Stephen Wilson is an international chef and former missionary, whose hallmarks are patience and belief. Carly Gibbs meets the man giving residents in emergency housing a leg up, by teaching them how to cook.

In life, when miracles aren't possible and money won't fix a problem, you can give time.

Stephen Wilson is 59, but when he was in his early 40s, he helped nurse dying Aids patients in Paris.

He would attend to their physical needs, and if they wanted he would sing to them.

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He has always been someone who connects to others heart-to-heart.

He has a big smile, and big dream - and that dream is that everyone's lives can be transformed, even if the odds are stacked against them.

He's walking the talk, with the help of his brother and children's book author Tommy Kapai Wilson, executive director of Tauranga social service Te Tuinga Whanau.

The trust provides transitional housing for women and children, and recently launched the catering business and food truck The Happy Puku, overseen by Wilson, a former church missionary, and chef, who lived in Paris for 26 years.

Over 12 weeks, he teaches Te Tuinga Whanau residents how to cook, and - for a lucky few - offers paid work with The Happy Puku, an initiative for the agency to raise its own funds.

It also fits with Te Tuinga Whanau's aspiration to enact reform beyond its walls.

The Happy Puku's last big function. They served 250 guests for a three-course plated dinner. Photo / Supplied
The Happy Puku's last big function. They served 250 guests for a three-course plated dinner. Photo / Supplied

It's an ambitious project because it involves buy-in from the women whose lives have been uprooted by violence, gangs and drugs.

Some don't know how to chop an onion; others have never heard of the herb rosemary, and one woman, before meeting Wilson, bought hot chips every night to accompany the family meal.

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They work more slowly, and the staffing costs are higher because they're in training, but the point is to give them experience, and a chance.

Long-term, The Happy Puku hopes to seek donations to cover wages so it becomes a viable and self-sustaining business.

Its employees (five at the moment) are cooking healthy street food as well as three-course meals, including at last month's Bay of Plenty Garden and Arts Festival which attracted thousands of visitors.

Wilson runs the programme, having already taught French cooking and catered dinner parties. He's been known to compose and sing the guest of honour's life story. He was in a band called Marmelade in Paris.

He is assisted at The Happy Puku by semi-retired Swiss chef Remy Zibung, a Tauranga resident.

Amongst Zibung's career highlights is cheffing at the Kensington Palace Hotel in London; eight years in the Caribbean, and six years with the famous Oriental Mandarin Hotel Group in Asia. He was also executive chef at one of Singapore's hottest hotels, the five-star, 840-room Pan Pacific Singapore, from 1985-1989, where he managed 100 chefs across 10 outlets.

Zibung was promoted by the company to New Zealand in 1989 to open Pan Pacific Auckland.

He was one of a generation of chefs to birth "east meets west" cooking in Asia in the 1980s, superseding nouvelle cuisine. That didn't hit New Zealand until the 90s where it became known as fusion.

"That's the last thing I want to do in life … Share my knowledge and train young people who are really keen to have cooking in their heart," the 72-year-old says.

Of Wilson, Zibung says his "wonderful personality" comes from having a French and Māori background.

"I think that's a fantastic combination, which shows the passion and the simplicity, which he has. The flavour of the French but then the passion of a Māori. It's a wonderful mixture."

Kelly Tai, chefs Remy Zibung and Stephen Wilson, and Janine Cork. Photo/ Andrew Warner
Kelly Tai, chefs Remy Zibung and Stephen Wilson, and Janine Cork. Photo/ Andrew Warner

The Happy Puku launched in February but officially got off the ground only four months ago, and will equip women to stand on their own two feet, whatever profession they go into.

"It might not be the hospitality industry, but at least it's giving them the skills to become accountable with their time, to learn the value of work, and the reward," Wilson says.

"I don't want it to sound: 'Wow, everyone is going to be transformed'. But I'm saying: 'You have the chance. What are you going to choose?'.

"I don't want it to sound: 'Wow, everyone is going to be transformed'. But I'm saying: 'You have the chance. What are you going to choose?'.

He has a compassion and a love to want to make a difference for those stuck in a generational vacuum.

"If I can put out my hand and bring them out … Let's do it."

At age 17 he found God, and by age 18 was part of the Salvation Army's community work scheme, doing physical labour alongside ex-prisoners.

"It was the time that set the sails in motion for my life," he says.

He belonged to the Mount Maunganui Baptist Church, who were involved in missionary work, and in 1982 he went to France.

He has French ancestors who came to New Zealand in the 1840s, and despite being nervous to go overseas, his desire to serve surpassed his fear.

He met his wife Tracey in Paris, and they have four children.

He did a variety of serving jobs, including working in hospital care, and looking after artists at the opera house, the Palais Garnier.

In his downtime, he indulged in his hobby of cooking - learning new dishes from foreign friends and cooking for groups and events, and in a friend's Parisian restaurant.

He is a self-taught chef.

"This is what has got to be taught," he says tapping the tip of his tongue: "It's your palate.

"The French gave me the opportunity."

Chef Stephen Wilson teaches cooking to women affected by violence, gangs and drugs. Photo / Andrew Warner
Chef Stephen Wilson teaches cooking to women affected by violence, gangs and drugs. Photo / Andrew Warner

He'd spent years shadowing his parents in hospitality in Mount Maunganui, cutting up bucketloads of onions.

He's one of 11 kids born to war veteran Len Wilson and Kiritapu ("Kitty") Wilson (nee Borell).

As the youngest in a big family, it was "life around the table".

"It was a community, and mum always had kindness, before even the food," he says.

He and his siblings grew up on Mount Maunganui's Macville Road, where their playground was going into the pine forest across the road from Central Parade, collecting pine cones to sell to the neighbours, and playing "war" .

"We were a modest family with so many kids, but dad was able to give us fresh fish because he was a fisherman, then he worked in a place where they filleted fish," he says.

On birthdays, Kitty would spoil her children with whatever they wanted to eat.

Fish cakes, and piping hot steam pudding, with runny golden syrup and custard, is one memory, "but roasts every Sunday".

Both his parents worked in the Tauranga wharf canteen and later his mother was one of the cooks at the pub Oceanside.

The Happy Puku team in action. Photo / Supplied
The Happy Puku team in action. Photo / Supplied

On a Saturday when the wharf closed at lunchtime, most of the wharfies would go to their watering hole and children would go on to the wharf, or by the pylons, and go fishing.

"There was no security stopping access like today."

When he was in Paris Wilson wanted to create his own place of connection and opened restaurant Kiwizine in 2006.

He returned home in 2008 because he felt a tugging on his heart strings.

Seven years later, his old neighbourhood - "a quiet place" - was the target of a terror attack, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper.

"I felt a calling to come back," he says of Aotearoa. "We haven't come back to Tauranga to live the lifestyle. I might be a millionaire in relationships, but not in my pocket. I rent this place," he says looking around his quaint Devonport Rd home with French art. "But we live as kings."

His wife, an ex-principal of an English-language school, is her husband's biggest supporter.

"He is phenomenally encouraging and can speak to any person in any situation, find a point of contact, and make them feel valued - it's a real gift," Tracey says.

"He has a deep empathy with people that are suffering, and he is committed to serving in whatever capacity he can to make a difference around him."

Stephen Wilson opened Paris restaurant Kiwizine in 2006. Photo / Supplied
Stephen Wilson opened Paris restaurant Kiwizine in 2006. Photo / Supplied

He and Tracey are members of Changepoint church, and haven't ruled out moving back to France one day. They miss the spontaneity of living in Paris where neighbours would regularly meet for meals.

To replicate some of that living, they operate an open house and are always hosting travellers.

Taking chances is a motto they've instilled in their children.

"Don't be afraid of 'what if'," Wilson advises. "If you've got the belief of those around you, and you grow in confidence in who you are, the world is there before you."

He gives the same message to his cooking students.

He tells the story of one woman he's been teaching who lived in a house with gang members, and is a recovering addict.

Suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, she would have panic attacks in the middle of the day.

Most of the dishes Wilson taught her she'd never heard of, let alone eaten.

Now she's not only cooking but also helps co-ordinate The Happy Puku employees.

"Seeing that self-esteem and trust … brings a smile in my heart because I know she's starting to come alive," he says.

"Stephen," she told him. "Before, my head was always down."

Now, she's in photos and smiling at the camera.

"She's not stunted, she's not in a dark hole - she's out of it, and she can start walking."

She had been fighting life for years and now has goals - including buying her first car in 10 years.

"We'll be able to go places," she told him, with a hope and determination that shows that she already is.