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Kiwi Kai – Published Nelson Mail 04.04.17

Kiwi Kai is a Nelson business making waves in the processed seafood industry, turning beautiful New Zealand seafood into delicious treats and meals for you and me to enjoy.

Reni Wereta-Gargiulo is the owner, business manager, recipe designer and is in charge of production in her small commercial kitchen at home; in other words a one-woman-business-dynamo.

Christmas before last we bought some of her canapes for our staff Christmas Lunch and. I have been keeping an eye on this quality producer since then but it is one product that motivated me to finally meet the woman and find out more about her – whitebait pies!

We bought ours at Guytons and were really impressed with the quality of the pies, from the crispy pastry to the whitebait and egg filling they are a perfect lunch treat with a nice fresh salad.

For someone to be able to produce such beautiful food there has to be a back-story and Wereta-Gargiulo’s is one with a real food and hospitality focus.

With a diverse background in marketing, promotion, business administration and tourism along with the entrepreneurial skills she inherited from ancestors on her mother’s side and coupled with her Maori values and heritage on her father’s side she has a strong foundation that drives her passion for business.

Both lineages also have a love for seafood so “I was around food a lot and it is quite natural for us as Maori to give Manaaki (everything about hospitality in one word) with guests, you care for them from the time they walk in the door until they leave and part of that for me is making sure I give them healthy food.”

“At home grew up with wonderful food, mum is Scottish Irish and introduced dad to vegetables like asparagus, eggplant and other foods he had never seen before then dad would cook a lot on the weekends making things like Maori breads and cooking mutton birds (banished to the back yard to cook those) and crayfish.

Growing up in Dunedin her father would her girlfriends if they would like some ice cream and he would send them to the freezer to get the treat “but it was full of fish heads, eels and crayfish, it generated a few screams from young girls.”

Wereta-Gargiulo has worked in the tourism sector since she was 18, working in places like Milford Sound and in the hotel industry in Queenstown for several years in the 1980’s when it was quite different to what it is now and was an industry where she was surrounded by beautiful foods every day.

“Then I was a mother in Nelson who loved making food for the family, friends and guests; my love of food grew into a passion and I learned how to make dad’s marinated raw fish and other traditional Maori foods, I had a marinated seafood stall at the very first Kai Fest at Whakatu Marae in about 2008 and the marinated fish sold really well.

That stall resulted in her doing some catering at the Marae where she produced food that has to be healthy, no matter who they are catering for, at lots of events from 50 people to 300 at a Rugby World Cup event and for various local and international delegations that visit the Marae, “there is a real focus is on Maori health at these events and we always highlight Nelson seafood.”

During this time she also needed a regular job and food was an obvious industry for her to get involved with, “I started the Kiwi Kai business, it was a bit of a gamble but I didn’t really care, I knew I had beautiful food and it would sell, all I had to do was to get people to try it.”

The focus of Kiwi Kai products is on healthy food options, “except maybe the pies but they are delicious” Wereta-Gargiulo says with her usual beaming smile.

“We get fresh food every day and it has to be local where possible and we work with what is in season.

“We are trying to introduce people to marinated raw fish as much as possible because it is such a healthy and delicious food option and our other products like our seafood pates don’t have any preservatives in them which can be a wee bit of an issue in places like supermarkets because the shelf life is only about ten days rather than weeks like similar products they have.”

Kiwi Kai also has a range of soups that reflect Wereta-Gargiulo’s heritage, flavours like creamed paua soup keeps that traditional link to her Maori culture while her almost-world-famous oyster and kina shots are a lovely way to introduce people to really tasty raw and marinated New Zealand seafood, “they are really popular at the markets, I see people walk along, glance at my stall, do a double-take and either run away or come over with smiles lighting up their faces.”

Wereta-Gargiulo is also really strong on sustainability, something else she credits ot her Maori heritage, “we grew up only catching enough food to eat and dad caught fresh seafood as we needed it, there was never any waste.”

“Respect for the resource which is a strong part of Maori culture, Kaitiakitanga (Sustainability) is very important to Kiwi Kai and it sits right at the top of any decision making and she is currently developing a new sustainability document for Kiwi Kai which will weave throughout the business.”

She only uses sustainable fish species, refuses to use palm sugar in any of her recipes and only uses organic eggs, Oysters from the Okiwi Bay area are the Pacific oyster that she says has a wonderful rich flavour making it beautiful in pies, “gives better depth of flavour compared to Bluff oysters”.

So what about the thing that really grabbed my attentions, whitebait pies? “We source our whitebait from Cascade in Fiordland who are one of the original commercial whitebait providers, “for generations they have been catching whitebait that is beautifully clean and consistent, it is a little bit dearer but we don’t skimp on it in the pies.”

“I sort of just fell into making pies, because I try and have very little waste and want to extract as much value as I can from every piece of fish when I had little bit of seafood left over or some stock left over I needed to find a a use for it so thought I would try using them in a pie and people loved them.”

Just how good are these pies – Kiwi Kai won the New Zealand Farmers Market Best from the Water Award in 2016  with their oyster and snapper pie that has a coconut cream sauce.

“When we started selling them at the market someone asked if we had a vegetarian pie and I told them no, we are Maori and we do seafood, but I now do have a vegetarian pie with shitake mushroom, ginger, leeks, watercress vegetable mix.

Other than the pies all of the Kiwi Kai range of tasty, healthy foods are also all gluten free.

As with many small, successful businesses the success can be a problem, growth is hard to manage so Kiwi Kai doesn’t advertise, Wereta-Gargiulo has had an app developed by a local company so you can pre-order food for lunch on Thursday and Friday from your mobile phone for delivery and if you want to find her at the market the app will take you right to her stall.

The app works for both Apple and Android and includes things like an electronic loyalty card, get ten ticks and get $10 off your next purchase.

There are some exciting things in the pipeline at Kiwi Kai and you will always find Wereta-Gargiulo at the Saturday market or her products in several outlets around Nelson, including her whitebait pies at Westmeat in Richmond.

Kiwi Kai Awards

  • Winner “Best From The Water Section” FMNZ Awards 2016
  • Winner “People’s Choice Award” Marlborough Wine & Food Festival 2015
  • Highly Commended “Best From The Water Section”  FMNZ Awards 2015

I have been writing a regular wine column for The Nelson Mail newspaper since 2000.

Unfortunately the column space is not big enough to include my thoughts on all of the many wines I taste. Hopefully this blog will fix that. It also gives me somewhere to archive the many columns I write. I will also include some favourite recipes from my dearly beloved who loves cooking and of course because wine and food simply go together. I will also point you in the direction of upcoming events and websites I think are great. Enjoy, Neil

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