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Making a feast

Denise Irvine talks to Vicki Ravlich-Horan and Julia Clarke about putting Feast on the Waikato’s Easter table

The motivation is simple:  run a key event at Easter that celebrates the Waikato’s amazing food and producers, make it a joyous occasion that builds pride in the region.

The challenge is harder: find the money, the sponsorship, the people, places and producers to make it fly.

Feast Waikato 2021 – March 31-April 5 - has been a tough beast to deliver, but as Vicki Ravlich-Horan says, “we never give up, that’s our mantra.” Vicki is the founder of Waikato Food Inc (WFI), the not-for-profit hospitality promotional group that runs Feast and other events. She’s talking about the somewhat bumpy path to this particular Feast, over coffee with Julia Clarke, WFI’s project and events manager.

Feast 2021 has largely been cooked up at Vicki’s kitchen table or Julia’s office desk, and there is a board that shares the vision and the work.  Vicki and Julia have made countless phone calls and pitches to chefs, restaurants, funders and sponsors. They joke that some people probably said ‘yes’ to stop the stream of calls.

Julia skims through the programme, counts heads; there are 26 different functions ranging from big-ticket affairs with celebrity chefs to smaller lunches, dinners and free events hosted by local eateries and groups throughout the region. “We’re really proud of this, there’s great variety,” says Julia.

A quick recap: the first Feast celebration was held in 2019, the more ambitious 2020 programme was launched on a February balmy night at Hamilton Gardens, and then it became another casualty of the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.

“We lost momentum,” says Vicki. “We should have been signing people up from one Feast to the next, but we lost a year. And people in hospitality are exhausted, there is so much unpredictability. We said we’ll find a way to make it work. We’ll pull together on it. We are stronger together; there are so many benefits in collegiality.”

The invitation went far and wide to hospitality businesses to devise a Feast event; stalwart supporter restaurants such as Mr Pickles, Hayes Common, Cinnamon, Keystone, Smith and McKenzie and others came forward, a progressive dinner in Hamilton’s CBD was locked in, the bones were there.

Vicki says Feast is an opportunity for hospo people to showcase the essence of their business.  She mentions The Keg Room, at Rototuna, known as a dog-friendly place. It’s doing a Hoppin’ Hounds Egg Hunt, where people can bring their pooch to what is believed to be the country’s first Easter egg hunt for dogs. As well, there will be wine (from Dog Point Vineyard) and platters for the owners.

“Cinnamon, in St Andrews, is doing BBQ, Burgers and Beers on its terrace, perfectly pitched for a brilliant café at the heart of its community. There are opportunities for new places, too, such as Lykke Café in Frankton, to be part of it, and Amanda Graham’s Taste Asian Flavours Walking Tour.”

Feast also looked for some top culinary names to be the headliners. Julia says there was great excitement when Ben Bayly, former Te Awamutu-boy-turned-celebrity-chef, agreed to cook dinner in his old hometown.

This was one of three key things that made her and Vicki feel they’d nailed it. “You work on a lot of things; it’s great to pull them off.”

Their keys:

  1. Ben’s dinner, offering a taste of the food he’s cooking at his acclaimed new restaurant, Ahi, in Auckland.
  2. The Vetro Italian Festival, a family day at Vetro, in Rostrevor St, embracing pizza, pasta, gelato, music, and all things Italian.
  3. Dononvans Chocolate Challenge, the perfect mix of a Waikato chocolate business sponsoring a chocolate competition for eateries at Easter. The challenge will run over Feast, participants will be asked to create a chocolate dish, and the winner will be decided by public vote.

Vicki and Julia are also pleased to see events spread throughout the Waikato. Among these is a three-course Raglan dinner titled The Land of Milk and Honey, highlighting the work and produce of Hunt and Gather Bee Co, Unique Food Geeks, Dreamview Creamery, Soul Food Farm and Raglan Fish.

In Cambridge there is Forage to Table, a pop-up outdoor lunch celebrating the season with local food, held at Cambridge Community Garden. This has been devised by Nicola Turner, behaviour changer at Cambridge environmental consultants Mainstream Green. Nicola is a new face at Feast, she knows the work of Waikato Food Inc, and says she is proud of some of the cool things happening in the Waikato that aim for greater sustainability.

“We have a great community garden in Cambridge, the Feast lunch will showcase this; food is the thing that can bring us together to share a message about being a bit lighter on the planet.”  The lunch will be super local, cooked by the team at Cambridge’s Hidden Lake Hotel, using vegetables from the garden, as well as ingredients from nearby suppliers.

Feast and Waikato Food Inc run on a modest budget. There is short-term funding support from WEL Energy and Hamilton City Council, and some much appreciated sponsorships for Feast. But Vicki and Julia say WFI (almost 10 years old) needs sustainable funding, stronger management systems, and more paid staff (two-and-a-half people) to hit the next level. At present, Julia is the only paid staff member.

Says Vicki: “We are passionate doers. We feel we’ve barely scratched the surface of what we could achieve.”



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