture. The staff member I was partnered with, Kevin, would take me out for lunch each day, and we’d go to these local hand-pulled noodle bars and dumpling shops that are just, well, you wouldn’t want to go there if you didn’t have a guide. It was just so cool.

My role was to work on a new product development proposition: contract manufacturing UHT cream for a Chinese distributor. My proposal passed the gate committee after the fact and becoming a “thing.” It was an amazing experience. Then, I got back to Christchurch and, for about six months, was wondering what to do. I did some work with Greystone Wines and then eventually got offered a job with my current company up here. So, I packed everything up and moved to Auckland, and that would have been five years ago in October. I’ve been here ever since.

So, what do you do now exactly?

I’m the General Manager of Five percent Limited. We’re a small food business operating in the supermarket space under the brand Gault’s and Simon Gault Home Cuisine. Our products are Gault’s Stock Concentrates (beef, chicken, vegetable, and lamb). Under the Simon Gault Home Cuisine label, we’ve got a variety of complex seasonings. These are rubs that add instant deliciousness to whatever you’re cooking. We’ve got an Italian blend, or flavours of Morocco, India, or Mexico. I also recently set up a business assisting other small businesses in operations and administration. Outside of that, I help organise single-malt Scotch whisky tastings. We do these once or twice a month. We host general tastings with a lower price point, then mid-tier tastings and premium ones.

It’s coming through in your language, but I’d be interested to hear what food has taught you about God and the Christian faith?

I think cooking for me is a form of therapy and meditation. I feel the most connected to God when I’m in the kitchen cooking or hosting one of these events. Sitting around at the dinner table with my wife, Ashlea, and family or friends, there’s a completeness there, a sense of nearness to life’s energy source. I think part of that is recognising that God is nourishing us and nourishing us in the fullest way with community and connection and the sharing of ourselves, and what we have, with others. In celebration, we honour the gifts God has given us, and God wants us to delight in these gifts. And so, when I hang out in the kitchen and transform fresh, beautiful ingredients into a homemade meal, then serve it to the ones that I love, I think I’m participating in the wholeness of what I’m called to be.

We’ve talked about food in whole and wholesome ways, but many know food to be quite challenging—it can easily be distorted and food diets can add some confusion to what is good food. How would you speak to this?

When we start talking about diets and beliefs around food, I’m always reminded of two things. The first is a Funny or Die YouTube sketch about the time-travelling dietitian.

It starts off in 1979 with a husband and wife serving eggs for breakfast, and this time-travelling dietitian runs through the door and says, “Don’t eat that, it’s full of cholesterol!” So they go to throw it out. And then, he reappears saying, “Oh, sorry, we don’t believe that now. There’s good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. So you can eat the egg whites, but don’t eat the egg yolks.” And he just keeps on coming back while the couple gets increasingly disinterested in his new information: it’s not about the cholesterol, it’s about exercise; exercise means nothing, it’s all about genetics! That sketch kind of feeds into what we’re talking about here.

The second thing I always think about when we start talking about diets is the podcast, Freakonomics. There’s one about sugar where they talk about this thing called the “pessimistic meta induction theory”. This theory says that everything we knew ten years ago is already wrong, and everything we know today will be wrong ten years from now. So why should we do anything differently when we know that whatever we believe today will just end up being wrong anyway? So, it’s not a good theory. If you indulge it, you may as well never do any research, never care at all, and just live with the existing dogma—right? So, I think that even though the goalposts for what is good for us and what is healthy will shift, we still have to care. And we still have to keep trying.

Speaking to the utility of food, there was a drug trial for weight loss medication. In the drug trial, the medication deactivated the subjects’ reward systems when it came to eating food. It worked stupendously. People reached their target weights; it was extraordinary. But when they started to analyse the phase three data, it showed this very high suicide rate in its subjects.

This is a horrible anecdote, but it does illustrate food’s utility. There’s something inherent in food that satisfies us physically but also spiritually and mentally as well. When we’re feeling a bit unreasonable, crabby, or hangry, it’s like tunnel vision. You can’t think of anything else. But when you eat something and wait 10 minutes, you regain the sanity. There’s this relationship between sustenance and consciousness. Food does satisfy us, and it does sustain us. I think both of those things are important to the human experience.

There’s a writer in the US called Michael Pollan who suggests you eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself. That way it’ll be less junky and you won’t eat it every day because it’s just a lot of work. Balance is important. And by that I mean consuming as much variety as possible across fruits and vegetables, nuts, pulses, dairy, legumes, whatever. Obviously, not everyone can do that, and some people have very restrictive diets, which is very hard. I completely acknowledge that.

But the challenge is putting in the effort to find recipes you want to cook that your household wants to eat. And so, those recipes can feed into your Rolodex of recipes that we all have on rotation—weekly or monthly—that become a go-to.

What are some staples you always have in your kitchen, and what are some of your go-to meals?

I always make up a pizza sauce to freeze in batches. I use an adaptation of Julia Moskin’s marinara sauce, and I use our Simon Gault Italian seasoning in there. I then freeze it into little bags, so we just bring out a bag to have on a good quality, store-bought pizza base—making my own dough defeats the purpose of an easy, go-to meal!I generally have some miso paste in the fridge. It makes a great marinade for tofu with soy sauce, or to add to a mushroom bolognese or a lentil dish. Miso adds that salty, savoury, umami taste. I always have gherkins because I love a cheeseburger with heaps of gherkins and anchovies. I buy olive oil in five-litre cans so we sort of break it down and rarely run out, which is good.

Sherry vinegar is awesome because it’s an acid with a beautiful flavour. It works really well with olive oil, or any sort of tomato dish, and adds vibrancy. As a sweetener, I’d either use maple syrup or agave syrup. Agave dissolves really easily, particularly with something like a tomato dish. A little squirt of agave helps balance out the acidity and just feeds into that body and mouth-filling character. Flaky salt is always on the table. And we always have Gault’s stock and Simon Gault seasoning. And finally, I usually have whatever cheese I can get my hands on, especially a creamy brie for Ashlea.

There was no single moment that Ash and I decided to get married, but we still wanted to mark the significance of our engagement. We had dinner at one of my favourite restaurants: Apéro, a French-inspired wine bar across the road from my office. I asked my barista/photographer, Josh Harvey, to swing by and take a few photos to memorialise the occasion.

(Images: Supplied by Tim Fenwick and family)