Ray Tito has just sat down for a cuppa after helping with a pile of brunch dishes. It's time for a break before he and his classmates hit the books again. He reckons all that's missing is a guitar and it would feel just like home.
The scent of baking from a nearby kitchen suggests that Tito and his classmates will rarely have to study on empty stomachs.
Of Taranaki and Te Atiawa descent, Tito is one of 49 students studying towards a National Certificate in Marae Catering (Ringawera) this year at New Plymouth's Western Institute of Technology (Witt).
The course is the only one of its kind in New Zealand. It provides a way to recognise, through a NZQA Level 2 qualification, the role of kaimahi (food worker) and ringawera (catering) on marae.
The course fees, which cost $79, are subsidised with funding from the Tertiary Education Commission, which aims to assist people to reach their full potential and contribute to the social and economic wellbeing of New Zealand.
Tito is not your average student. His role as kaumatua at Taranaki Base Hospital is a clue to his age, but he says the course has given him a new lease on life.
It is also an experience he gets to share with wife Edith.
The couple heard about the course through word of mouth and particularly enjoy the awhi (support) which exists in class.
Adult learning is nothing new for Edith, who affiliates to Ngati Mutunga, Te Atiawa and Taranaki. When she retired aged 70 she taught herself how to weave.
"When I was good enough I went back to the Chathams to share it with my people," she says.
Edith, who is planning to return to the Chatham Islands permanently next month, wants to take what she's learned on the marae catering programme back home with her.
She says many of the recipes suit the bulk cookery style used on marae.
"I've found it very helpful."
Edith says although the course could benefit from being held on a marae fulltime, the facilities in Witt's kitchen are second to none and not usually available on marae.
"Even to have a dishwasher on the marae would be good," says Edith, who has been married to Ray for 45 years.
Most of the class come from Waitara and they are a close-knit bunch.
Even Aucklander Josh Te Awa does not feel out of place.
"Everyone knows everyone," he says.
Of Nga Puhi descent, Te Awa hopes to get a job as a result of what he has learned.
Word is getting around about his skills in the kitchen. He says whanau are asking him "where's the bread?" at family functions and he earns extra brownie points at home.
Tutors Denis Duthie and Ashley Urwin are on hand at every turn in an effort to keep their students engaged in the kitchen and the class room.
Duthie has been involved since the marae catering course began at Witt last year, Urwin since July.
Duthie has more than 50 years experience cooking and catering in the army and in commercial kitchens. He says the marae catering course has been personally rewarding.
"It really is good fun."
He says the idea of the course is to improve hygiene and food- safety standards on marae without undermining tikanga and the important work that has always gone on behind the scenes.
"It's a very delicate path you tread."
Another focus of the class is on healthy eating. Classroom discussion often centres on making better food choices and using healthier cooking methods.
As a challenge, the class is going to trial baking bread with wholemeal flour. "I'm not knocking it (the use of fat) but look . . . " Duthie says, putting his hand knowingly across his stomach.
Urwin says having someone with Duthie's experience as a tutor helps achieve the aim of increasing the quality of food on marae.
Technology faculty head Glen West says with 99 per cent of the students being Maori, the chance for them to experience success as Maori was also an important consideration in setting up the course.
"What I have found special about the programme is the whanau element, young and old working together," he says.
Such support is evident when you talk to Waitara student Trevor Hall.
Hall, who is Pakeha, is supported in class by his Maori partner Jackie Smith, who comes along to class and wananga to help him with his bookwork.
"It's the biggest challenge as far as I'm concerned," he says about the theory.
Hall's first wife was also Maori and over the years he has cooked on several marae. He says the course is reinforcing what he has been doing for years.
Smith says even though she was not officially enrolled on the course, it gives her an opportunity to be part of what her partner is doing.
"I just decided to hop in and have a play as well," she says.
Waitara's Harris Matuku says he enjoys the relaxed learning style on the programme.
Of Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama descent, Matuku enrolled because he wants to help when "the aunties" ask who can make scones or bake bread.
The class has built up to its final assessment earlier this week, which includes hosting a hangi at Brixton's Kairau Marae today.
Duthie says while the book work is demanding, it provides students with a sound base from which to move to higher education.
One of the potential outcomes of the course is to provide a pathway for students into full-time chef training.
Urwin says what impresses him most is the tuakana/teina (mentoring) model he sees when he looks around the room.
"The younger ones feel like they have to live up to the standards set by the older students," he says.
Edith Tito, who has spent some time working with at-risk youth, says the kitchen works like clockwork when they are all together.
"They are not shy to do the mahi in the kitchen," she says of the younger students.
Aaron Ritai-Davey is one of the youngsters. The 17-year-old came back to Taranaki last year after living in Wellington. He hopes to move on to a chef training course at Witt next year.
Ritai-Davey enjoys the course and likes Duthie's teaching style.
"He tells us how to do stuff, but lets us do it how we want too," he says.
Duthie is on hand to give feedback on a peach clafoutis, which is being road-tested in the kitchen, or to make sure the home- made mayonnaise doesn't turn out lumpy.
And if one thing could be said about this kitchen, nothing happens without a bit of seasoning.
For older students such as the Titos, being able to work towards qualification based on what they have being doing most of their lives has been quite satisfying, while for others it's proving to be a stepping stone.
The chance to get fed is just a bonus.
"Yep . . . hard," quips Matuku.
Deena Coster is a Witt journalism student
THE COURSE Recognises skills and knowledge required for cooking in the wharekai (eating house).
Students learn a range of basic cooking preparation and serving techniques in accordance with marae tikanga.
A 17-week course with class every Wednesday from 5pm- 10pm, which includes theory and practice, alongside weekend wananga.
There are two intakes each year - February and July.
In 2013 the course was attended by 49 students.
In 2014 there has been an allocation of 50 places.
Food and the Maori culture
Forms an important part of tikanga and cultural tradition.
The wharekai (eating house) is where food is prepared on marae.
Food is the common element (noa) and it is the opposite of tapu.
Respect and manners are important, including ensuring elders are seated first.
Grace or thanksgiving is often said before eating.
Food is an important part of the powhiri process and brings tangata whenua and manuhiri together.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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