Tracy Whitmey looks back at a decade-and-a-half of the country’s biggest culinary event.

When Lonely Planet dubbed Wellington ‘the coolest little capital in the world’ in 2011, they were thinking of the craft beer scene, the coffee culture, its vibrant arts community, the lack of sprawl and, just possibly, a nod to the famously inclement weather. But thanks in part to Visa Wellington on a Plate (VWOAP) – the biggest culinary festival in the Southern Hemisphere (how’s that for punching above your weight!) – the city has carved out an increasing reputation as a powerhouse of culinary creativity. Starting in 2009 with just 12 events and 35 participants, the festival is now celebrating its 15th year with a theme of ‘Breaking the Mould’ and has grown into an epic celebration of the best of New Zealand food, with an unrivalled lineup of one-off events, pop-up restaurants, collaborations, special dishes and menus, cocktails, a beer festival and more burgers than you’ve ever seen before.

Sarah Meikle, chief executive of Wellington Culinary Events Trust, which runs Visa Wellington On a Plate, has been there right from the start and she pins down why Wellington is uniquely placed to make the festival such a success. “Partly,” she says, “it’s geography. Wellington has a closely compact downtown area and you can walk everywhere. When you walk to work, you pass so many restaurants and cafés. And Wellingtonians like to eat out – a lot! Next, Wellington has pedigree: many of the best restaurants have been going for 20-30 years. People have been in the game for a long time and that makes a great hospitality community who all know one another and really work together. Being a small city helps us feel we’re all in it together.” In fact , as the granddaughter of a Wellington hotelier and the daughter of a restaurateur, Sarah says she probably baby-sat for most of the capital’s hospo babies.

One favourite feature of VWOAP is its ability to attract a lineup of top international chefs to cook collaboratively with locals. “Chefs can’t wait to come to New Zealand,” Sarah says. “They want to learn about our produce and see our country. And we’re proud to bring them here and give them a taste.” Creating a forever relationship with New Zealand not only creates ambassadors for our food and beverages, but forges links that help if the time comes for our young chefs to seek overseas training and experience. “You can’t put a value on this collaboration when it comes to upskilling the industry.”

The festival has also served as a ‘test-kitchen’ for some of Wellington’s most successful concepts, encouraging innovation in the local culinary scene. Most recently, KISA, Chaat Street and The Little Cookie Shop have morphed into bricks-and-mortar businesses after beginning life as festival pop-ups.

But, the festival is not all about greedy folk stuffing their face and packing in as much indulgence as possible. Visa Wellington On a Plate contributes $30m per year to Wellington’s local economy, with 25 percent of festival goers visiting from out of town.

When COVID struck, VWOAP was in a unique position with an existing audience and social media savvy to pull together ‘At Yours’, a digital directory hosted on VWOAP’s website showcasing eateries offering takeaways, ready-meals, meal-kits, local produce and beverages across the region. After years of working in and with the city’s hospitality industry, it was a way to repurpose existing resources to directly support the community through testing times and to make it easy for local food lovers keen to buoy up local businesses, a feat that garnered much local and international press attention and bolstered once more the reputation of the capital’s hospitality industry.

Originally devised as a way to boost trade during the quiet month of August, the festival is now so big that it has been split into two courses. Yes, this year festival goers can get started in May with an epic event list plus Dine and Cocktail Wellington. But save some space as the second sitting in August hosts the fantastically popular Burger Wellington and Beervana.

To celebrate 15 years of VWOAP deliciousness and innovation, we’ve picked out our favourite 15 events from the lineup – and what a tough job it was to limit ourselves to 15! But before we glance back let’s look forward. We asked Beth Brash, Head of Programming for Visa Wellington on a Plate, what will make its way onto the best-of list from this year’s lineup?

“The thing that excites me about this year’s programme, and what I like to push with the programming for Visa Wellington On a Plate, is that the events aren’t just food, but ‘food and…’. So that could be food and science, food and burlesque, food and comedy, food and culture. I imagine it like a Venn diagram with food in the middle and the programme is that beautiful crossover space – that’s where the magic happens. A great example of this is the Sunday Roast. When I saw there was the New Zealand International Comedy Festival at the same time, I thought, ‘Oh my God, we need to have a comedy roast’. So in our first co-production we’re teaming up with the comedy festival for the ‘Sunday Roast’, an event that sees the perfect pairing of lager, laughs and a delicious roast meal at Parrotdog Brewery. It will be MCd by Tom Sainsbury and feature comedians Hayley Sproull, James Nokise and Brynley Stent doing food-based comedy.

“Then there’s the Miramar Taco’ver. The Mexican Embassy approached us to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and Mexico, which will be a day-long celebration of the taco out at Double Vision Brewing. It’s part fiesta and part educational because, as diplomatically as possible, the embassy admitted that some New Zealanders need a little education on what a taco is! So you’ll be able to taste the amazing regionality and different types of tacos of Mexico all from Miramar, New Zealand. They’re even flying in Mexican chef Lucho Martinez to keep things authentic.

“Eat Your Words is New Zealand’s symposium for food writing and content, which not only features well- known writers such as Nadia Lim and Nici Wickes, but is opened up to content creators like Matt Reynecke of the hugely popular Tik Tok channel Kitchen by Matt, Erin Clarkson of Cloudy Kitchen (who sent the baking world into chaos with her New Zealand yellow butter) and quarantine-food plating star and then MasterChef winner Sam Low.”

Reflecting on the growth from a way to get Wellingtonians out on a winter’s night to wildly popular events that sell out in minutes, Sarah Meikle says, “It’s so cool. We provide a platform but it is the industry that does it.”

Over the past 15 years

More than 1500 festival events held

More than 87,500 festival events tickets sold

90+ national & international chefs hosted

700+ venues participated

377,700+ Dine dishes enjoyed More than 1,780,000 burgers consumed

66,800 cocktails sipped and slurped

And 2023 marks 10 years in partnership with Kaibosh Food Rescue

15 years of unforgettable WOAP Events

Sex & Food by Foxglove Ballroom ~ 2022

Diners had their tastebuds teased as they slipped into a world of forbidden flavour with Sex & Food, a decadent and risqué evening of burlesque and interactive dining unlike any other. An award-winning cast of professional burlesque performers provided a feast for the eyes – including a surprisingly sexy broccoli – while diners enjoyed edible aphrodisiacs from Foxglove’s talented culinary team.

Next Gen Cook Off at Everybody Eats series ~ 2022

Diners from all walks of life were treated to some of Wellington’s top up-and-coming culinary talent in a cook-off series that made a positive difference on so many levels. Produce was sourced from a mystery box of donated food from Kaibosh Food Rescue, Lumina Lamb and others which varied week to week. Chefs Maxime Gnojczak (Concord), Conor McDonald (Atlas), Kahlivia Russell (Rita) and Maddie Grace (Hillside Kitchen) took part with the title taken out by Tak Tanaka (Field & Green). VWOAP and partner Tommy’s Real Estate raised more than $18,000 for Everybody Eats during August. Expect Next Gen to be back even bigger and better for 2023.

Bandersnack by Hillside ~ 2019 & 2020

Diners took a step into the unknown with a five-course meal where their decisions throughout the experience and their interactions with Asher Boote (pictured) and the Hillside team determined the next dish. The choose-your-own-adventure unpredictability stayed true to Hillside’s ethos of showcasing local ethically-sourced produce. It was a hit with diners, and Bandersnack 2.0 was on the programme again the following year.

Oyster Saloon by Yellow Brick Road ~ 2012

Proving that simple can be extremely delicious, the Oyster Saloon by Yellow Brick Road was a fully equipped oyster shack, offering a range of Aotearoa’s oyster varieties and accompaniments. With blankets, heaters and hot water bottles on hand, oyster lovers queued in a Cuba Street car park for the beloved bivalves, drinking beers and wines – proof that Wellingtonians will never let the wind, cold and the rain get in the way of a great meal.

Symphonic Feast by Palliser Estate ~ 2014

A brass fanfare by The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra heralded guests into the barrel hall at Palliser Estate Wines for an unforgettable evening of music, food and wine. Renowned Martinborough chef Nick Arnold, from Café Medici, featured locally sourced produce matched with Palliser’s wines with the NZSO performing between courses.

Rimutaka Prison Gate to Plate ~ 2013–2018

‘Prison Gate to Plate’ embodied restorative justice in action, supporting the skill, talent and determination that lies inside Rimutaka Prison. Chef Martin Bosley undertook the challenge of his career when he began training maximum-security prisoners for the Rimutaka Prison Gate to Plate event in 2013. After months of preparation, prisoners served top-class fare to diners. The event sold out in record time each year, demonstrating festival-goers wholehearted support for the positive influence of mentoring, education and rehabilitation in our prison system coupled with a great dinner.

Hiakai Hāngī ~ 2018 & 2019

A traditional hāngī but not as you know it. Top Kiwi and international chefs and foodies gathered around the hāngī pit in a groundbreaking celebration of Polynesian culture and culinary traditions passed down through the generations. Four courses of slow-cooked kai, accompanied by Tutū cider, Kono and Tohu wines and entertainment, were served up overlooking Wellington Harbour at dusk. Led by Wellington’s own Monique Fiso of Hiakai (pictured), the first hāngī featured Ron Finley (USA), Morgan McGlone (Kiwi-born, based in Australia), James Knappett (UK), and Michael Meredith (Auckland). In 2019, Monique was joined by chefs Nyesha Arrington (USA), Analiese Gregory (Kiwi-born, based in Australia) and Ash Heeger (South Africa).

Il Casino homage by Crazy Horse ~ 2014

In a true homage to the first proper Italian restaurant in New Zealand, guests were treated to a revival of the flamboyant and charismatic II Casino where, for 30 years, Remiro Bresolin welcomed guests to the Tory Street landmark. The team served a Venetian dégustation menu inspired by the classic dishes of Il Casino, accompanied by northern Italian wine. Hosted by Leonardo and Lorenzo Bresolin, with help from special guest sommelier Bob Foote, it was a deeply moving evening that paid respect to one of Wellington’s culinary groundbreakers.

Beef Wellington ~ 2010 Lifetime Beef + Lamb

New Zealand’s Platinum Ambassador Rex Morgan created a menu to satisfy even the most carnivorous meat lovers. Guests departed Boulcott Street Bistro and were transported to a once-in-a-lifetime secret dining location… the Taylor Preston Meat Processing Plantin Ngauranga Gorge. Sitting amongst the meat processing machinery, guests revelled in a menu entirely focussed on beef… including the dessert! This wasn’t an event for the fainthearted.

PigFish by PreFab ~ 2014

The crew that brought Cuba St’s epic Oyster Saloon coupled with the team at PreFab to create PigFish, a get-it-while-you-can eating joint serving pig and seafood. Diners tucked into six kinds of freshly shucked oysters, Yellow Brick Road deep-fried snapper wings, crispy ears, sticky pork hocks to share and crackling so good you could hear it breaking from blocks away. A rip-roaring local food, vino, craft beer and live music mash-up, it ran for 13 action-packed nights.

Jewish Diaspora pop-up series at Field & Green ~ 2019–present

Field & Green’s founder and head chef Laura Greenfield (pictured) has delved deep into her heritage over the years, exploring how Jewish cuisine has taken on local flavours in the places where Jewish communities settled: from the back streets of London’s Brick Lane to the Jewish ghetto of Rome; through Salonika in Ottoman-period Greece to the exotic flavours of the Kerala coast. Field & Green’s pop-up events have fast become a favourite with long-time festival devotees. For 2023 she will take diners on a journey to North Africa with flavours from Tunisia, Algiers and Morocco.

Hot For Chicken Pop-Up ~ 2018

This was the one-night-only pop-up that saw queues around the block and sparked Wellington’s fried chicken obsession. Chef Morgan McGlone (pictured) delivered a taste of his famous Belle’s Hot Chicken alongside Garage Project and Wine Diamonds for a night of lip-smackin’ chicken goodness. To entertain the queues, festival sponsors Visa even supplied popcorn dispensers and a walk-through scratch-and-sniff experience.

The Larder parks up at Garage Project ~ 2012

This event was apparently hatched up over beers and a slab of barbecued meat in chef Jacob Brown’s backyard. The concept was a six-course meal to be held among the tanks of the very new Garage Project brewery, each course to be served with a different beer: three courses designed by Jacob (pictured below) to go with existing Garage Project beers and three courses with beer designed to go with a dish suggested by Jacob (in fact, eight courses were served up on the night). For one course, diners were given a hammer to crack open clay parcels encasing tenderly cooked beef cheeks; ‘Garage-fed’ pork with malt crackling, star anise and cinnamon came from a pig reared specially for the event and fed on the same ingredients that had gone into some of the evening’s beers.

Breakneck Feed by Shepherd ~ 2016 & 2020

The original Breakneck Feed at Shepherd restaurant broke all the records back in 2016. Diners were treated to 19 courses in 190 minutes just days after Shepherd had opened for business. Not satisfied with that, the team took it a step further for 2020 with 20 courses in 220 minutes. This was the ultimate fast- paced gastronomical adventure of taste and culinary stamina.

Visiting international chefs ~ 2011–present

Since 2011, Visa Wellington On a Plate has made waves internationally with more than 26 collaborations between local and international chefs. After a two-year hiatus the festival team has a smorgasbord of internationals flying in for the 2023 edition including Kristen Kish Top Chef winner and Iron Chef host, Prateek Sadhu formerly of Masque in India, Victor Liong of Lee Ho Fook, and JP McMahon from Ireland’s Aniar. Famous faces over the years have included Analiese Gregory, Ben Shewry, Margot Henderson, May Chow and Nancy Silverton (pictured).