Sam Low's quarantine essentials include tweezers, a sketch pad - and a very sharp knife.
They're the tools the 28-year-old is using to deconstruct and replate every breakfast, lunch and dinner he receives in managed isolation at the Grand Mercure Wellington.
And if the adage "you eat with your eyes" is true, then Low's quarantine meals are a cut above most.
"Food has always been my creative outlet. If I'm feeling down, I just like to go into the kitchen. It's like my colouring in, or my entertainment . . . and this whole food replating thing makes me connect with food a little bit more."
Low, a latte art and barista champion, has returned from Melbourne where he worked as a coffee trainer. He's read complaints about managed isolation food, but "honestly - be grateful. There's too much negativity".
Low says each meal makeover takes around 20 minutes. At breakfast, for example, he'll rinse syrup off poached pears before cubing them, reshaping mascarpone into quenelles and cutting decorative windows out of a waffle.
To make a lamb shank look pretty he removes carrots from broth, pats them down with paper towels, and rearranges them with salad vegetables. A spicy bean lunch is glamourised with repurposed raw radish and an apple is sliced super thin but the first step in all dishes is removing the cardboard packaging.
"I did a bit of research before going into quarantine and compiled a list of things to bring . . . Kewpie mayonnaise and Chinese chilli oil, but also a few plates and some cutlery."
Colleagues gave him a chef's knife and tweezers as a leaving present, but he's had to tear pages out of his sketchbook to use as a make-shift chopping board. Meanwhile, washing dishes in the hotel bathroom's ceramic basin "is terrifying - you're just so scared of chipping anything!"
Born in Fiji (where his parents owned a noodle factory) Low grew up in Auckland and worked for various SkyCity restaurants before making a career out of coffee. When the Covid-19 pandemic forced extended international lockdowns, he was preparing for barista championships and a food scholarship with celebrated chef David Chang. While his job in Australia was secure, he says it was time for a re-think.
"I just needed to pack up and go home for a second, just to re-evaluate everything."
Low's managed isolation finishes on Wednesday night. He says his first Auckland stop will be Dominion Rd.
"Just all the Asian eats I can get! No, honestly, it's more about hanging out with people around food. It's not so much the food, as what the food represents."
Low's creativity has even caught the eye of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
In a Facebook post, Ardern said she had been tagged in the chef's social media posts.
"The amazing people who work in our quarantine and isolation facilities across New Zealand do an amazing job. Every day they're working to reduce the risk of Covid-19 to everyone in our facilities, including ensuring the food is packaged really carefully," she said.
"That doesn't mean there can't be a bit of creativity once a guest receives it though!! Someone tagged me into the posts of [Sam Low]. Love the creativity, but especially love the appreciation for all our people working so hard to look everyone coming home. Thanks [Sam Low]!."