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Esther Lewis loves to get things fizzing, frothing and fermenting. She talks to Jacqui Gibson about her first love.
The sun’s pouring in the windows of Wellington pickler Esther Lewis’s latest venture — a fermentery-cum-bakery and soon a café on Arthur Street in Te Aro.
The 36-year-old hasn’t settled on a menu for the capital’s newest eatery or landed on an opening date. All she’ll say is she and business partners Alex and Tim Grace can’t wait to knock the former Asian Kitchen into shape, hire a team of wait staff and get diners through the doors.
For now, the partially furnished space is ideal for Tim’s morning shift cranking out handmade donuts under his and Alex’s Little Dough Co brand. It’s spot on too for Esther’s afternoon shift fermenting and bottling goodies like her turmeric sauerkraut and chilli carrot pickle for various specialty grocers and retailers around the country.
Leasing the ex-diner and setting up Eats Ltd with Alex and Tim represents a big step as a business, Esther tells me, grinning with pride. “Fermenting is my first love — and finally I’ve got the space to really go for it. It feels amazing.”
A graduate of Wellington’s Good Food Boost mentoring programme run by the Sustainable Business Network, Esther launched her signature line of pickles, preserves, and baked treats in 2019.
The move followed decades of hospitality work, serving and feeding customers in some of the city’s best-loved cafes, and almost 10 years raising kids. But it was at Milk Crate, her husband Morgan’s cafe, that her longing to ferment really took hold.
“Years before, at People’s Coffee in Newtown, I’d started to make a pickled beetroot for their menu. It literally flew out the door, so I knew there was a demand for it.” With their kids Emma and Isaac at school, she finally had time to experiment, making condiments for sandwiches, such as pickled mushroom, sauerkraut, and a vegan almond butter.
“Then I created whole new product and recipe lines, featuring flavoured almond milks, sauerkraut and pickles, and chia breakfast cups before they were really a thing. It was all about making food that was healthy and good for your sense of well-being.”
Right now, says Esther walking towards her roomy commercial kitchen, she’s back in research and development mode. As evidence, 20-litre tubs filled with Esther’s first-ever batch of kimchi are stacked in the chiller.
Opening a lid, she reveals a pulpy, rich blend of pickled wong bok, daikon, carrot, spring onion, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, and gochugaru (Korean chilli) Then she lifts the cover of an another vibrantly-coloured new product — her signature kim-chup.
She tells me both products took months of careful testing and “breaking a few rules” before eventually going on to star in Lucky Burger’s Lil Kim-chi burger for Wellington on a Plate. Punters paid $22 to devour the burger made of sticky fried chicken, cucumber salad, Esther’s kimchi, gochujang mayo, and a Brezelmania sesame milk bun.
Esther’s kim-chup was the dipping sauce for Lucky Burger’s shoestring fries.
That’s not the only fermented treat that made its way from Esther’s commercial kitchen into the bellies of festival-goers this year. Her take on the traditional Mexican tepache (a fermented beverage typically made with pineapple rinds and spices like cinnamon) was a key ingredient in Lulu’s green tea infused whiskey and white rum cocktail.
“It’s been amazing to collaborate with some of Wellington’s most inspiring foodies this year,” says Esther, munching on a homemade rosemary and onion savoury granola bar. “I hate those rubbish sweet muesli bars you buy in the supermarket,” she says. “So I made a really yummy savoury bar that tastes like roast chicken stuffing.”
Sipping on peppermint tea, she explains: “I’ve learned very few people are doing what I’m doing, yet there’s a huge appetite for the kinds of foods I make. Fermenting isn’t easy to get right. It’s a volatile way of producing food — so you really do have to give it your time and devotion.”
Esther says this year’s Wellington on a Plate festival theme, Out of Place, emphasised improvisation and going against the grain, giving her the freedom to venture into new territory. “I love making the classic pickled condiments and spreads your nana makes that many of us grew up with. But I also love collaboration and being inspired by others. This year’s festival was a chance to do that and have a bit of fun at the same time.”
Originally an Elam-trained painter and sculptor, Esther says she wants the fermented food she makes to delight people visually and on the palate. She also wants to give them something healthy to add to their meals.
“I grew up in Matakana, north of Auckland, with hippie parents who loved throwing dinner parties. So food was always a source of enjoyment at our house. It meant I came to books on the pleasures of healthy food like Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions cookbook pretty early on.
“To me, everyone should have access to food that’s both nutritious and gives you joy. Fermented foods fit the bill perfectly. They give you these distinctive, strong, slightly sour flavours. They promote good bacteria, which is said to be great for digestion. And they make any dish sing.”