Wellington has dished up another festival winner, writes Jesse Mulligan.
There's no city in New Zealand more exciting than Wellington in August. Now there's a sentence you wouldn't have read 30 years ago, but that was the original point of Visa Wellington On A Plate — to inject some midwinter life into a city which can be very wintery, even in summer.
And it's worked. Although one restaurateur confided that "when Welly on a Plate began, we all hated it", 10 years later it's become essential for any eatery that doesn't want to be ignored for three weeks. It's an ideal format for a chef with excess energy — one whose regular menu only scratches the surface of what he or she knows about food. Through one-off events, special menus and the iconic VWOAP burger competition, August is a month of jostling for position and attention.
Wandering through the city, it feels as though every restaurant has bought into the festival and in order for that to work, the customers have to buy into it as well. That's probably the most exciting thing — the bigger the festival has become (I've been coming since 2011), the more Wellingtonians have come out to support it.
Take a restaurant like Apache — a mid-range French-influenced Vietnamese restaurant in dull Wakefield St. I asked two weeks ahead of time if I could pop in and try their "Kung Fu chicken" burger around 5pm on a Saturday but they were already booked out for that entire evening shift. "I made 250 yesterday, another 250 today" said the chef when, like a poor man's Oprah, I snuck in at 4.30pm pre-service to get my fill. For the record, it featured free-range chicken, five spice, orange caramel, chilli herb salad and firecracker mayo, in a "Yin & Yang" coconut and charcoal bun.
Some restaurants have overhauled their entire brand. The famous Shepherd, in the city's most exciting laneway just off Dixon St, became "Goldburger" for the duration of the festival — a sort of In 'n' Out-inspired short-order burger joint, which was full of happy munchers when I dropped in for Saturday lunch. Up the hill in Brooklyn, the esteemed Salted Pidgin was running under the sub-brand pop-up "Good Companions", where I ate the best prawn cocktail — one of several Kiwi classics reimagined for a modern foodie audience. At Dragonfly the chef was showcasing his deep knowledge of Asian cuisine with a mind-bending "noodle degustation". Even the dessert was made with orzo.
Dragonfly was fully booked too, and even outside these special events there is a local culture of going out and trying stuff. All the Wellingtonians I met on my visit were planning to eat three or four burgers over the course of the festival. It's not what you'd call a health-food experience, but the low price point and chef creativity makes the annual burger competition a great way to get locals of all financial means into restaurants they might not otherwise visit.
Some restaurants aren't natural burger joints, but most find an appropriate way to participate. I ate a "breakfast burger" at QT Hotel's Hippopotamus, for example, featuring a patty made with black pudding and chorizo. Downstairs at sister restaurant Hot Sauce, they were preparing to debut an intricate Asian-spiced burger with Chinese pork jerky and pineapple pickle. Competition for the public-voted "Best Burger" title seemed particularly fierce between the city's Asian chefs, and the guy at Hot Sauce really wanted to win.
Beervana is the centrepiece of VWOAP's opening weekend — 400 different craft beers, many brewed just for the festival. It's held inside Wellington stadium, beneath the stands in circle formation, so after an hour or two of walking and drinking you completely lose track of where you are and where you've been. That's part of the fun, of course.
By the final hour of the session even the craftiest beer drinkers are a bit over the sampling, so it was good to see innovations like the dancefloor-in-a-Portaloo (long story) giving people a chance to shake it off. If Beervana's doughnut-layout misses one thing it's a central area for socialising and hanging out away from the taps — it's no wonder things kick on at Malt on Courtenay Place long after last drinks at the stadium.
The three-week festival concluded with a tally of votes and an announcement that Wilson Barbecue, a first-time winner, had taken out the best burger title. The beef was smoked rather than grilled, and it came bone-in.
Most annual events and festivals have a lifespan of goodwill but despite some industry grumblings about "too many burgers" this year, VWOAP is yet to peak. The energy keeps increasing as does, I suspect, the turnover.
Book early for August 2019.
Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Wellington with one-way Seat fares from $56. airnz.co.nz