Field notes: something fishy

From sea to sauté, Jackie Lee Morrison gets to know Wellington's fishing fanatics.

By Jackie Lee Morrison
Photography by Ricky Situ

Featured in Capital #87
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Jackie Lee Morrison is a
British-Chinese former pastry
chef and owner of Lashings.
She lives in Wellington. After
over a decade in hospo, she
has hung up her whites, and
now spends her days as a
writer and editor. When she is
not writing, you can find her
eating all the noods and
petting all the dogs.

I confess that as a pastry chef and business owner, I didn’t have much to do with fish, and the wackiest I ever got with desserts was using Jerusalem artichokes in ice cream, or sticking Vegemite in a brownie. Smoked fish in a brownie? Er, maybe not.

So being sent to learn all about fish was an adventure. And all the people I met were fascinating and, of course, really, really into fish. Come dive in with me and meet the spear fisherman, the restaurateur, and the suppliers.

The spear fisherman

I meet Ricky Situ, amateur spear fisherman, in a car park just off Wahine Memorial Park. It feels like a very New Zealand experience – meeting some guy you don’t know, who texted a Google Maps location at 7am, to see some fish in a chiller in the back of his car.

Ricky produces a butterfish, kina the size of a dinner plate, and a blue moki as long as my arm, which he estimates to weigh 3kg. “I’ll probably get a week’s worth of dinners out of this one,” he tells me. “I’ll do fried fish, some katsu bowls, make stock from the bones.”

He caught all of this in two hours. But Ricky’s hardly a novice; fishing is in his blood. A keen hobbyist, Ricky’s father spent most of his free time fishing, with his son by his side. He died when Ricky was in his early teens, and Ricky carried on fishing as a way to honour and remember him. Watching people coming in and out of the water in wetsuits, he got curious about what they were up to, asked, and learned about free diving. He bought his first wetsuit at The Warehouse and headed to the rocks by the airport, where he’d heard you could find paua.

“I didn’t know what I was doing—I didn’t have a weight-belt and just kept bobbing back up.” Eventually, a friend introduced him to spearfishing, and Ricky was instantly hooked. “I mean, spearfishing — that sounds pretty badass.”

These days, he heads out into the water at least once or twice a week, and whatever he catches he eats or distributes amongst friends and family. While there’s an element of money-saving involved, Ricky loves being in the water; it “feels like home.” He’s one half of Zhū Creative, a photography and videography business, and the visual appeal of the water is part of the attraction for him. He talks excitedly about the way the light hits the water, and how the fish swim up to check him out, and shows me a video of an octopus sitting on his hand.

We sit on the beach. He pulls out his knife and cracks open the kina. He digs out a piece of coral as long as his palm, washes it off in the sea, and gives it to me. After the initial briny taste, the flavour is sweet and creamy. I’m not usually a fan (I’ve had some truly terrible kina in my time), but this is fresh and excellent.

The gathering of seafood ought to be approached always with respect, says Ricky. To his understanding of Māori and Pasifika attitudes he adds his own as a first-generation New Zealand-born Chinese. Seafood is very highly regarded in Chinese culture, he explains. “In Chinese culture our parents don’t really show love outwardly, but when I bring paua or some crayfish I caught to my mum, I can tell she’s really stoked.”

The suppliers

The owners of Awatoru, Scott and Maaike McNeill, live and run their business in Kapiti, which is pretty much the dream. On the morning I head out to Waikanae to meet them, it’s a “you can’t beat Wellington on a good day” kind of day. As we sit on the deck chatting, two dogs and a cat lying around us, it’s not hard to see why they moved here 13 years ago.

The couple moved so Scott, a former builder, could indulge his love of diving and fishing. Instead, he bought a small fishing boat. The way they tell it, neither of them really planned it (classic hospo story), but that’s how Awatoru was born.

Initially they ran a small fishing business dealing with paddle crabs. When the crabs disappeared, they expanded into specialised fishing off the coast, hunting venison around the Tararuas, and the Kahurangi and Fiordland National parks, and sourcing various other specialist products. The Awatoru product list is small but that’s intentional, and they’re passionate about it all. Just ask Scott about seaweed and watch his face light up.

Wholesaling to the fish markets was a tough game, so to improve the margin they approached local restaurants; that’s when things really took off. Their Wellington client list is a who’s who of the hospo scene: Shepherd, Rita, Logan Brown, Graze Wine Bar, Loretta — they’re all there among others.

From New Year to April is their tuna season. Scott heads out on the boat to troll for fish (not to be confused with trawl fishing — this is trailing a baited line, a slower and much more sustainable practice), which he despatches as soon as he catches them, using the Japanese ikejime method. He spikes the brain, cuts down the spinal cord, bleeds and guts the fish, then puts it straight into an ice slurry in a chiller. I’m familiar with this method from watching YouTube videos of Japanese chefs killing eels.

“The old rule is every hour the fish is in the chiller equates to one day less of shelf life,” Scott says. “But the slurry helps preserve them. There was a lot of trial and error.” I ask if he taught himself and he gives me a lopsided smile.

“Well, I got some tips from other fishermen. But also, like you, I watched YouTube.”

On a typical day in their busy season, they’ll take orders from clients, then head to their cold store in Ōtaki where they hand-pack and ship everything. During the summer they spend every moment either fishing or packing – “It gets really crazy,” Maaike says.

Sustainability and conservation are important to them; so is educating the chefs they work with about nature of the work they do.

“It’s really important to us that they get in touch with where their food comes from. Sometimes they’ll spend eight hours on the boat and catch nothing; it isn’t instant.”

The restaurateur

It’s 10am at Ortega Fish Shack and there are a couple of chefs in the cupboard-like kitchen, prepping the day’s catch for evening service. Sous Chef Eunan is on the mussels, cleaning and steaming them, while Ben is portioning snapper, frowning over a set of scales. Over an hour and a half while I chat with Davey McDonald, co-owner and maître d’, the rest of the brigade filter in, and pack elbow-to-elbow. There are pots and pans crammed onto the stove top and steam drifting out of the kitchen towards the bar. Seeing the boys greeting each other with “Chef,” a nod, and a grin, takes me back to the tight teams I’ve been a part of.

And, here at Ortega, they are tight. It’s a small family-run business, 13 years strong in Wellington, and many of their staff in for the long haul—Head Chef Teresa Pert has been with Davey since 2003, when they met working just next door.

“Real simple seafood is one of life’s treasures,” Davey tells me. It’s part of their ethos, reflected in not only how they cook the food – fresh, showcasing the product, and based on whatever catch comes in that day – but also how they source it. They won’t serve anything farmed, and trust their suppliers to guide them. Also important for Davey are the regulars.

“We want it to feel like a home away from home. We have regulars who want food we haven’t served for years, but we’ll make it for them.”

While the menu changes daily – sometimes even twice a day, depending on demand – some dishes will never leave the menu: the French toast fish sandwich, the ceviche, the pan-fried prawn tails, and the octopus (and yes, I know how they make it so tender, but have been sworn to secrecy). Also on the menu are the famous beef fillet, and corn-fed duck liver pâté: hangovers from Ortega’s past life as the much-loved Café Bastille. The steak is one of the best in the city – if you know, you know.

Davey admits he is old school. He hates emails, takes bookings by phone with a pencil, and grudgingly has a mid-range steamer oven in the kitchen. It’s the fanciest bit of equipment in the whole joint and, even with the new tech, he still prefers to use their ancient steamer baskets, stacked on top of the kitchen cupboards. It’s not how most restaurants these days run things but, frankly, Ortega is not most restaurants; it’s a little something special.

As we’re chatting, the door opens and an older gentleman strolls in. The restaurant is closed at the moment, but he’d like to make a booking. He’d also like a copy of the 20+ page wine menu, because he doesn’t have time to decide when he’s here for dinner; and are there any scallops available?

I ask Davey if this is how he does things – leaves the door open and people just walk in to make bookings? He grins. “Well, that guy did.”


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