Partly inspired by the success of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and a desire to celebrate great food and drink, respected New Zealand chef Martin Bosley teamed up with some pals about eight years ago to establish Visa Wellington on a Plate. Nowadays, the two week festival brings together thousands of people in August, to experience, explore and discover the treats that lie within the nation’s capital.
This year there are more than 130 events with Chef Bosley’s fourth Prison Gate to Plate, once again sold-out before the festival begins. There are several sessions, where 80 people dine on food designed and made by maximum security prisoners at Rimutaka Prison, New Zealand’s largest jail. There are drug dog checks on the night before guests get a tour of the prison perimeter then seated for their meal in the correctional officer’s training quarters. Chef Bosley reveals that prisoners eat dinner in their cells, served on trays through slots and not in a dining area as depicted in television shows.
Mr Bosley says it’s a golden job to work in the prison kitchen, so the six inmates that he works with and trains appreciate the opportunity. There are four in the back-up crew just in case the chosen ones “stuff up” (which has happened). Dinner is served by prisoners and correctional officers and to Mr Bosley’s delight, guests often can’t tell the difference.
The menu is printed at the prison print shop, the roses sourced from the gardens of Christchurch prison (nothing grows at Rimutaka according to Chef Bosley) and painted plates, made by inmates of course, decorate the walls of the dining room. This year, there’ll be a cookbook collating four years of Prison Gate to Plate recipes.
The menu is developed by the prisoners, who have been learning to make sausages and squid ink ravioli. And since they expressed a strong interest in molecular gastronomy – caviar and foams have been added to the offerings.
Mr Bosley says his position on incarceration has altered, while the concept of “food as an agent of change” still plays in the back of his mind. “I used to think that since they’ve done bad things, they should be breaking rocks in the hot sun. Why should I help them.”
Now he gets emotional reflecting on his own learning curve and how profoundly he’s changed. He’s heard the prisoner’s stories unfold while teaching them how to slow braise ox cheeks or break down a fish. “We need to give them the opportunity to show they can be worthwhile and contributing members of society. During the process, they’ve been given self-confidence and self-esteem and they’ve taught me empathy and humility.”
He is still trying to convince authorities to allow him to serve the upcoming dinners on the actual prison trays with scratched-on graffiti and gang slogans.
Meanwhile, he has succeeded in getting “jail juice” on the menu – a non- alcoholic drink made of left-overs and essentially whatever the prisoners can get their hands on. This year, there’ll be three different flavours served.
There are so many inspired and interesting Visa Wellington on a Plate events. Here are some top picks:
1/ The biggest beer festival in New Zealand is Beervana. There will be about 60 breweries with more than 300 types of beer being served. It’s held at the Westpac Stadium, with thousands of craft beer enthusiasts gathering around the perimeter for the event.
2/ A Taste of Old: Pioneer Cooking for Kids. Children get a hands-on chance to take a trip back in time and experience cooking as it used to be: without electricity. The program is presented by the Garden to Table Trust.
3/ A record 116 burgers will vye for the big prize in this year’s Garage Project presents ‘Burger Wellington’, which sees food trucks and restaurants battling to win the ultimate accolade.
4/ The sleek and stylish Egmont Street Eatery is part of the Laneway Progressive Dinner that has you meandering through Wellington’s artisanal laneways, enjoying a veritable feast. Others taking part include Pizza Pomodoro and Golding’s Free Dive.
5/ High Coffee at the Intercontinental. The plush foyer of the Intercontinental hotel is hosting high coffee with a delightful selection of sandwiches, pastries and not-to-be-missed coffee-flavoured macaroons. The event kicks off with an espresso martini.
6/ Pizza making wonder Tom Kirton (Tommy Millions) is presenting an all you can eat pizza and dessert buffet at Prefab Café. The man spent time in New York to make sure he learnt what he needs to know about good pizza. And trust me, it’s great. There’s to be beer matching too, thanks to the Garage Project.
7/ Bypass the Bin is an afternoon well spent, learning how to minimise waste in your own kitchen. Chef MacLean Fraser is hosting the entertaining, informative masterclass which shows how to make the most of what’s in the kitchen.
Visa Wellington on a Plate, with 136 events, runs from August 12th to 28th. www.visawoap.com
The writer travelled to Wellington courtesy of Positively Wellington