Emma Wood spends an unusual amount of time thinking about vegetables. She wonders when the baby potatoes will be ready, if she'll get a bumper crop of rhubarb this year and how long the asparagus season will last. Most of all, the 36-year-old's head is filled with ways to substitute veggies for meat in Kiwi favourites such as sausage rolls and pies.
Her preoccupation isn't so surprising when you consider that Emma owns Portershed, a plant-based Christchurch cafe that specialises in 'veganising' everything from the aforementioned classics to flat whites and curried dumplings.
Since opening in July last year, a steady stream of hungry punters has beaten a path to Portershed's Addington premises – both those who care that no animal was harmed in the making of their food, and an increasing number of hardcore carnivores won over by Emma's tasty vegan treats.
And they clearly keep coming back for more – so much so that Portershed has just taken out the National People's Choice title at the Meadow Fresh 2018 Cafe of the Year awards.
"It's about offering people the sorts of textures and flavours that they're used to," says Emma, who's been a vegan since she was eight.
"That means the food has to offer the same salty, fatty, sugary mouth-feel as the original items, but without any animal products."
Hence the sausie rolls bulging with lentils and brown rice, water-chestnut burger patties and barbecued pulled 'pork' made from jackfruit. And who can resist Emma's addictive ginger slice or custard-filled lemon doughnuts?
Emma isn't surprised at how enthusiastically the Lincoln Road cafe, with its lawn made for lounging and a cute back shed, has been embraced by non-vegans.
"People are making the decision to eat a more plant-based diet, not just for health reasons but because they're keen to leave as small a footprint as possible. More than buying LED light bulbs or driving hybrid cars, people are realising the biggest impact they can have on the earth is to change the way they eat."
There are also some who have been unwittingly converted, such as the mechanic from a nearby garage who's bought a sausage roll almost every day since the cafe opened.
"One day he overheard someone in the queue saying how healthy this vegan food was and he went white. He couldn't believe he'd been eating rice and lentils all these months! But he said it tasted the same and was pleased it was good for his high cholesterol. He's even asked about vegan meals he can cook at home."
A run-down 1920s building in an industrial area seems an unlikely place for a plant-based cafe. But then Emma has never been one to make life easy for herself.
Raised by a single mother, Emma found food early when the responsibility of cooking fell to her. A move to Auckland to study business was cut short when she discovered she was pregnant with her son, Jack, now 17.
"I came back to Christchurch and supported my son with a range of jobs, from working at my father's motorcycle shop to running a bird sanctuary near Akaroa," she says.
But a desire to feed people was always at the back of her mind and for three years Emma cooked at a women's night shelter. "Cooking is how I show love."
One day in August 2016, her mum drove past a boarded-up premises that had variously been a shoe shop, a printer's and, ironically, a butcher's shop.
Emma hadn't been planning to open a cafe but the planets aligned in terms of finance – she had money left over from an EQC payment on the earthquake-damaged house she shares with her partner, Josh – plus she could see past the grimy walls and carpets matted with cat hair.
Emma spent seven months renovating the space, recycling as much as she could, before filling it with vintage furniture and artwork culled mostly from her own collection.
"I want it to be the kind of space where people can feel comfortable sitting and reading or taking off their shoes and lying in the grass, as though they're at their grandparents' house," she says.
And as for the name? It's a throwback to Emma's grandfather, Bob Porter, who was responsible for her impressive DIY skills.
"I'd like to think Bob would be pleased with what I've achieved," she says.
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