Since lockdown began, Rewi Spraggon has cooked more than 4000 hot hāngi packs for distribution to food banks and the homeless. Visual journalist Michael Craig spent a day alongside the hāngi master. Additional reporting by Kim Knight.
The day starts at 5am. Before the sun rises, Rewi Spraggon lights the mānuka wood fires that will heat the stones that will, by week's end, have cooked enough food to feed more than 1000 people.
Hot meats, potatoes, kūmara, cabbage and stuffing for the homeless and the hungry, made by the man who normally cooks hāngi paua, crayfish and pork belly for Auckland's top restaurants.
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 Delta outbreak's level 4 lockdown, Spraggon (aka The Hāngi Master) has been providing meals to food banks and agencies that distribute directly to inner-city homeless.
Spraggon (Ngāti Hine, Te Kawerau a Maki) explains just what it takes to get more than half a tonne from Te Henga to downtown Tāmaki Makaurau - and why he hopes this mahi will continue beyond lockdown:
"Māori lived as a community. You had the gatherers and the hunters that would collect food and fish and they would bring it back to the kitchen and then the cooks would cook. Whether it was smoking the fish, cooking on embers or hāngi, everyone had their role in the community and I suppose that is the beauty of the hāngi. You can cook for numerous people. I've got chef mates who struggle with food for 100 . . . I can cook for up to 2000 people!
"I use andesite, and a number of different rocks. Some are from my grandfather - he taught my father and my father taught me and my siblings. A number of other stones I've collected over the years. Some of them explode. It's a matter of experimenting.
"I've bricked out the pits, and because it's just me and my son doing it at the moment, keeping it in our bubble, we can really only do around 400 meals at a time. We do three of those a week.
"We prep the food while the fire's burning. I get gourmet potatoes which are washed and the same with the kūmara. I leave the skin on - the goodness is in the skin. The British came and said 'you've got to peel the kūmara' but Māori never, ever did. Just scrub them down and wash them and go ahead and cook them!
"It takes three hours to heat the rocks. We put the food in at 8 o'clock and that food is down for three hours and then it's up at 11am. And then we put it all in the hot boxes, so the food stays hot, above 70 degrees, for five hours.
"Basically, it's a conventional steam oven. The stones get up to 700 celsius, they get dropped in the pit, the meat goes down the bottom, the vegetables on top and then it's covered in sacking and dirt and steams away slowly for three hours. You get earthy, smoky, steamed flavours.
"For around 1000 meals a week, it's basically 100kgs of potato, 100kgs of pumpkin, 100kgs of kūmara, 50 cabbage, 100 loaves of bread, 50 pounds of butter, 130kg of pork shoulder and 200kg of chicken thigh. The way I do the pork is amazing. I brine it for 18 hours and it comes out moist and it's just falling apart. It's like pulled pork. That, and the kūmara would be probably the best, but, yeah, I'm not eating meat at the moment . . .
"The homeless are used to getting food out of the bins behind the restaurants, but because they're closed, they're really vulnerable. They've got no food. There are people living in cars, under bridges . . . there were about 60 of them staying in front of Auckland Library because it was nice and warm.
"I work with a couple of organisations that are feeding the homeless, including an awesome charitable trust Grace Care. We cook the food, take it there, and they distribute it. And we're working with food banks. They are really under pressure. The government initiatives put food in schools, but the kids aren't going to school, so they're not being fed and the pressure is coming back on the families. They're not working and some of them don't qualify for the wage subsidy and so we've seen demand has just gone 100 per cent up, 200 per cent up.
"Last time, I actually did this for essential workers during lockdown - police, hospitals, doctors, nurses and all that, but I thought, well, they get paid. It was cool to do that, but I wanted to look at the real vulnerable members of our community.
"What drives me is just . . . humanity. And, you know, with my nine-year-old and 12-year-old, it does my head in trying to teach them with their online schooling. They're helping me pack food. 'Okay, we're doing another math lesson - count those potatoes, count the kūmara!'
"A lot of people have only had hāngi on special occasions. It is the Christmas meal, funerals, celebrations and birthdays. In my 9-5 job, outside of this, I'm cooking for the top restaurants. Peter Gordon (Homeland), Ben Bayly (Ahi), Saint Alice in the viaduct. They've got me on their menus because it's authentic. It's the oldest dish in New Zealand . . . from fine dining, to people living on the street, I cook for everyone the same. I treat everyone the same whether you're a king, queen or you live under a bridge and that's the way I've been taught. Every time you cook, it's cooked with love, it's cooked with thought.
"We've had sponsorship from a number of Māori businesses, Britomart, and [Minister for Māori Development] Willie Jackson's ministry has given us enough money to do another month. I've spoken to Marama Davidson [Associate Minister of Housing - Homelessness] because I actually don't want to stop doing this. I want to continue it, because there is a need way beyond lockdown.
"One of the biggest things people say is that this food brings back memories. It's soul food at its best. What time I finish the day depends how buggered I feel. Usually 11pm. As long as I get six hours' sleep, I'm fine."