Onions from Merivale community gardens, wild rosemary from the railway tracks on the Strand, crushed cumin and ginger from Sixth Avenue Farmers' Market, and a hearty squeeze of lemons from Aunty's garden.

Lauren Simeon is lovingly preparing kai sticks - marinated chicken on twigs of rosemary.

They are part of a feast for more than 160 people at the launch of the Happy Puku, a new eatery in the Tauranga Rugby and Sports Club.

Simeon, 27, is the catering company's first employee. Her title is chief happiness officer.

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The spread could easily grace the tables of Tauranga's top restaurants.

Yet only a year ago Simeon hated cooking. She relied on fast food or whatever she could quickly whip up in the small motel room on 15th Avenue where she and her two children lived before being taken in by social agency Te Tuinga Whānau, organisers of The Happy Puku.

"My life was a rollercoaster. Escaping an unhealthy situation I ended up in women's refuges, then homeless. It was unsettling for the kids. One is only 7 but has already been in six schools. It was a really lonely time. I wanted to change my life, but I didn't know how."

Simeon moved into one of Te Tuinga Whānau's 12 whares, which provide transitional housing for homeless families under a government contract.

The agency provides more than just a roof; it offers wraparound services such as budgeting and counselling, and practical skills such as learning to keep fit, raranga and cooking.

"We shared one of the beautiful whares with other ladies I could relate to. We walked up the Mount together, learned to cook. I got to do simple things good for the soul. I thought it was just about finding a house but it was more things I had to deal with. After being involved with Te Tuinga Whānau my whole life has turned around."

Chef Stephen Wilson teaches Lauren Simeon how to cook
Chef Stephen Wilson teaches Lauren Simeon how to cook "with love" using fresh local produce and healthy recipes. Photo / Jaden McLeod

Now housed permanently by Accessible Properties, Simeon says the children are happier, doing better at school and the family have more quality time.

She never believed she could cook, let alone work in catering,

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"I'm getting opportunities that I never thought I would. I feel I can move forward with my life and be part of something."

The Happy Puku launch is the venue for Tuesday's Homeless Forum attended by local iwi, representatives from the Ministry of Social Development, police, youth justice, district health boards, and organisations working on the front line of homelessness.

Rangi Ahipene, youth worker at Te Tuinga Whanau, at the pouwhiri for the Happy Puku launch at a national homelessness hui in Tauranga. Photo / Jaden McLeod
Rangi Ahipene, youth worker at Te Tuinga Whanau, at the pouwhiri for the Happy Puku launch at a national homelessness hui in Tauranga. Photo / Jaden McLeod

Simeon says homelessness is a problem the Government needs to seriously address.

"Homelessness - and poverty - can happen to any of us. Being homeless, I have met so many hard-working working-class people, families with kids, suddenly with nowhere to live. It is sad. Heartbreaking."

Te Tuinga Whānau social worker Jenna Young says 70 per cent of clients become homeless for reasons out of their control.

"Losing employment, the housing boom where landlords sell, lack of rentals, meth testing, population growth... since 2015 it's been the perfect storm for homelessness."

The forum's focus is "reconnecting the disconnected", looking at best practices from Te Tuinga Whānau, which houses 47 adults and 70 children in 10 whares and units in Tauranga.

The Happy Puku is an initiative for the agency to raise its own funds, says director Tommy Kapai.

Tommy Kapai Wilson, director of Te Tuinga Whanau and founder of the Happy Puku. Photo/ Alan Gibson
Tommy Kapai Wilson, director of Te Tuinga Whanau and founder of the Happy Puku. Photo/ Alan Gibson

"It's our version of the charity shop. The twist is the staff who work here are former homeless families themselves, so they've walked this path. They are giving back to the community that helped them, they are learning new skills, getting paid employment and are feeding Tauranga Moana with their beautiful creations."

Workers like Simeon are trained by chef Stephen Wilson, who ran a Parisian restaurant for 26 years and now runs 12-week cooking programmes in the Bay, working with agencies like Te Tuinga Whānau.

Wilson says the Happy Puku was inspired by Jamie Oliver's scheme to train unemployed people as chefs, as well as schemes he had seen successfully rolled out in Europe.

British chef Jamie Oliver's scheme to train unemployed people as chefs was the inspiration behind Happy Puku. Photo / File
British chef Jamie Oliver's scheme to train unemployed people as chefs was the inspiration behind Happy Puku. Photo / File

His classes teach food hygiene, preparation and, most importantly he says, helping people kindle a passion about food and an understanding of where it came from.

He teaches people how to use fresh produce and "cook with love", a skill that has been lost he says.

"People have no time. They don't plan so they turn to fast food, or tinned or frozen. I take my students on a journey back to the land, to what we produce, seafood. I get them to feel and smell and touch the food, and teach them what is good for their bodies, and their souls. It is really like therapy."

Wilson says reconnecting people to the kitchen reconnects them to their families.

"My fondest childhood memories are the warmth of the kitchen; eating peas from our garden. And talking to mum while she cooked.

"I teach not only the importance of food but the art of conversation. It is precious and nothing is better for families than to make a habit of sitting around the table, eat good food and talk together."

Chef Stephen Wilson wants to give his students food for the soul as well as their stomachs. Photo / Jaden McLeod
Chef Stephen Wilson wants to give his students food for the soul as well as their stomachs. Photo / Jaden McLeod

Wilson would like to see more people like Simeon learn cooking, which leads to employment and validation.

"She's come a long way. When we started Lauren was shy, and some people even have a fear of the kitchen. Gradually she's developed her passion about food, and grown in confidence seeing she can make meals, simple desserts, hummus for the kids' lunches.

"She has a beautiful gentleness of Māori woman - manaakitanga - that we need to be proud of this in our culture, and apply it in the kitchen, in our families."

Wilson will teach his courses twice a week in the Happy Puku, and the team will also put on events for the community.

One day he would like to see a Happy Puku food truck at the markets.

But for now, there's chicken to marinate slowly, floors to be swept and herbs to pick.

It's hard work and hot in the kitchen but Simeon is up for the challenge,

"It's amazing to give back to the community. A community that me and my kids now feel part of. We're home."