Setting the kitchen agenda
Few people can make oats a pantry must-have but when Ruth Pretty recommends something, her devotees listen.
When Pretty included steel-cut oats in a porridge recipe that ran in Your Weekend in early July, the Kapiti branch of Commonsense Organics was inundated. Three months later, manager Jeanette Watson says demand is still high and the Wellington branch has started selling the Canadian-grown oats, which cost $6.99 a kilo, in its bulk bins.
"Before Ruth wrote about steel-cut oats, no-one had ever heard of them," Watson says. "Her recipes have a lot of power."
Pretty's name is synonymous with good food and going the extra mile. Even the steel-cut oats porridge is a multilayered affair involving rhubarb and raspberry compote, vanilla bean custard and a crunchy topping. Her eponymous catering company has fed the great and the good, from visiting royals and foreign VIPs to guests at corporate events, gala dinners and fancy weddings, for 30-odd years.
Ruth Pretty Catering is all crisp aprons, delectable "passarounds" (canapes) and discreet, professional service.
Even the tea towels, snowy white with a purple stripe, are stylish.
Along with masterminding catering events most days of the week, most weeks of the year, 59-year-old Pretty holds regular cooking classes in the catering kitchen at Springfield, her picture-perfect 11-hectare estate in Te Horo. Springfield also doubles as a venue for functions, particularly weddings and special parties, with Pretty's own home and garden called into service whenever necessary.
She judges charity bake-offs, lends a hand to City Mission fundraising efforts and writes books. Days off are rare.
"I suppose it is quite busy," she says. "But when you have a seven-day-a-week business, you get used to always working."
Pretty, then Ruth Osboldstone, grew up in Karori, with two sisters and a brother. Her father ran a grocer shop, then opened one of Wellington's first supermarkets in the late 1960s.
She remembers working in the shop after school from the age of seven, and fulltime in the holidays when at Wellington Girls'.
"People say, You wouldn't have a child working in a shop like that now, but I wanted to do it. I really enjoyed getting money and saving it up. I loved stacking the shelves and doing all those things."
After leaving school, she went to Victoria University for two years, "where I just mucked around, really", studying drama and English. After university she drifted into various jobs, working for a while as a production assistant, getting small parts in television dramas and advertisements and being an office dogsbody at the Arts Council.
A lucky break came when a friend told her about a job at Memsahib, a posh dress shop. "He said, You'll love it, there's lots of drama. And I did love it. That was where a lot of my evolution started to happen. I was a very good salesperson and I thrived on it. I was there for about three years and it was great making people feel good about what you dressed them in. People still come up to me and say, I remember you sold me this wonderful dress. I always say, Really? I hope you're not still wearing it!"
It was while she was working at Memsahib that Pretty began to think about having a business of her own. She and friend David Jordan put their heads together and decided they should open a restaurant. "We both liked cooking at home and we just hatched this idea. We just did it."
On the day they opened Marbles in the Kelburn Villas, her mother did the flowers and they had to run to the butcher to borrow money for a float.
"I remember we opened for lunch on the first day and we didn't think anyone would come. But they did."
Marbles quickly became the hottest ticket in town, where the menu included coconut-battered fish and banana kebabs with curry sauce and apricot and cream cheese-stuffed chicken breasts wrapped in bacon. The dessert trolley was laden with black bottom pie and an amaretto-drenched fruit salad.
"It was the '80s," Pretty says, rolling her eyes. "But people still ask me for those recipes."
She met Paul Pretty in the midst of Marbles' heyday, when she moved house and he came to give her a quote for shifting her stuff. "He tells people he looked in the fridge and all there was in it was a cauliflower," she laughs. They married in 1983.
While Marbles gave Pretty a taste for hospitality, it left her little time to explore its opportunities. She and Jordan eventually sold the restaurant in 1987 and the Prettys talked about starting up a new restaurant in the house they had bought in Te Horo. But things didn't go exactly to plan - in 1988, Paul Pretty was sentenced to 21 months in prison on charges of theft and breaking and entering. His creditors had failed to pay their bills and he had taken matters into his own hands to seek redress. His sentence was later reduced to nine months.
That's ancient history now, but she looks upon it as a turning point in their lives.
"It was a terrible time, of course, but I do think that if all that hadn't happened, then we wouldn't have moved out here. Things would have been very different."
Once they'd settled into the house at Springfield, Pretty began tentative steps into catering after requests from former Marbles diners. She'd prepare everything in her kitchen, pack it into the car, and drive wherever the customer dictated. Before long, demand (and the local health inspector) meant she needed bigger premises, so they built the catering kitchen. The property has grown organically ever since.
Pretty says catering has allowed her to pull together all the strands of her life experience - the love of hospitality and food, the drama and theatricality of presenting to a group, of wearing her "stage face".
It has also taught her to look on the bright side.
"You have to turn any bad situation into a positive one. You can't let people down.
"When you're catering, you know that the food is second to whatever the event is. At a wedding, for example, for the bride it is her very special day. But people actually end up talking about the food more than the bride's dress."
Pretty's food is also a major talking point at Toast Martinborough, where she has fed crowds of biblical proportions at Ata Rangi for 20 years.
Ata Rangi marketing director Phyll Pattie says Pretty is extraordinary.
"They feed about 10,000 people for lunch and they are incredible at thinking on their feet. Ruth stays focused, even in the most terrible conditions and she never gets rattled. This November will be our 21st year of doing it together and they are always looking forward to the next one, always trying to work out what they could do better."
Ruth Pretty Catering now has 30 staff, many of whom have been with the business for nearly 20 years. Paul does the operations and admin "and I suppose I do everything else", Pretty says with a laugh. Everything they serve, except all-butter puff pastry, stock and sandwich bread, is prepared at Springfield and cooked at point of service.
While the large, airy catering kitchen and its battery of industrial cooking tools gives some sense of size, it's not until you slip through into the adjacent dockway that the scale of the operation becomes apparent. Here there is enough room for ingredients for 5000 Ruth Pretty Christmas cakes to be stacked on pallets. Another room holds thousands of pieces of crockery and kitchenware, from Tony Sly pottery to tart tins. A further room, big enough for a fleet of vehicles, is for dishwashing.
Pretty's office, where some of her 5000-strong cookbook collection line bookshelves and cover most of the surfaces, is at the other end of the complex, but she remains hands-on.
"I still cook at events, because I enjoy it, but also because if I don't, then that means we'll be a person short in the prep kitchen for the next day, and that's harder on everyone else.
"I like doing events. I find them quite adrenaline-pumping and challenging."
The economic slowdown has affected business, as fewer corporate clients feel they can be seen splashing out on lavish catering, but the business still has more than enough on its plate.
In fact, she's been so busy that her new book, Ruth Pretty Cooks at Home, has taken a lot longer to produce than she intended.
The book, her sixth, is aimed at people who like to entertain."I don't do those three-ingredient, ready in 30 minutes sort of recipes, because you don't need a recipe to cook like that.
"Most of the time I cook like anyone does at home, it's just that I can think my way around it a bit better.
"If it's just Paul and me, we might have steak with a lovely big salad from the garden, or a stir-fry with lots of vegetables and rice. The other night there were a few lamb cutlets left over from something we were testing, so I pinged those in the microwave and had them with hummus and some asparagus. It was a delicious little dinner."
Pretty has her hands full but she wouldn't have it any other way.
"I love what I do.
"Never a day goes by where I don't learn something new."
- The Dominion Post
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