Self-publishing certainly isn’t for the squeamish. But when you’ve got an unstoppable drive to tell a good story, sometimes it’s your best option. That’s the reckoning of first-time author and long-time foodie and graphic designer, Liane McGee who this year published, Cuba Street – A Cookbook.
Over five months, Liane walked Wellington’s Cuba Street, camera and notebook in hand, to get down the stories and recipes of the street’s best restaurants and food makers. The result: a beautifully designed, 180-page book packed with tasty tales about the people, buildings and food that make up the street’s eclectic heritage.
5 Questions with First-Time Cookbook Author and Long-time Foodie Liane McGee
– AS TOLD TO JACQUI GIBSON
1. Firstly, why the fascination with Wellington’s Cuba Street?
It’s a place with great atmosphere and food. There’s fine and informal dining, as well as cool music and great vibes. It’s also got personal meaning for me. I came to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, as a uni student hungry for the café culture and that’s what I found in places like Midnight Espresso – its strong coffee and mousetraps stand out.
I much prefer places that are a little rough around the edges, that feel authentic and have some personality. Hopefully, that comes across in my book. I wanted to show it’s possible to get a glimpse into Cuba Street’s culture simply by walking up the street, sampling the food and talking to people as you go.
2. Your book covers everything from the restaurateurs to the buildings they work in, how did you decide who and what to feature?
I wanted to feature some of the restaurants that have been on the street for a while and reflect the broader social history of hospitality in Wellington.
The late-Victorian, early-Edwardian buildings of Cuba Street give you hints about each restaurant’s past. Loretta, for example, is housed in what used to be one of Wellington’s first cinemas (the Queen’s Picture Theatre) and a former pharmacy built in 1916. These days it’s a much-loved restaurant built on simple cuisine that’s predominantly plant-based. Looking at the menu, you can see owner Marc Weir’s passion for fresh, whole food. And, to me, the beautiful food, the ceramics, the flowers and fresh bread and preserves on display, make this restaurant feel like a contemporary still-life painting.
I guess I’m fascinated by the fact Cuba Street is one of Wellington’s earliest streets. It’s named after the Cuba, a settler ship that arrived here in 1840. As graphic designers, my team [at Fortyfive Design] and I have done a lot of heritage work and I think this interest in history and culture probably shows through in the book! But, with the project, I also wanted to bring readers up-to-date by profiling newcomers to Wellington like Lily Kao, a food entrepreneur from Taiwan. Lily came here to study but ended up falling in love and starting the Wellington Night Markets, essentially bringing street food to the capital. A huge deal. In fact, Lily’s market is so big and successful it expanded from a Friday-night-only market into a weekend night marker, held on both Fridays and Saturdays.
3. What, if anything, surprised you in writing the book?
Ha, well, I learned Cuba Street’s food scene is a small world full of lots of gossip! But also there’s a lot of incredible chefs and many, many really hard working young staff – who’re all putting in the hard graft and deserve celebrating too.
Thinking about the chefs and owners, though, it’s incredible how many struggled at school, some because of reading and writing difficulties like dyslexia. Their success has come through creativity, hard work and determination and honing a hands-on talent for making beautiful food. And, when you talk to experienced restauranteurs like Steve Logan, you learn that the fine-dining scene of the mid-1990s, when he and Al Brown got started, is still very much under pressure. More and more people want a less formal experience, but still the same high-quality sustainably, ethically sourced produce. The challenge for everyone it seems is to stay relevant and be agile – that’s the thing with the hospitality world, you can never rest on your past successes.
4. Your book features dozens of recipes, what are your personal favs?
I asked everyone featured to give me up to three recipes of their choice, so, yeah, it’s a book packed with goodies like the Matterhorn’s buttermilk chicken, El Matador’s chimichurri and Floridita’s smoked mackerel and dill hash. There’s a good selection of cocktails and plenty for the sweet tooth, too. Midnight Espresso’s gluten-free carrot cake features. And I love Fidel’s legendary Tim Tam Cake (it’s both gluten-free and vegetarian – and perfect as cupcakes if you halve the recipe). I’m a big fan of Scopa’s gnocchi (though it takes me three days to eat it all) and the Laundry’s gumbo is perfect for a big neighbourhood street party.
5. You’re about to distribute your book through Whitcoulls – does that mean you’re now a bona fide food writer?
I guess it does. Actually, it’s been quite the journey getting it from an idea to a printed coffee table book. The biggest buzz is having your book in the public library and seeing yourself listed in the catalogue as an author! How cool is that? It’s still a surprise when I see it. I’m very grateful to everyone who’s been involved – from my team at Fortyfive (my two awesome graphic designers, Anna Vibrandt and Niki Chu particularly) to local printers Blue Star Print Group and Spicers New Zealand and all the others. I’m proud of what we’ve created. Every part of this book has been made in Wellington. Every page represents a small, but special part of this wonderful city.
ORDER YOUR COPY: www.fortyfive.co.nz/cuba-street-a-cookbook
A Recipe for a Matterhorn Rhubarb and Saffron Negroni
– Also see pages 32 – 33, Cuba Street – A Cookbook.
In a chilled glass, add the saffron-infused gin, rhubarb liqueur and Campari. Stir with ice until sufficiently chilled and diluted. Trim the pith from a broad strip of orange peel and express the oils over the drink by gently pinching and rolling. Garnish with a strip of orange peel, or with an orange wedge for a bit more acidity.
Add 6 – 8 threads of saffron, depending on the quality and freshness, to a bottle of gin. We recommend a traditional London Dry-style gin (eg, Tanqueray). Seal the bottle and rest for 4 – 5 days at room temperature before using.
Trim the ends and any root remnants of the rhubarb stalks and shave lengthwise using a peeler, zester or mandolin. Combine the shaved rhubarb with an equal weight of sugar syrup and vacuum pack. Refrigerate for two days.
Decant the liquid and squeeze the rhubarb to collect any sugar syrup it may have absorbed. Strain the resulting liquid through a fine mesh strainer or coffee filter. The remaining rhubarb can be boiled and pureed or dehydrated to make candied rhubarb crisp.
Mix the rhubarb syrup with an equal amount of good quality vodka, by weight, to make a liqueur at around 20% abv. Shake gently before use.
Rhubarb and saffron negroni
30ml saffron-infused gin
20ml rhubarb liqueur
Broad strips of orange peel
1 bottle of traditional London Dry-style gin
6-8 threads of saffron