Feast Waikato is living up to its name with a five-day event over Easter as the organisation behind it benefits from a funding boost.
Waikato Food Inc, which also organises other high-profile events including the Melt Challenge and Matariki Challenge, has secured $40,000 from Hamilton City Council.
With Wel Energy also providing an impact grant, and private backing, the organisation has been able to employ a full time staff member, special projects and events manager Julia Clarke.
Driving force Vicki Ravlich-Horan says they started on the back foot when it came to Feast, after having to cancel last year because of Covid, but the programme features some high-profile chefs and a full lineup of drawcard events through Easter.
The programme runs from April 1-5 ushered in by the CBD Events Progressive Dinner on March 31. It includes the return of top chef Ben Bayly to his hometown Te Awamutu, a Taste Asian Flavours walking tour in central Hamilton and a night with Emma Galloway at Punnet, among 27 events also featuring the Donovans Chocolate Challenge.
“It’s a really good variety, and that’s the key,” says Ravlich-Horan. “It’s got to be. There’s some expensive dinners and lunches, but there’s amazing experiences and there’s free stuff.”
With Feast held in the first weekend of April, that puts it in Easter this year, which has the benefit of spreading it over several days, meaning its events are less likely to be competing with each other. Long term, the organisers want Feast to become a week-long event.
But the Easter timing comes with the challenge of Waikato people heading away for the long weekend.
Ravlich-Horan says Feast gives Waikato Food Inc the opportunity to change perceptions. “What we’re about is celebrating what’s here, and the essence of what Waikato Food Inc is about is building pride in our region.
“So isn’t this a good opportunity to do that? Say, no, stay here for Easter and have an amazing time.”
As well as its events, Waikato Food Inc is working on a mental health programme for the industry, and is also hoping to assist a group of producers to attend the Great NZ Food Show at Claudelands in May, and potentially take them to Fieldays and the Auckland Food Show next year.
Ravlich-Horan makes the point that the Waikato produces more variety of food than any other New Zealand region, helped by the fact there are still decent blocks of productive land and lots of intergenerational businesses.
“I think they’re kind of the backbone of what the Waikato is about. We’re here because we love it. We don’t shout it from the rooftops,” she says. “We’ve just got to be a bit more outward looking.”
When it comes to hospo, she is positive about the Waikato restaurant and cafe scene, where the market is mostly locals.
“This whole economic doom and gloom that we have all been told to expect hasn’t really shown up.”
She says the biggest challenge for Waikato, exacerbated in the last couple of years, is getting quality staff, both chefs and front of house.
“When the labour laws changed, the immigration laws changed, it made it really hard to get some chefs.”
She says with a more cohesive food story and great reputation, the region should be pitching to Auckland chefs the benefits of shifting to the Waikato.
“They could be mortgage-free, 20 minutes to get their kids to school, they can live the lifestyle they want, and still be in an amazing restaurant.
“That food scene is what builds community and excitement. It builds a feeling like you live in a town that’s got stuff going on.”