KELLI BRETT meets a young woman working just as hard outside the kitchen as in it.
South African-born Nikita Kuschke was always going to end up working with food. Rolling pizza balls on a Friday night for her parents’ pizza restaurants was always much more fun than socialising and so despite the warnings from Mum and Dad, who knew only too well the long hours and financial challenges that can come with a career in hospitality, Nikita set off with her eye firmly on finding her place in a professional kitchen. After seasonal work in Utah and Michigan in large hotel brigades, she followed her parents to New Zealand, wanting to gain experience within a smaller, fine-dining restaurant team rather than work in a more casual venue. “I like the full fine-dining experience, the fact that someone is not going out to a show and having dinner before the show: the dinner is the full show. The customer has made the investment to be there for the full story and experience,” she explains.
On arrival, she was lucky enough to get a few weeks working with Giulio Sturla and the Roots team in Lyttleton in Canterbury before landing at Hillside Kitchen & Cellar in Thorndon, Wellington. As sous chef, she is now enthusiastically soaking up every morsel of inspiration while working alongside chef-owner Asher Boote who drives a thought-provoking and clever menu. Nikita says that always being in the kitchen it is easy to forget that the food is for a real person. “Asher pushes us to think about everything. Is this tomato at its peak? How can we best use it? There is constant attention to detail but with a strong focus on the diner. He’s taught me that the experience that they receive is more important than trying to over-finesse a plate of food.”
An impressive approach to work-life balance at Hillside has resulted in time outside of the kitchen also being considered an important ingredient for the entire team. Nikita is using that time to develop a strong network for women working in hospitality in Wellington. Her first Femmes & Food dinner was eagerly welcomed and she now leads a growing network of women/female identifying hospitality folk who meet every second Monday of the month to learn from, share with and inspire one another. “It’s a whole community I never knew we could have. From dealing with tricky customers to staff/team problems, now we can bounce ideas and support each other. People have found better jobs at these meetings. For me, I feel like we are adding value to our lives.” Any spare time left is devoted to foraging for spoils, cooking monumental breakfasts for good mates and taking out her beloved Doc Martins (#wherethesebootshavebeen).
What the food of the future holds for Nikita is still not clear.“I’d have to spend a lot more time thinking and working before I find something that is truly my own, but I’m in this for the same reason that we all are… I love it!”
Sample Nikita’s work at:
Hillside Kitchen & Cellar,
241 Tinakori Road, Thorndon.
To find out more, search for NZ Women in Hospitality and Welly Hospo Wahine on Facebook.