Helen Turnbull’s Kāpiti Coast Culinary Vision
Passionate about creating dining experiences that drive connection and inspire the next generation of hospitality professionals, wāhine chef Helen Turnbull is shaping the future of Aotearoa’s food scene.
Words by: Nicola Amy Hinman
Photos by: Anna Briggs
Nestled in the heart of Paraparaumu on the Kāpiti Coast, you’ll discover the embodiment of Helen’s personal hospitality ethos - destination restaurant 50-50. From menus laden with unique seasonal ingredients to staff that absolutely love their job and do it well, you’ll find her touch in every aspect of the dining experience. She loves championing the local community and driving New Zealand’s hospitality scene forward. We spoke with her about what it looks like behind the scenes to embrace these values and live them wholeheartedly.
What was your relationship like with food and cooking when you were growing up?
Both my Mum and my Grandma were very much into alternative eating. They were conscious of feeding people in a way that would keep them really healthy, and this was a huge driver in how my Mum would construct meals. So from a very young age, I learnt a lot about things like food combining and how to heal yourself using food. It wasn’t always easy to eat this way as a kid, but in the long run, I’ve really benefited from my Mum’s knowledge around nutrition.
My Dad also loves cooking, so I spent a lot of my childhood preparing food with one or other of my parents. Cooking was either for educational purposes or just for the pure enjoyment of it and often a combination of both.
When I moved out of home, learning to cook the basics really well (like a great roast chicken) became my main focus. I’ve always loved cooking for other people and being able to impress my flatmates with what I cooked was very exciting for me. When everyone gets to sit down and enjoy a great meal together, that’s something that just feels really good. I love how it can create connections by encouraging great conversations and making awesome memories together. This is a big motivating factor for me and something I’ve really tried to emulate at 50-50, using great food and service to create that space for memorable interactions.
How did you end up working in restaurants?
When I finished school, I didn’t really have a good reason why I should go to university or know what I wanted to study, but I’d already done a bit of part time work in cafés, so decided to try out a full time job in a restaurant. My first full time job was at One Red Dog in Wellington. It’s quite a big restaurant, so there was always a lot of staff, and I really loved the team atmosphere. It felt like the best sports team ever, with everyone working together and having a great time.
Can you tell us a bit about the team culture you strive to create at 50-50?
The name 50-50 is actually inspired by something I’ve learnt from all my years in hospitality - that to create a really awesome guest experience, you need to get both the kitchen and front of house working together like a team. If we start the day working really well together in a positive environment, then it’s super easy for that to just spill over into the dining room for our guests.
At 50-50, this looks like starting every day with a team meeting and a million high fives. We celebrate each other's successes and make sure everyone has time to do the things they’re passionate about so they can bring that passionate energy into work with them. I believe you can create the culture you want by leading the way with your own behaviour, so I spend a lot of time getting to know my staff. I want to know how life is going for them right now and what’s important to them so I can cheer them on.
The best guest experience starts with 50-50 being our staff's favourite place to work. If they love coming to work every day, that is absolutely going to flow over to our guests, and they’re going to have an awesome time too. When I’m hiring someone new, I always want to talk to people who are really passionate about something, even if that’s not food. I just love talking to really passionate people, and I love having them on my team.
Can you tell us a bit about your travels and overseas experiences that have influenced your cooking style?
There were two very influential chefs I worked under when I lived in Tokyo for five years, both of whom own their own restaurants in Tokyo now. Actually, they’re the most inspirational chefs I’ve ever worked with. First, there was Toshihisa Tsukada, a Japanese chef who taught me a lot about their culture of hospitality. For example, the kitchen is considered an important part of the dining experience. It’s not shut away somewhere, but right there amongst it all and contributing to the atmosphere. This is something that was really important for me to bring to 50-50.
A few years later, also in Tokyo, I worked under a French chef named Lionel Beccat. He would have me cook dinner just for him every day, and then he would critique it. He’d ask me questions like ‘Why have you put these things together?’, ‘What story are you telling?’ and ‘How am I learning about you or your restaurant through this dish?’. This process helped me start to work out who I was as a chef, and to this day, those questions still go around in my head every time I make something.
In 2009 my husband and I travelled for a year across land. From Tokyo, we went through India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia, then up through China, across Russia, and down through Europe to the South of France. Before leaving Tokyo, Lionel told me to take a photo of every meal I ate, write down what I ate, and how I was feeling when I ate it. This is something I still do even now, especially when I’m travelling. These notes have become a huge repertoire of flavours that I often refer back to when I’m creating menus for 50-50. Most recently, I’ve been in Istanbul, Zanzibar and Hong Kong. Aside from escaping the winter, I’ve picked up a lot of ideas for my menus. I’ve always been fascinated by places that have been meeting points for different cultures throughout history.
What does your creative process look like when creating new dishes and menus for 50-50?
I almost always start with a vegetable or something delicious from my garden. Veges are very seasonal, so I’m always asking, ‘What tastes really great right now?’, then creating a dish from that, and quite often, the protein will be chosen last. Since I serve either six or nine courses, I also consider the journey that the guest is going on as well. It’s really important to me that it flows well for them.
I also consider the weather and the types of dishes people enjoy eating at that time of year. I’m typically brainstorming and taking notes for ages, and I may have up to 18 different dishes I’m thinking about creating, then a week before sharing a new menu, I’ll start to nail it down depending on what the weather’s doing right then.
Can you tell us about any unique ingredients that you’re especially enjoying using right now?
Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to be invited down to Te Anau for the Wapiti Winter Weekend with a whole lot of other awesome chefs from around New Zealand. Wapiti is a type of venison that’s wild in that area. We walked around in the wilderness where the Wapiti live and met some incredible people who care not just about the Wapiti but also about the land and the flora and fauna in those forests. I started to understand how all of these things work together to really flourish when everything is kept in the right balance.
It was a very motivating experience for me and got me asking a lot more questions about what true sustainability actually looks like. It also made me more aware of the privilege and responsibility I have to ask those questions. So I’m really enjoying using the Wapiti venison at 50-50. It has a very unique flavour. To me, it really tastes of the land, and I’d say that’s probably my ingredient of the moment.
What do you love about the New Zealand food scene and Kāpiti Coast in particular?
I find it very exciting to be in New Zealand because I feel like our food culture is being defined at the moment. As a country, our food culture is very young, so I feel very privileged to be a part of shaping that. I love listening to my team and my guests and creating something that is new and exciting for them but is still very approachable and also feels quite natural to be eaten in New Zealand. There are a lot of other really awesome chefs also doing this up and down the country.
When I travel overseas, people always say, ‘Oh, you guys eat a lot of fish and chips, right?’ but I don’t think that’s going to be our defining cuisine, I think it is still to come. I imagine that in 100 years or so, New Zealand will probably have some quite special signature dishes, and I feel like right now, we are just starting to explore what those might look like. Using local ingredients makes sense to me, not just from a sustainability perspective, but it’s also how we reflect New Zealand’s true flavours. At the moment, that includes a bit of foraging since there are a lot of interesting ingredients not readily available, but I think that will change in the future. Our Kiwi hospitality is also a big part of this. It’s quite a unique style of service and something that I think will continue to be defined.
In terms of what I love about Kāpiti in particular, well, it’s becoming a really great food destination. People from the capital will head this way for an awesome foodie weekend! There are lots of changes and new things happening, so there is a lot of growth and people doing really cool and interesting things. Also, the community spirit is really strong here, which I absolutely love! Shop local is so much more than just a saying in Kāpiti.
What do you hope people's experience will be like when they dine at 50-50?
I decided to do set menus a few years ago because life can be stressful, and you already have to make too many decisions. I wanted to make things easier for my team and for my guests so they could just come in, sit down, and be well looked after. We want people to come and have an amazing experience, have some food that they may not have eaten before and try something new.
These days we are often distracted, we’re always on our phones etc. But I love creating a space where people can just put distractions aside and really connect over a great meal. It’s such a motivating factor for me. Our job is to really quickly work out what kind of experience each guest is looking for, whether it’s a romantic dinner or perhaps a more educational dining experience, and do our very best to create their ideal experience.
I chose Kāpiti for 50-50 because I wanted to create a strong connection with the locals and my regular guests. To me, that is a really important part of owning a restaurant and something that is less common in the bigger cities. I also love bringing people flavours from all over the world. It’s so cool when someone tries a new dish and says, ‘This reminds me of my holiday in Bali!’ or ‘I haven’t had sardines like this since I was in Greece!’. I really like taking other flavours and experiences and putting a New Zealand spin on them to make them our thing too.
Are there any future plans you’d like to share with us?
I am incredibly passionate about creating more and more people who really love hospitality. I want to clearly show that this can be a very fulfilling and rewarding career. This is something I’ve been working on behind the scenes because I feel so passionate about hospitality. I want to create a space where people can see this in action, both from a kitchen and front-of-house perspective. As business owners and people who are really passionate about hospitality, we can do more to create an environment in which people want to stay working in. I see it as investing in my future dinners. I want to know that one day when I need to step back, this passion for hospitality is going to continue to grow, and I have to be a part of that.
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