Alisha McIntosh finds her superpower in sharing plant-based sweet somethings with Coasters.

It’s fair to say that Alisha McIntosh loves a challenge. Starting a food-truck business in a remote part of New Zealand didn’t faze her, nor did coping with some serious health issues. So bringing plant-based eating to the wild West Coast of the South Island, a part of the country most associated with huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’, certainly wasn’t going to slow her down. “I never really considered the risk or that it wouldn’t work,” she says.

That attitude has served her well. As the chef-owner of Gatherer Wholefoods & Bar, her beautiful eatery in Hokitika, Alisha serves up Mexican-inspired dishes with a focus on nutrition and flavour. “The punchy, layered flavours, textures from sauces and salsas, and garnishes in this style of cuisine make it easy to create well-balanced and interesting dishes.”

Gatherer launched nearly a decade ago as a food truck in Hari Hari, a small dairy-farming settlement 70km south of Hokitika. Buying a food truck was Alisha’s remedy for a deep sense of ennui with her hospitality career. She was tired of working in environments that didn’t excite her. Buying a food truck – and teaching herself to cook – seemed logical.

Four years later, having discovered that food trucks aren’t all that compatible with the punishing West Coast climate, she upgraded to a cottage (still using the truck as a kitchen) and ticked along. “I served wild game pies and all sorts of delicious but terribly unhealthy bits.” Life was good. Then she was diagnosed with post-traumatic osteoarthritis in her spine. Sleeping was impossible; moving was agony. Research told her it was an inflammatory health condition, so she stopped eating meat and started avoiding dairy products. The change was almost immediate. That lived experience – and studying for a diploma in health sciences – convinced her to change her approach to the food she made for others.

Alisha still abstains from meat and eats very little dairy – and she has her life back. “I now work 14-hour shifts on my feet with no pain,” she says.

That’s just as well, because life ever since has been busy. In January 2020, she shifted Gatherer to Hokitika and set about dishing up new ideas to a fairly standard local food scene. “My goal is for Gatherer to fill the void, to offer something unique on the coast. It’s based on where I’d want to go if I was heading out for a bite and a bevvy.”

Her food philosophy is simple: seasonal produce, grown locally or close to home, treated well to create a balanced dish that’s satisfying for all comers. She enjoys helping people discover that meatless meals can be tasty – and filling – and is proud to preside over a coeliac-safe kitchen. Everything (including the tortillas) is still made fresh, by hand, every day. “Texture, flavour and balance are even more important when you aren’t using animal protein,” Alisha says.

Initially, most customers believe they’re going to ‘miss the meat’. “They are reducing their meat, whether it’s a decision they have made for themselves, for health, or due to the influence of a family member.”

As part of her philosophy to promote well-being, Alisha also advocates the power of sweet treats: “Well-being is about enjoyment, contentment and not being too restrictive.” Desserts at Gatherer are plant based and gluten-free, but the raw treats are the most popular. Alisha believes desserts should be small, decadent and… shared. “We encourage them on a special evening out – served with a few spoons.” LUCY CORRY