A Fresh Look For Wānaka Favourite Kai Whakapai

By Jo Elwin
From logistics to hospitality, Nick Aubrey brings fresh vision to Wānaka's Kai Whakapai. Photo / Matt Finlay

With ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ ringing in her ears, writer Jo Elwin tracks down Nick Aubrey to find out what he was thinking making changes to Wānaka’s popular eatery and bar

When one of Wānaka’s great skiers states that an awesome powder day must end with a “Brewski at Kai” you realise that Kai Whakapai, the bar and eatery that has been hydrating adventurers for nearly three decades, is the stuff of legend.

A spirited baker called Matt opened the original Kai around the same time his friend started Wānaka Beer Works, because they were seeking something other than Speights in a country-style pub. With a sustainable ethos of using what was around locally and seasonally, the alternative, bohemian vibe at the café/bar/restaurant attracted like-minded souls and Brewski still flows from one of the 16 taps today.

When Nick Aubrey took the reins in 2020 from then-owners Roger and Shonagh North, who had successfully continued Matt’s vision, he was well aware of the local treasure he had bought and the eyebrows that were raised over recent renovations.

Nick agrees that it would have sounded scary, he was 28 with no hospitality experience, and laughs that the team had to train him when he started. But he is local — his great-grandfather owned the farm that Treble Cone is on, and post-uni he spent six and a half years working in logistics at Mainfreight in Christchurch, so he came at it with an understanding of the Wānaka community and of how to streamline processes in a fast-paced environment. He’d always loved food and was thinking about developing his interests in the food scene when Roger North shoulder tapped him about taking over Kai.

The new layout maintains Kai Whakapai's casual and welcoming atmosphere for all guests.
The new layout maintains Kai Whakapai's casual and welcoming atmosphere for all guests.

“At a challenging time, thanks to Covid, everyone thought I was mad, ” Nick says surprisingly light-heartedly. “But I would never have been able to buy it in a normal environment.” He set his mind to getting through the pandemic and took the time to stand back and observe inefficiencies — aiding the purchase promise he made to himself to not change anything for two years.

No one would have known it had changed hands and they still may not. The new Kai is simply an elevated version of its former self and Nick explains that it’s a “nicer space for the team to work in.” To overcome the limitations of the previous kitchen, they have expanded into the vacated space next door. A pizza oven, chargrill and vast bench space allow them to make more inhouse, do new things and achieve Kai’s goal to deliver “good food at a good cost”. Open from 7am until 10pm, the busy barista has a bigger work area and a window for takeaway coffees and cabinet food which can be ordered online for those heading up the mountain early. The bar has moved back to create better flow — all ordering happens at the bar to maintain the casual Kai experience. There is no separation between people dining or drinking in the beautiful new banquettes, window tables with lake and mountain views and the sharing tables outside.

Kai Whakapai features 16 taps, including the beloved Brewski.
Kai Whakapai features 16 taps, including the beloved Brewski.

You are as welcome to enjoy breakfast, lunch, dinner or a drink in your ski gear as much as your new ensemble from 47 Frocks up the road and Nick says they have a loyal clientele of all ages. “That’s the unique thing with Kai, we don’t fit into one category.” Catering to locals and visitors, Nick is ensuring that Kai is a place that “you can enjoy eating at often, at a price point that isn’t going to kill you.” Pizzas, burgers and fries sit alongside small and big plates of locally influenced food that will change seasonally. A winter highlight is the power-packed braised pork drumstick in a rich bone broth with cabbage, potato, seaweed, watercress and dough boys — a dish that indicates the direction the kitchen, headed by Ryan Clarke, may take things.

Logistics played a part in the very successful renovation that only required a three-and-a-half-week closure over what is traditionally a quieter time in the resort town. The new fitout, by hospitality designers Millé, features the natural timbers that Kai was built on, and the repurposing of unique fittings such as the koru decorated kickplates on the doors that were on the bar.

The updated fitout includes a pizza oven and chargrill for new menu items.
The updated fitout includes a pizza oven and chargrill for new menu items.

Nick is “stoked” by how the “elevated” Kai (he doesn’t like the word extension) has been received by the team and by the regular customers who he says have been most surprised by how much space has been given to the kitchen. “People assumed we would be adding extra seating to fit more people in, but my goal was to create a more efficient operation that would provide a better-quality experience all day, every day and ensure that all good adventures start and end at Kai.”

The new design, by Millé, incorporates natural timbers and repurposed fittings.
The new design, by Millé, incorporates natural timbers and repurposed fittings.

From vegetarian-friendly eateries to luxury spots.

Jesse Mulligan: A vegetarian-friendly K Rd restaurant and somewhere to splash some cash. Get out of the city centre to find some of the best accessible eateries.

Supper clubs are gathering steam, so what does it take to host one? Carly Gibbs pulls up a chair to learn how they work.

Jesse Mulligan: This Parnell spot is the best Japanese restaurant you’ve never heard of. This peaceful and attentive dining room serves up simple yet sublime sushi.

Share this article: