Elisabeth Easther meets Charles Royal from Kinaki Wild Herbs, Traditional Māori Food Tours.
I was born in Waihi, but my father was on the railways so we travelled a lot — Taihape, Rotorua, Carterton, Wellington. We'd also spend time in Waihau Bay, down the East Coast, because that's where Mum was born. Every holidays we'd head there and go fishing and eeling, and to the bush where we learnt to gather food. When you're a kid and you catch your first fish, you just want to catch more. You learn you can please people by going home with the fish and cooking them for tea — that played a big part in my future.
In 1980, I joined the Army as a 15-year-old, I was a regular force cadet. I learnt everything about cooking in the Army. My mum also played a big part but, when I got serious about it, the Army gave me my background. I joined because I wanted to get out of school but it was pretty hard and many times I didn't want to be there, but I stuck it out because cooking was my life and the Army was the best place to train. In the 80s, the New Zealand Army mainly went to the Pacific and Australia, and locals are very friendly when you travel as a peacekeeper. As a young soldier, being a Māori boy from small-town New Zealand, I hadn't really travelled, so that was a real eye-opener for me.
My wife was in the Navy and I was in the Army, that's how we met. We went to Singapore for our honeymoon and I loved the food, there's such variety, so many different ingredients. The street food is way different to what we have here, and that's when my mind started clicking over. How could we do that here? We also went to the southern states of America. We're both big Elvis fans so we went to Memphis, to Graceland, to visit Elvis' grave. We went to Nashville and New Orleans, where we fell in love with the Cajun and Creole food. I love how their food has a history and we couldn't believe their ingredients, to be able to take something from the bayou and next minute there's alligator or snake on your plate.
I left the Army in 1990 and started at Air New Zealand in the flight kitchen, still bulk cooking but a bit flasher. When we moved to Rotorua, we headed towards a more traditional Māori style