Urban Eatery's head chef Riki Day pushing boundaries
All great hospitality businesses have a hardworking team in the background, people who often shun the limelight but have a huge passion for the work they do.
From people who start their careers washing dishes in restaurants to head chefs and even sales people who make sure hospitality venues have everything they need to deliver great food to you and me there is a huge army of people beavering away in the background.
Over the next couple of months I am going to talk with some of these people and share their stories and passion starting this week with Riki Day, the head chef at Urban.
Most people will be aware Matt and Tania Bouterey own Urban Eatery & Oyster Bar, the very cool bar serving outstanding food, but while they own and run the business they need a top team of staff to help them.
"We just can't do everything" says Matt, and that is where Day comes in.
"I have worked with Riki for more than 10 years and have seen him learn and grow into a top chef so it was a no-brainer for me to offer him a job when he returned to Nelson having honed his skills in London and Melbourne."
Day grew up in the hospitality industry, his parents own Kahurangi Estate and he worked in the cafe there "doing dishes and a bit of kitchen prep when I was 16". But he has been exposed to food passion his entire life.
"My grandma on my mother's side of the family was a real inspiration, she was a great cook and had a hand-written family cook book but she also used to write me personalised recipes that are really important to me, not just because they are family recipes but they remind me of her passion for great food."
As is the case with many young people the career Day has ended up in wasn't his first choice. When he left school he completed the Adventure Tourism course at NMIT and spent time in Christchurch as a trainee snowboarding instructor before he turned to food.
"The first job I had other than in the family café was at Hot Rocks in Tahunanui. I enjoyed the pressure so decided to make cooking my future and went to Otago Polytechnic to study professional cookery."
Day spent two years in Otago and worked part-time as a kitchen hand while he was studying.
With a formal City & Guilds qualification and a diploma in professional cookery tucked under his belt he turned to working full-time at The Mecure Hotel in Dunedin as chef de partie.
But it didn't take him long to realise he wasn't cut out to be a hotel chef – "having to go through all the management structures was frustrating.
"You didn't answer to a head chef but to everyone above you, accountants, various levels of management, there were about 15 different managers that all had a say about something and all I wanted to do was cook proper food."
He also didn't like cooking pre-prepared or pre-portioned food, so he made inquiries about jobs in his home town and was put in touch with Matt Bouterey, who owned the Abbey at the time.
"I was working for him when he moved to his restaurant in Richmond and stayed for about three years and then when I wanted to go overseas he linked me up with Gary Rhodes in London so I ended up working for him at his restaurant 'Rhodes at Cumberland' in Marble Arch."
After two years in London he came back to Nelson where he worked a vintage at the winery followed by a year as head chef at Bouterey's in Richmond before working another vintage as a "cellar rat" hauling hoses, plunging tanks and working all-nighters.
Then it was off to Melbourne for five years, firstly at Punch Lane Wine Bar off Little Bourke St at the top of Chinatown which Day said was a cool place to work.
That was followed by a move to the big fine dining venue The Point at Albert Park, where he was a meat chef, dealing with all the butchery, dry aging meat, portioning it and cooking it.
Needing a break from the pressure-cooker job he decided to come back to Nelson just for a summer, and worked in the kitchen at Urban under head chef Jeff Soul.
When Soul left Day became head chef with the aim of building on the reputation and high standard of food that he had set.
"The way Urban is set up people can sit at the bar by the kitchen and chat while we cook so it has been nice getting to know all the regulars as well as getting back in touch with the Nelson food scene."
As we talked Day made a couple of observations about the hospitality scene in Nelson.
"Nelson hasn't changed a lot since I went away, but it is getting more exciting, people are pushing the boundaries a bit more, bringing things you see in bigger cities to Nelson and I have noticed people are dining differently, the small plates of premium and interesting food concept is starting to take off here.
"People from overseas are quietly bringing overseas influences here, introducing things to Nelson and changing the way people eat out."
Something else that Day loves about the industry he has chosen to make a career in is that chefs are going around trying each other's food and supporting each other by dining in their restaurants.
"In Melbourne chefs would go around eating at different restaurants and look after one another, the hours we work means we tend to socialise together a bit with others in the industry.
"My relationship with Matt has been pretty big and really important to me, he has looked after me a lot and has taught me so much, he has been a big influence on my career, massive in fact, he taught me pretty much everything.
"He took me from working in a hotel cooking out of packets and taught me how a proper high quality kitchen works."
Day also said the kitchen was only as good as the team in the kitchen and the other boys at Urban, Jade Clement, Chase D'ace Tangohau and Tyler Anderson were fantastic.
"We can only do what we do because everyone brings something to the table, they are an awesome bunch.
"These guys are as good as any chefs I have worked with overseas; a lot of young chefs are coming to Nelson which is very exciting for our industry and the local food scene, for me it is nice to bring back things I have learned working with other great chefs overseas.
"It has been a hard slog for about 12 years but I still love it. We do what we do because we enjoy it and look forward to new challenges every day."