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Future of Christchurch food scene 'incredibly bright'

Gatherings was just a few months old when it took out Best New Metropolitan Restaurant at the Cuisine Good Food Awards in August 2017. Chef and owner Alex Davies, who lives in Lyttelton with singer-songwriter Bryony Matthews, shares some thoughts off the back of his restaurant's exciting win.

How did it feel to win Best New Metropolitan Restaurant at the Cuisine Good Food Awards?

It was incredible, we had only been open for six months. We were on people’s radar because Gatherings had been a pop up restaurant prior to us opening 'officially' but to be recognized at such a high level so early on in the restaurant’s life was epic. To walk on the stage with Bryony carrying our unborn child was like a dream.

What’s it like having the spotlight firmly on your restaurant now?

Busy! It was always what I wanted from the restaurant. I want people to look at our space and I wanted people to talk about what it is we are doing, in the hope it inspires others to go down a similar path. The spotlight has also helped show the shift in culture that is taking place at the moment in Christchurch. 

How would you describe Gatherings’ philosophy and your style of cooking in a nutshell?

Our focus is sustainability – be that through the sourcing of food from organic farms throughout Canterbury or the fact it is plant-based, cutting down on emissions from animal agriculture. We hope to inspire more innovative ways of being sustainable and to break the cliché of a vegetarian restaurant as ‘alternative’, by considering where things come from and how they were made but still offering something very considered.

The style of cooking is a pure expression of now, based on the season. It takes the best of a specific time and place, making the most of the produce grown around us. If so much effort has been put into growing a beetroot, for example, why would I then add a million things to it? I simply want to show the beauty of a beetroot grown well and that’s what my food tries to do. We also offer a very informal, relaxed style of service as we feel this style of hospitality is more a reflection of New Zealand culture.

When did you develop your philosophy of conscious consumption?

I’ve always thought about how my actions can influence others. When learning to cook, and seeing the far-reaching implications of something we do three times a day – something as simple what we put on a plate, I felt it my duty to talk about it and try to show others my food philosophy through my plates and restaurant space.

What is on your menu at the moment – heading into spring?

I was discussing this with a friend and grower recently. We are just reaching the end of the root vegetables that have been in storage or clamped and entering what is known as ‘the hunger gap’. We will be using a lot of young shoots, leaves, radishes and asparagus until the vegetables have found their feet and the soils begin warming up again.

As well as being a restaurant, Gatherings is also advertised as a ‘living wine bar’ – what do you mean by that?

Living wines or natural wines as they are also known are when grapes are farmed and wine is made naturally. They tend to be organic or undergoing certification and are made without anything being added or taken away – that means little to no sulphur and no filtration. It makes the wines more interesting as each bottle has a life of its own. We sell only living wines and have a small bar which is open between 4pm and 6pm just for drinks, where people can enjoy the constantly changing wine list and eat from our revolving bar menu.

Previously you worked as a chef at Shop Eight in beautiful New Regent Street – how are you enjoying your new restaurants’ location?

I love it. I had done my time on New Regent Street; it was fun but I still wanted and needed a small restaurant space with a bit of history. Carlton Courts, which is on the fringes of the city centre, became available and it just made sense. It was made in 1931 and miraculously survived the earthquakes.

Tell us about your time working out on a farm in Swannanoa after you finished up at Shop Eight – did it give you a new appreciation of the hard work that goes into producing food?

Absolutely, I learnt so much through my time working on the farm and gained an understanding of the whole food production cycle from seed to plant to plate. Organic farmers put in so much effort in maintaining healthy soils, which provide longevity for our planet, for such little return. From a chef’s perspective, it taught me about the ecosystems that exist within the plant world and I feel it has helped me create a better expression of the landscape through the plates I create.

What do you like about living in your part of the city?

I love living in Lyttelton as I know a lot of people within the community; it has great bars and cafes like the Lyttelton Coffee Company and there’s something special about living on the rim of an extinct volcano. Looking out across the peninsula every day helps me get up in the morning.

Who and where are the producers you source food from?

Primarily I get all my fresh produce from a friend based up in the Cashmere Hills and a couple based out in Swannanoa. For other bits and pieces, I use Piko as my wholesalers as they are predominantly organic and source as locally as possible. 

Can you tell us about Gatherings’ fit out, including its amazing furniture?

Gatherings is built around a community of craftspeople and the skills of people on our doorstep. Our fit out is all from recycled materials. Tim McGurk, a friend and local carpenter of immense talent, used recycled timber and bits of 'scrap' sitting around his yard to come up with the bulk of it. To him, gatherings were about his family coming together for picnics. Tim believes that people connect through sharing a seat, so he created picnic-esque style seating using recycled native timbers. It is just stunning. The kitchen is fitted out with up-cycled kitchen bits and pieces from around the place and sits in an old brick garage we painted white.

What are your plans for Gatherings and your career as a chef into the future? Anything exciting on the horizon?

Nothing immediately. Gatherings is really special to me and has been years in the making so my focus lies there. I also have a baby due in two months so am putting all my focus into that at the moment!

Before you opened Gatherings on Carlton Courts you hosted several ‘pop up events’ around the city – are you still doing that?

Yes and no. I am in the process of organising a couple but with no fixed dates and not in Christchurch. One is in a greengrocer in Dunedin as part of the Food Design Institute at Otago Polytechnic. Another is a collaboration with my old head chef Jeremy Rameka of Pacifica in Napier, which was recently named Restaurant of the Year. Gatherings is also hosting the Cult Project – a pop-up food series based in Auckland at the end of October which is exciting.

What are some key events and/or dates foodies should keep their eye on in Christchurch and Canterbury the coming months?

Roots Restaurant is hosting Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz – one of the best restaurants in the world – to celebrate their 5th birthday in mid-November, which is mind blowing and set to be epic. I think things such as this are really setting the tone for the future of Christchurch's food scene which is looking incredibly bright.

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