Commensality

Elliot Ferguson
Editor

A good beverage and a wholesome dish can stir creativity and spark conversation. Unlikely juxtapositions are formed where different perspectives meet to fill a universal need. Sometimes we collide with other people’s opinions. And yet, when we’re communicating with someone, and we feel that we’re connected, and understood, I think we have a feeling verging on spiritual communion. I think this is what we live for, and the table is the catalyst.

So here we have the beginnings of a new space where we will have conversations while sharing food. Each article in the series will involve a new dialogue over a meal. In the first one we speak to Nat Cheshire and Dajiang Tai about the state of Chinese cuisine in Auckland and how Chinese food is synonymous with cheap eats rather than the perfection their culture prides themselves on.

 

NCNat Cheshire

DJDajiang Tai

EFElliot Ferguson

LSLuke Author Scott

 

 


NC
So then, what is the ultimate goal?

DJ
The ultimate goal is to up the game of the Chinese restaurant. I’m not saying these restaurants shouldn’t do this, but there should be at least one good fine-dining restaurant. There should be at least a good Chinese bar, a good cocktail bar. The variety of food is very small. I mean, the chefs are great chefs. But everyone is on the same level; there’s no diversity, there are no layers.

EF
There’s no positive competition? Everyone stays on the same level.

DJ
Yeah, well, there’s a lot of competition, but everyone is on the same level. And people don’t know how they can up their game. It can totally be done in a fine-dining restaurant. There is this restaurant just down that way—they do the best Beijing Peking Duck, and it is pretty hard to do right. It’s no small feat. They kill the duck in front of you and they have to use a particular knife, they can’t cut too deep, it is all about the duck’s skin. The dish is a serving of mostly the skin, and a big course of pancakes and other things. It is one of my favourite foods, and there is one place that does a good job. But it totally can be done in a fine-dining restaurant. It is a fine-dining experience. People have to wait and watch and participate, and there is only that little bit you eat and it is really delicious.

NC
So why do you want a fine-dining restaurant?

DJ
That’s where you up your game. Say—Auckland—if we want to present to someone else who just came from overseas, they’ll be expecting to be taken to the best Chinese restaurant—and then they are all sat at the same table, the waiters don’t come for half an hour when you order a casual dish, they don’t have any drinks. There is just nowhere to go.

NC
Do you think the Chinese community cares?

DJ
Yes.

NC
So why—if the market exists—how come the market hasn’t provided for this sort of thing?

DJ
There is no operator. There’s a real struggle with securing chefs. Take for example our Peking Duck chef up the road. Once he has worked for this restaurant for a while and settled in, he will move and open up his own as he will have the perspective, like why should I work for you? I’ll just open up my own restaurant. So to secure these chefs they need to up their game, they need to earn more money so they can hire more chefs and pay them, thereby securing them. At the moment everyone is securing the chefs by inviting them from China. So, when they get residency after five years they have them until they decide to move on.

NC
So they are kind of like captives.

DJ
Yes, there is no structure. There is no culture. I don’t think we can design the future, but we should design to allow the future to happen. The more people who understand that this is a commercial reality, the more they are going to try.

EF
Do you think that will just take time, for like, Chinese New Zealanders, people like yourself, to get into these businesses, to help them out; because you have perspective on what’s happening here or what needs to be done?

NC
It’s a matter of time because it is a generational shift.

EF
Yeah, it’s a generational thing.

DJ
I always say the two worlds will collide. But when they collide, it might be a total disaster, it could be just wrong. It could mean when these better restaurants exist, that these Dominion Road places might not exist. If everyone changes the game they give their attention to environment and services—and good food. I mean Blue Breeze does, it is really good. Like the duck, it is better than the duck you get in Beijing. I think we will see a natural selection process.

LS
Part of the charm of these kinds of places is that they are cheap as well, right? I mean it’s one thing to say we need fine dining, but we also need these places.

NC
We need a spectrum, right? There’s the problem. I mean all the other eating genres; they all give a perspective. From the truck stop pie warmer, the sausage roll crew—right through to the French café. They all have their place.

LS
So how do places like these up their game without--?

NC
The question is whether these ones need to up their game, or whether there might need to be other ones higher up in the spectrum. They might be in the same environment. But say if I want to sit here and drink something decent with my dinner and not eat it with plastic, and maybe not under fluro lights, and not off a glass tabletop on top of stained tiles… then I’ll pay $15 for my breakfast instead of $7.50.

DJ
The Japanese do that really well. I mean you look at Daikoku, their ramen is like $7.50 and the environment is not that great, but it is good.

NC
That one down the back end of Tyler Street, the environment is shit but the ramen is cheaper. But we can still go to Kazuya on Symonds Street, and have a seven-course tasting menu. It’s a spectrum you want to aim for. It’s strange, that’s the thing. You can go to a nice Vietnamese restaurant; you can go to a nice Indian restaurant. There is diversity there.

EF
It’s an obvious way of getting a perspective on how multicultural a society is by the variety of food genres available. You see the diversity in cuisine when you drive down a main strip.

DJ
I’m reading this book, it is about civilisation and it talks about their belief that when a culture is civilised, the more categories there are; I mean every kind of product there is, then this defines whether they are civilised. If you go to Japan there are twelve different rubbish bins. I mean everything is extremely categorised. It is a measure of culture; it is a measure of society. 

NC
It is also possibly a measure of decay, of decadence. Reminds me of this story about choice. I can’t remember what he talks about, whether it was hair shampoo or peanut butter. But at his local supermarket there are 173 different types to choose from. It’s interesting what the psychological result is—that the more choice you are offered the more dissatisfied you are with your ultimate choice.

EF
Just like what we were talking about when we first arrived today, that difference between when you are faced with the mystery of a daunting menu, compared to when you are given a spread straight from the chef, or in our case, a spread finely selected by you, DJ.

DJ
My ultimate goal is for a city to be more complex. I just believe that when a city is complex enough, people open up. That’s when anything can happen. And this is just hospitality we are talking about, there are all kinds of things that should have that layer of complexity. And because I am Chinese and my friends are Chinese, I know a lot about what is going on around me in my community. I just think there should be a lot of variety of groups. The building industry is one I am particularly disappointed in. There are no really good buildings, and there are no real cheap good buildings. They are all the same, and they are all expensive.

NC
Also, what we’ve been talking about in these conversations is this problem with sameness creating sameness. It establishes a market where the product needs to be matching in order to be resold. So, the one-off and speculative doesn’t fit into this model. In the 21st century, culture in general and culture in the city situation should be tending towards complexity rather than systematised sameness, so it is the opposite of modernism. It is all relative and it all depends on where you come from.

DJ
I think Auckland needs this, this layer of complexity. One thing I keep wondering about is if we see New Zealand as an immigrant country, so when people leave their hometown they will bring their essentials with them. They will carefully select all of this, and what they select will represent who they are and where they came from. And most importantly, they bring in what the destination doesn’t already have. So whatever they bring in will really enrich this environment. And that’s what’s happening with the Chinese supermarket, for example. When I came here, there was no tofu, there was no chilli sauce, and now we’ve got it in, I can buy literally anything I want.

NC
Do you think the model of a city is that it acts as a kind of collider? And what you want is as many collisions as possible, of as many different types as possible. But that you also want hidden within this city the opportunities for discoveries that allow you to push you deeper into the things you collide with. So if you collide with a little old woman pushing a fridge down a street, you can eat something you’ve never eaten before and when you push further at the back end of the street next to nothing, you discover something more like this. The point is not the disestablishment of these things, not the disestablishment of those little things. It is about generating a continuum of collisions.

EF
I like the idea that a good city is like a good party–you know it’s working when people stay for much longer than really necessary, because they are enjoying the experience. A good party is where you collide with new people and new things and that’s what keeps your attention. The ultimate city we aspire to keeps your attention and gives you the opportunity to collide with things and also to dig deeper into these things you stumble upon.

LS
Who wants to stay in Auckland City for longer than they need to? Apart from people who are stuck here cause of the transport problems.

EF
It is undeniably changing though.

NC
Yes, I think it is. I can’t keep up with what is happening every week. I went to two great restaurants in the middle of nowhere on Saturday night, and it was exhilarating that they exist under my nose, but I’d never been there before. I think it is a very exciting time.

EF
But it doesn’t even have to be a new restaurant. It is even nice to just be distracted for a while and return to a familiar place that has been reinvented.

NC
You know, people say that same shit. That there was nothing interesting in Auckland, that there wasn’t any choice and so on. Half of this stuff existed four our five years ago, but those people who are complaining just hadn’t made it there yet. And so it is prompting that discovery in Auckland.

EF
So really that’s what needs to shift. It isn’t the location or the approach of the restaurants, but it is the perspective. Getting people to explore and to find themselves stumbling upon gems within their own city. So maybe that’s where the activism comes in? Getting that old chinese woman, that we were talking about before from Beijing, out there wheeling the fridge. So some people may collide with something new.