Food Drinks

Former NZ Gardener of the Year turns focus to Māori cooking

“Foraging is a huge part of what I do. Seaweed, diving, kaimoana (seafood). I’m in the bush as much as I possibly can. The narrative needs to be, ‘It’s right here for people to use’. They use it, they love it, they protect it.”

Jade Temepara walks into the kitchen of the Christchurch-based café and cooking school she opened just over a year ago, hands dirty with soil.

She's just been digging fresh vegetables out of the gardens that surround Kakano Café & Cookery School so she can teach a fermenting workshop this evening.

The former New Zealand Gardener of the Year, Ellerslie Flower Show medal winner, gardener and food educator is flush with excitement. It's just another day at the office for Jade.

But for Jade and her iwi, this place is more than an office. It is the hub of their community and a space that, as a culture, will help Maori reclaim their food security.

You only need to speak to Jade for a few minutes to know she is a visionary. I had the pleasure of first interviewing her in 2011 when she developed the gardening charity, Hand Over A Hundy: a one-year challenge where young families learned to grow and produce their own vegetable gardens for $100. Back then, in her late 20s, Jade was inspiring; passionate about creating a revolution through food.

Today, the 36-year-old is ambitiously evolving a social enterprise model – based around food and gardening – that can be translated to indigenous communities globally.

Jade has serious credibility in this field: in 2012, she won New Zealand Gardener of the Year. The following year, she created a garden exhibit at the Ellerslie Flower Show to demonstrate to people what vegetables you can grow in your own backyard for $100, and took home a silver medal.

The mum-of-five is again participating in this year's New Zealand Flower and Garden Show. But this time she will be showcasing the work of Kaˉkano, the amazing social enterprise she has created that is designed to help Māori nurture their health and nutrition by embracing traditional food, food gathering practices and, of course, gardening.

The Christchurch café and cooking school is a hub for the local Maori community and, like Jade's vision, it is already building food resilience.

"I've been in Christchurch physically for two years. It was a good decision but also really hard to get a new business up and going here," she says frankly.

"We've been in operation for 15 months but have been connecting with community since the day after we arrived."

Jade began by running workshops.

"We were doing things around Maori food, different food preparations, fermenting, cheeses and yoghurts and really focusing on wholefoods. We just started building a network."

Engaging with schools and koˉhanga groups, Jade knew she needed gardens and spaces to develop her vision, and the location she found for the café's home – next to the Central Library Peterborough – proved serendipitous.

"There was a huge homeless population around that would utilise the library," she says.

"We knew they were our neighbours so we said, 'We're about to put a café here – do you want to hang out and help?'"

For eight weeks, they turned up every day, five days a week and helped Jade and her team for 10 hours a day. This moment led to Kakano working with Help For The Homeless. The social enterprise also supports rehabilitation initiatives in Christchurch Men's Prison, as prisoners grow food for the café and cooking school.

"Homeless use our kitchen to do things and interact with youth and elderly who visit. In Maˉori, we call this manaakitanga – it's more than just feeding them, it means to honour who they are and spend that time with them."

There are more surprising collaborations, too. Jade is in talks with the owners of Lyttelton's famous Roots Restaurant, and Tourism NZ brings international travellers to Kakano to help them understand more about Maori food heritage.

"We've been involved with nutritionists, lifestyle coaches. It's impacted every sector. I knew it had the potential to. I just didn't know it was going to go this fast."

So it feels fitting that Jade is returning to where it all started, in some ways, with her third time exhibiting, this time at the New Zealand Flower and Garden Show.

"The Flower Show was a huge catalyst for my career," she says.

"It really pushed me to push myself. It gave me a whole different platform of talking about family needs. They are coming to see roses and arrangements and I had a vege garden. It really challenged people. My theme has always been food and how it should be as common as having grass."

The story of where food comes from and the need to pass on generational knowledge around how to grow our own are now more important than ever, says Jade.

She has become deeply passionate about the importance of seed heritage, pointing out that if our generation can learn and pass on knowledge it will cushion future generations from environmental impacts, such as climate change and disruptions and scarcity in food supply.

Taught to garden by her two koros (grand-fathers), Jade was inspired first to feed her five children – now 17, 15, 12, nine and three-and-a-half – from her own backyard.

"My koros taught me the dialogue of how we do it and why we do it. But what I quickly realised was this kaupapa isn't celebrated outside of your own whanau. We should be proud as a culture and as a people of our connection to the ocean and the land. Culturally that connection has been broken down so much, and I knew it was my job to help rebuild it."

That's how the seed was planted for her new big vision – Kakano Café & Cookery School.

"Kakano means seed and I was captured by the story that my grandfather told me when he came down to try to make me grow potatoes at my house," Jade explains.

"I said, 'I don't have room for them in my garden'. But he said, 'These are significant; they are five generations old. They are what your great-grandmother used to feed my mother and these are the last thing I have of my father. If you don't grow these, baby, they are going to die with me.'"

Jade says she was "pretty annoyed but captivated" by his story.

"I took them and grew them and, because I didn't know when they would be ready, for once I had to observe, which is a very Maori thing to do. My wairua (spirit) told me to leave them in for another two weeks and when I pulled them out they were the size of my hand. I passed him the seed potatoes and he had tears in his eyes. I just got it for the first time. I got how precious our seed resilience is for our sovereignty, it's important no one can take that control.

"It just changed me. It made me go from a gardener to wanting to protect our diversity in food."

Jade says her big vision – which is funded through Te Putahitanga, a partnership between the nine iwi of Te Waipounamu (South Island) – is to give communities the tools and education to nourish and feed themselves properly. And each community would find their own way of achieving this.

"Not the way I would see it. Different communities have their own resource and richness and communities are not all the same."

A friend let Jade know about the Whanau Ora government funding scheme through Te Puˉtahitanga – created to support new ideas and build entities that address health, poverty, housing and social development.

"They were looking for ideas that were not about being at the bottom of the hill and in the ambulance but ones that had the power to change our conversation and support our communities," Jade explains.

But when she logged onto the website, she got a surprise. "I was on their website as one of their people. They had two social Maori entrepreneurs. Myself and Emmeline, who runs Community Café in Auckland. She's the boss.

"What they wanted you to do was encapsulate the spirit of Maui. That really resonated with me because in our myths and legends, he just did it. He was action. I thought, 'Yeah man I've got heaps of ideas'. Where do I start and stop?'"

And that's how Kakano was born.

The initial concept was a health centre based on food, movement and medicine. The idea was to use Maori principles of growing and gardening and develop classes to share the teachings of traditional food preparation and rongoaˉ – the traditional use of plants as medicine.

"I got through to the initial 15 but never heard back and I was just like, 'It's not meant to be. Sweet as.'"

But the proposal that Jade had written lit a fire within her.

"I had just had my fifth baby, was home schooling four kids and living in a residence in the foothills – in the middle of nowhere. I knew big change was coming so we made the decision to put the house on the market and move north to Christchurch."

Thankfully, at the same time, the government came back to her and asked her to refine her vision.

"I knew I needed to create a new social enterprise that is multi-layered and that everyone could be involved in. I wanted the profit to go into food resilience, sovereignty and education. To make sure that our youth could get involved, that our young kids could get involved and that our elderly had a place to go.

"Kakano is all about whanau and community and creating something that can become an authoritative voice for our food issues.

"I'm invested into this idea of being healthy and getting us healthy. As I've created this project, I've challenged myself the whole time about how we can enrich that dialogue and that experience."

As well as Maui, Jade's whakapapa includes Tane Mahuta, and his principles continue to guide Kaˉkano's practices.

"In mythology he is the god of the forest, the birds and everything," she says.

"At Kakano, we're very strict about what we do and don't do. We don't use introduced meat, milk or anything that is veering away from our traditional.

"We don't have coffee. Instead we drink tea from the bush in the form of kawakawa leaves. We choose the native majority over everything else.

"Foraging is a huge part of what I do. Seaweed, diving, kaimoana (seafood). I'm in the bush as much as I possibly can. The narrative needs to be, 'It's right here for people to use'. They use it, they love it, they protect it."

For Jade, it's been a chance to develop new skills and an adaptability she never knew she had. "My own professional and personal development has been gang-busters," she grins.

"I'm in a whole new realm of thinking. I know that Maori can't stay in this current state that we are in. I have the chance to pioneer a way of looking at this totally differently while keeping everyone intact and without taking their mana away from them."

And she's encouraging others to get involved. "Create your own pathway for your own family," she insists. "To me, nothing is more important or worth protecting than making sure we pass on knowledge for future generations."

Jade's next big vision is to fuse Maori food resilience and sovereignty with the tech space. "And I'll be bringing my people with me when we do it," she says, determinedly.

"We have always been a round peg in a square box and we don't fit into that. It's not our identity. We carry with us the spirit of Maui. We are navigators. We are the ones with the ideas and our own solutions. We need to create space for our identity."