My favourite table: Helen Lehndorf

CHARMED: Helen Lehndorf says Stage Door cafe has an intimate vibe.
LEILANI HATCH/Fairfax NZ
CHARMED: Helen Lehndorf says Stage Door cafe has an intimate vibe.

I've been coming to Stage Door for probably about 10 years. Their main barista's name is Damian, and pretty much when I walk in the door he starts making a long black for me. That's why you like your local place because they get to know you. I'm quite fussy about coffee. Fraser, my partner, roasts his own coffee and we have a Rancilio Silvia coffee machine and I can have extremely good coffee at home, so therefore if I'm going to buy a coffee it has to be really good. And Damian makes the best long blacks in Palmerston North, hands down.

Stage Door has a nice intimate vibe and you can people-watch through the windows. It's got a busy vital kind of feel to it. It's one of those cafes where you can do anything you need to do. I have regular work meetings in here. I go to a two-hour yoga class on a Saturday morning which is called "coffee pose" because after yoga probably more than half the class stroll down the street and have coffee here. That's probably the opposite of yoga, but it's just what we do. I quite often sit and do writing in here, the staff don't mind if you sit and have coffee for ages.

This is going to sound like such a boring, quotidian thing, but they have the most sublime savoury muffins ever. I think they must be laced with something because they're really hard to walk past.

When I was growing up, my dad was a freezing works worker and a butcher. Because of his job we got free meat, and I grew up with a very meat- intensive diet. I was hanging around the freezing works a lot, so I saw in a very direct way what was involved in killing animals. When I was about 13 I got really interested in the punk movement and that came with a whole lot of political awareness. As you are when you're young and in that first flush of political awareness, I was like, "No! I'm not doing this anymore." My parents didn't take it very well. I would just eat veges and stuff, they certainly didn't cook anything different for me to eat.

I was vegetarian for a decade, but when I had children I found I was cooking a meat dish for Fraser - who cycles and needs meat for the protein - a vegetarian dish for me and then a child-friendly dish for the children. It started to drive me a bit mental, so I ditched my vegetarianism. Another reason I stopped being vegetarian is because I get a lot of free meat from my dad; he's a hunter and a fisher. We get a lot of trout and venison and pheasant, which tastes like a strong, gamey combination of chicken and lamb.

My favourite thing that we ate growing up, which is really hard and expensive to get, and even if I buy it never tastes how it did when I was a kid, is whitebait. I used to go with Dad but I've never gone whitebaiting independently of him.

If I wasn't living with my family I would go back to being a vegetarian. Firstly, I just prefer vegetarian food on a purely taste level. My favourite meal would be red beans and rice; there's a Michael Franti song called Red Beans and Rice, and the chorus goes 'red beans and rice make everything nice' and I agree. Secondly, I'm a keen vege gardener so I see what goes into growing vegetables and it makes me appreciate them more. There are definitely plants and vegetables in my writing, I'm a bit obsessed with them. I don't think meat is the best use of resources globally and we could feed a lot more people if we didn't have such an emphasis on meat.

Our favourite thing to do is to invite people over for a pot luck dinner. I think they're great, because you have the fun of having lots of people over without the stress of having to cook lots of food. We've got a lovely porch which is very sheltered and you can be outside in any kind of weather. I bought this fantastic old church trestle table, it seats about 12 people. So we sit around the trestle table and have dinner and then have a campfire. My biggest tip for holding a pot luck for when you've got lots of guests and children is to have icecreams in cones for dessert, because the children really love it and think they're getting something really special when all they're getting is a tablespoon of icecream. So it's pretty thrifty, and there's not zillions of dishes.

I think the best food experiences are usually more about the people you are with than the food on your plate. When you're having a great conversation with a friend, just about anything can taste good.

Helen Lehndorf's The Comforter is out at the end of this month. See seraphpress.co.nz for more details.

The details:

Stage Door Cafe, 90 King St, Palmerston North

Open: Monday to Friday 7.30am to 5pm, Saturday 8am to 4pm, Sunday 9am to 4pm

Phone: 06 359 2233

The Dominion Post