Culinary Harbour Cities
Keeping it local with Orphans Kitchen
New Zealand friends and business owners Josh Helm and Tom Hishon met at a mutual friend’s birthday while they were on their OE’s (overseas experience) in London. Josh and Tom became fast friends given their shared interest in food and wine. In his own words, Tom “was working my ass off” at various Michelin star restaurants and Josh had come to London via working a vintage in South Africa. The friends lived and travelled together during their time overseas and always spoke about eventually opening something up when they returned home.
Tom and Josh moved back to New Zealand opening Orphans Kitchen in 2013 in an old villa at 118 Ponsonby Road, Auckland. The emphasis here is on simplicity, sustainability and ingenuity. With bee hives on the roof (accessible through climbing out the bathroom window), sculptural dried plant arrangements hanging from the light-shades in the upstairs dining room and downstairs table-tops made from thin-planed pieces of macrocarpa wood, you are constantly reminded that the food you are about to be served is from this particular place.
In 2017 the friends teamed up with baker Patrick Welzenbach to open an organic bakery in Pt Chevalier (and also an out-post store in Parnell) called Daily Bread.
For this interview I spoke with Orphans Kitchen’s executive chef and co-owner Tom Hishon.
You've just celebrated 5 years running Orphans Kitchen. What does it mean to have made it five years?
Being open for five years is quite a special feeling. When people throw these numbers around you don't realise how special it actually is until you hit that mark. It has been amazing because we started off just wanting to provide something that was true to ourselves, something unique which we thought we could do differently and not really recognising the impact it might have.
The reason you get to five years is because you've been sharing your knowledge and wisdom with those around you and that's what I love about cooking is that the more you put out there and give to those around you the more that naturally it comes back to.
This year for our 5th birthday we had Douglas McMaster from Silo Brighton in the UK over for a collaboration dinner - he cooked for two nights with us and through that we learnt so much from him and I’m sure he had a similar experience.
Food is a global movement. It is good to surround yourself with people who are doing good things in the industry. By doing that you are giving the customer an experience that is unique, but also from a creative perspective you get to have a chance to engage with other chefs and come up with something special. It may only be for one night, but it’s a powerful thought process to go through and gives the entire team a great learning opportunity and confidence.
What is the Orphans Kitchen philosophy and has it changed since you’ve opened?
The philosophy here has and will continually evolve. When we opened we wanted to cook delicious food and make it accessible for all people. But, through the five year journey you realise there are certain food systems that aren't so good and things that need change, so we adapt as we go and hope that our choices can influence other people’s decisions.
For example, we weren't organic when we started and now we really strive to use mostly organic producers and all our fish is sustainably line-caught. We don't have much of an emphasis on farmed meat and we try and come up with better alternatives.
The impact that we have our land is crucial to future generations’ wellbeing as well as the rivers, oceans and everything that lives in these ecosystems. We can help restore our land by choosing organic and biodynamic, produce, meat, grains etc. We like to educate the diner and I feel like we have a huge responsibility and purpose for being here. Ultimately, if we abuse those privileges then we won't be here for very long.
You’ve built a larder for Orphans Kitchen made up of often small and dynamic producers from throughout New Zealand. Why is knowing who your producers are and where the food comes from important to you?
We are trying to empower the farmer and as a chef I have a huge role to play in this. If we can make our farmers famous by telling their stories of produce and provenance through deliciousness the more our consumers will want the same in their homes.
Chefs get a little too much of the limelight. We should be writing about these humble people, they are the real champions doing the day in day out grind. So that's what we do here at Orphans Kitchen and Daily Bread is sing that song for our food heros.
We do as much direct trade with growers as possible. What that means is that we try and cut out the middle-man and work direct with the grower so that they get a better price and we can give them positive feedback that what they’re doing isn’t unappreciated, these relationships are precious to me and my team.
Same sort of vibe from Daily Bread. We want the customer to be asking their baker (even if they don't come to Daily Bread): “what are the ingredients? It says wheat, but where is that from? How do I know that's from NZ?”
Over 90% of wheat in New Zealand is imported and the majority comes from Australia and is treated with pesticides and herbicides. Daily Bread is spray free organic and only uses grains grown in here New Zealand. It's hard to do, but we want to give people a healthy alternative.
Orphans Kitchen co-owners Tom Hishon and Josh Helm in the upstairs dining room during staff meal
Orphans Kitchen sourdough ice-cream with crystalised mead and honey nectar
Lighting fixtures and floral decoration at Orphans Kitchen
A bee suit next to aprons on the wall at Orphans Kitchen
Orphans Kitchen - inside view
The hive at Orphans Kitchen on the roof of the restaurant
Tom Hishon preparing the fire for dinner service
Why add another task to your already busy kitchen operation and have your own hives on the roof at Orphans Kitchen?
I know crazy right, but It's about being resourceful. We can harvest honey from our roof that bees make, (light bulb moment) - lets do it! We’ve also learnt so much from our bees and in turn so have our customers. There are so many positive spin-offs that come from a choice like that.
We've had bees all over the city. We took bees to Josh's house and one to Daily Bread bakery. Since we've put the bees on the roof we've been amazed by how many other city places have followed and we've met so many people with city hives.
Mainly Josh and I take care of the bees, but when it comes to harvest then everyone mucks in because you're processing kilos and kilos of honey. At the moment it is pretty low maintenance, but you've got to make sure that we're on top of the varroa mite. Our first year we got American foulbrood which is a disease where you have to get rid of the whole hive, which was really unfortunate. Fortunately we haven't had any other issues with the hives since then.
The hierarchy of a hive is actually very similar to that of a restaurant. Inside the hive the queen bee doesn't necessarily make many decisions, it's a collective. So the collective decide what the queen is going to do, like whether she is going to produce a new queen and then that queen will fly off and make a swarm. There is a collective energy here and in the hive. In hospitality if people's values don't align there will be friction. I guess that's when you know that you have a successful business or restaurant is when the whole team around you understand what the vision is.
The same aspiration towards resourcefulness is why we support an organic city farm like Kelmarna Community Gardens. Food doesn't need to travel. The best food is local and what's around us in our environment, more so than food that is imported. The more local we look, especially in cities more so than ever, there are great kick backs that happen when you source in that way. For example, there isn't as much packaging. You put leaves in a big crate at the garden and bring it back here to the kitchen. It's so great for us to be able to do that in our own community.
Tell us a little bit about this honey inspired sourdough ice-cream dish?
We try and do everything at the restaurant with things that are abundant. It's about being resourceful and if we can do something that is delicious, cost effective, has impact then that is unique to what we do and who we are. The sourdough ice-cream is case in point.
The ice-cream dish we photographed is fermented oat sourdough from the bakery with crystallised mead, salt and a little bit of honey nectar on top. At the beginning of the meal here diners have our sourdough with burnt butter which is quite decadent (a delicious sweet freshly baked sour-dough with caramelised butter). So at the end of the meal you're having something similar which is savoury, almost cleansing and not overly sweet.
What does the next five years (and beyond) hold for Orphans Kitchen?
We would love to still be here, keep doing what we’re doing. That’s the goal - to become an institution.
Hospitality is a lifestyle and you're never going to make copious amounts of money, but if you do things right you are going to get a lot of joy and satisfaction from the people you work with and the people you meet on the journey.
I think that's why when we got to five years it was quite amazing looking back. It is important when you're on that journey to stop and have those moments when you do look back and appreciate what you're doing. One day I won't be doing this anymore and I don't want to get to that point and realise I missed it. I make a real effort when it is busy and the vibe is electric to stop, stand and listen in a corner of the restaurant and try to capture those memories.