A Day in the Life of Woodpecker Hill
This story first appeared in the May 2015 issue of Metro. Photos by Simon Young.
Wakanui Farms have been slaughtering 180 cows a week for Woodpecker Hill but they can’t keep up with the people of Parnell’s hunger for barbecued brisket. So Che Barrington, executive chef, is on his mobile phone. The meat delivery for the day is short and he has to hustle.
Barrington is particular about his brisket. He likes the shoulder cuts large with generous rivers of fat so when meat emerges from the smoker after 14 hours it’s meltingly soft and still moist.
Barrington’s business partner Mark Wallbank ordered me the dish when I visited the previous day. Topped with pickled papaya and piles of coriander, it sums up the ethos of Woodpecker Hill — an unlikely but inspired coupling of Southern States barbecue with the fragrant flavours of Southeast Asia.
Che Barrington goes about the hunt for brisket as if it’s a thrilling chase, juggling supplies around his three other restaurants.
Che Barrington is rangy with sharp cheekbones, one tattooed sleeve and a missing left front tooth. He goes about the hunt for brisket as if it’s a thrilling chase, juggling supplies around his three other restaurants — Moochowchow, Chop Chop Noodle House and The Blue Breeze Inn — to make sure the smoker at Woodpecker Hill is kept stocked until the next delivery arrives in a week.
He’s equally perky about the quest for waxed dried chillis — shipment due in two weeks — and having to schlep to a quickie supplier in East Tamaki for green peppercorns. For a restaurant that’s been open only a month, scrambling to keep up with demand is a dream problem.
There are nearly three hours until the first customers arrive and the cooks are already ricocheting about the kitchen so fast it’s difficult to count them. Five? Six? When Brock Sprague arrived at 2.30am there was nothing for company but a raspy radio skipping between George and bFM. Sprague has spent the night alone as guardian of the barbecue. The enormous metal double-door smoker, which Barrington had custom-made from his own design, is fired by manuka, with no back-up gas option, and needs near-constant supervision to keep the logs burning. Every hour or so, Sprague sprays the brisket with a fragrant mix of water, green peppercorn, kaffir lime, lemongrass and ginger.
As the other cooks pull out their knives to clean soft-shell crabs freighted from Thailand and dissect pomelo (bloated South Asian grapefruit imported from the States), Sprague winds up the cord of the tiny transistor radio. He’ll be directing the kitchen over the lunch rush. This 12-hour shift is “one of the easier ones”. He will have time to go home and see his two-year-old daughter this afternoon and snooze before another 2am start.
Paolo Canestri from Pisa (“You know, with the leaning tower,” he says with a grin) is in charge of curry today, the busiest station as all curries are made from scratch and cooked one serve at a time. He’s on a double shift — lunch and dinner — so has a 14-hour stretch ahead of him.
His first task for the day is grinding chillis, lemongrass and galangal into a fresh paste for his smoky pork red curry. It’s a long process. Barrington is a disciple of Australian chef David Thompson, whose book Modern Thai is in the bookcase upstairs with a grubby, torn cover. Barrington came to love Thai food in the kitchen of high-end Sydney restaurant Longrain but he learnt the techniques in the kitchens of mommas while on backpacking trips through Thailand. None used blenders. A mortar and pestle, or slow mechanical grinder, is the secret to easing out fresh flavours.
The bourbon is poured. Patrick Atack leans at the bar with lank hair and a strong flat white. The bartender worked until closing at 1.30am and has wearily returned for a bar-staff whiskey tasting. “This is a big boy to start the day,” says Sam Snead of The House of Whiskey, taking a deep sniff of 50 per cent proof Rowan’s Creek bourbon.
Woodpecker Hill has a focus on bourbon — the logical accompaniment to barbecue. It stocks 65 kinds of whiskey, and drinks maestro Sebastian “Baz” Smith distils the bar’s own bourbon-style Waiheke Whiskey. Montana-native Snead has been brought in to teach the staff so they can inform clients.
“In hospitality we drive this pony,” says Snead. “We tell the customers what they want.” So far, the drinkers of Parnell have shown more interest in wine.
There’s another gathering at the till. Restaurant manager Mikey Hughes has summoned front-of-house staff to address teething issues with refunds. They share billing stories from the front-line. Clean-cut Hughes is wearing a green shirt that makes his eyes dangerously green and a wristwatch running five minutes fast. He likes to be ahead of the game.
He’s an ideas man. He’s 25. His first job in hospitality was back home in Liverpool as a runner in a restaurant in a converted church that had a gospel choir and Latin dancing. He has ambitions to run his own restaurant one day. He says, “touch the tables” a lot — which is a way of checking everything’s okay.
He’s good at management speak like “beach-ball theory” — seeing different colours from different angles. “Don’t think what you know is correct,” he explains. “Think about what the kitchen and the bar are doing.” And “the bubble-bath theory”, as in, do another task while the bath is being run. “While six coffees are getting made, go around touching tables.”
Whiskey school is out and bar manager Oscar Lods is making up a batch of ginger soda. Lods, 22, is the soda lieutenant of Wallbank’s empire. He’s worked with Smith to develop White Coke — a blend of vanilla and top-secret essential oils that tastes remarkably like the “real thing” except way more delicious. A perfect match with bourbon.
Since Woodpecker Hill opened, Lods has boosted production. “I’m spending a lot of time in the kitchen.” To get the spicy kick of the ginger soda, he dry cooks 1.5kg of grated ginger and adds lemongrass, lime and sugar.
He picks up another piece of ginger and keeps grating, careful to hold it with an open palm, not his fingers. A little safety trick from the cooks in the kitchen.
The seats are down and the tables are set. The first customers walk through the doors bang on midday and the staff click into welcoming mode. The room is divided into sections named after the Kentucky Derby. By 12.30, all areas are filling up.
As soon as a dish appears, there’s a runner on hand to zip it to the table.
Four women are nuzzled into a fur-lined booth in the Members Lounge drinking Pink Stars, Woodpecker Hill’s take on a Cosmopolitan. Smith refuses to serve Cosmopolitans because real cranberry juice is not available in New Zealand, so this version comes with freshly squeezed pink grapefruit.
The table is Parnell’s answer to Sex and the City. Three friends — a financial manager, a lawyer and a stylist — meet for lunch monthly and each time one brings a mystery guest. “We’ve been everywhere,” says the stylist. Their early feedback: “The food comes too fast, and the drinks too slow.”
Waiters punch orders into a computer on the floor sending a string of dockets spitting out of a printer in the kitchen — copies for the chef cooking the dish and for the manager stationed at the counter where the meals come out. As soon as a dish appears, there’s a runner on hand to zip it to the table. It’s an efficient system and as the dishes are designed to share, they flow quickly.
Ten dockets are lined up and Canestri has all burners firing with six pans of simmering curry. “Another order of lamb curry,” cries Sprague. Canestri doesn’t say anything. “Why are you swearing?” teases Sprague, fastening the docket above Canestri’s section. Canestri laughs and coolly balances another pot on his curries.
Five minutes later, there are 12 dockets. As fast as dishes go out, more orders come in: 1.02pm, 13 dockets; 1.07pm, 14 dockets.
Sprague keeps an eye on their incoming attack, giving directions to the cooks while thumping a knife through a pile of shallots, cutting translucently thin slices without even looking at his fingers. The woks erupt with dragon breath. Coriander rains down. Curry paste sizzles up in fragrant mist. With an open plan kitchen, this activity is in full view of the diners in the restaurant. There’s no swearing or yelling.
Tucked around the corner is the washing-up station. Tiana Manuirirangi has been a dishwasher for nine years. As the waiters clear tables, they scrape and sort the dishes; Manuirirangi stacks them into the industrial washer that gets them sparkling in a swift 10-second cycle. Even at the height of the lunch rush, she has a clear bench. “That’s why they call me the machine,” she says.
Out on the front terrace, Paul Izzard is enjoying one of Canestri’s spiced curries made with burnt brisket ends and caramelised coconut-braised beef. It’s a business lunch with Richard and Andy of Southern Hospitality — Izzard is an architect who worked with Wallbank on the restaurant’s interior and Southern Hospitality did the kitchen fit-out.
But they’re really here because their offices are in the area and they love it. “Parnell needed an institution,” says Izzard. “It used to be Iguacu.”
Lunch orders have dwindled and the cooks are resetting the kitchen. Canestri has more curry paste to grind. He’s relaxed and good-humoured after a couple of hours’ work that would leave most a broken wreck. What does he like about the job? “The best thing is when someone comes to you and says the food is good,” he sighs in his heavy Italian accent. “It’s really great.”
Sprague clocks off his 12-hour stint and Stuart Marsden puts on the head chef cap for the evening shift. An Australian who has worked in Bali for the past five years, chef Marsden got the job at Woodpecker Hill the usual way: “A friend of a friend knew Che.”
“You find out very quickly who can deal with stress, who crashes. The challenge is managing that.”
He sees his role as being a “father figure” in the kitchen. “You find out very quickly who can deal with stress, who crashes. The challenge is managing that. Knowing how hard to push.” The days of aggressive head chefs barking abuse are long gone, he says.
He worked under that kind of regime for eight years in Sydney and is glad to see the end of it. Although Woodpecker Hill gets hot and pressured he says it’s a “pretty easy” kitchen to command — particularly coming from Indonesia where he had to learn a new language and culture.
Asian cooking doesn’t go by a recipe. It’s all about fresh ingredients and balance so Marsden’s experience is vital in the kitchen. Preparing for the night, he checks the sauces, stocks and dressings.
Patrick Atack is back looking showered and refreshed in his white shirt and denim vest uniform. The bar staff for the evening are gathered for cocktail training. Smith wants them clued up on the classics. They take notes. There will be a test.
First, a Bellini. “Fresh peach only. No syrup!” Then a martini: at the perfect temperature an ice-crystal will form in the centre of the glass. And how to make a white Russian. “Try not to laugh, then add milk.”
Hughes shows me the computerised bookings system in a candy-coloured spreadsheet. I skim down and recognise Theresa Gattung’s name. There are 176 people booked for dinner — the most bookings the restaurant has had so far but Hughes is confident he can handle it.
By 4.48pm, it’s starting again. The shadows are lengthening. The thirsts are increasing. The kitchen is reset and ready. Parnell is on the up. People are keen to linger and Woodpecker Hill is the new place to go to celebrate life’s achievements, whether birthday or bankruptcy (was that the floppy brow of Alex Swney in the corner?).
The orders start to flow and the staff glide into action like a train pulling away from the station.
A mother snaps at her sour-faced teenage daughter on their way out the door: “You’re being aggressive to me now.” It’s the only voice raised in anger I hear all night.
At 6.46pm, Neville and Liz Findlay of Zambesi turn up in matching slouchy black and long grey locks. They don’t have a booking and are directed to one of the high tables with a view of the kitchen. This section is kept free for walk-ins and just as well. You wouldn’t want to turn away the Findlays.
At the moment it’d be difficult to book a table anyway. A phone fault in the area means the phones downstairs aren’t working so Hughes keeps running upstairs to check the office line for messages.
The music gets louder and the lights dim. A Wellingtonian at the bar sips on Garage Project beer. She’s here for a board meeting of a new business: top secret, she says. Many hours later, she’s spied at a table of four women laughing over glasses of wine. It turns out to be the Gattung booking. Business confidence looks high.
Assistant manager Rachel Heyder is stationed at the kitchen counter calling table numbers. “The person who works this is the conductor,” she says. “If this gets fucked up, the chefs get angry.”
There’s confusion over an order of burnt ends. The runner thinks it’s been delivered. “I’m not convinced,” says Heyder. She takes a subtle walk past the table and returns satisfied. “Oysters to table 19, prawns to table 47.”
Barrington is having what he calls a “typical day off”. He’s in the kitchen working.
Chef Barrington is having what he calls a “typical day off”. He’s in the kitchen working. “Being mum. Cleaning up.” With a new restaurant he says it’s important to show your face. Even when he’s on, he won’t take the head-chef role. He’ll man the curry station, or pull meat from the smoker. He’d rather cook.
A bottleneck forms at the door with diners from the early sitting settling their bills and new customers arriving for 8pm bookings. Hughes gently encourages the earlybirds to eat and get out within two hours, but if you’re booked for 8pm you can stay as long as you want.
By 8.39pm, the restaurant is at its busiest. Canestri has tasted so many of his curries, his palate has gone blank. Marsden hovers nearby with a spoon, also tasting. A cleansing ale would help but that’s against the rules. “If only we could drink beer during a shift,” laughs Marsden. “But chef Che wouldn’t be happy.”
The tempo of the music has lifted and so has that of the kitchen, yet the atmosphere is strangely unruffled. “Let this groove, get you to move. It’s all right.” A waitress clicks her fingers in time with the music: “The mood just picked up,” she says with a smile.
There’s one order left: two banana fritters. Heyder gets a burnt ends curry in a takeaway container, leaving Marsden to take control of any late food orders.
Barrington has whipped up chicken and rice for the staff. “We’re the easiest guinea pigs,” says Lods. “We can’t complain.” He restocks wine for the next day. There are 150 different kinds to keep tabs on. “Parnell people love drinking wine.” As each staff member clocks off, they file upstairs to the attic where plates are laid out on a table. White shirts are swapped for civilian hoodies.
Hospo workers don’t sit around at closing time boozing heavily and hooking up. Hughes says he doesn’t know of any relationships among the staff. They are welcome to wind down with a drink — deducted from their tips — but they can stay no longer than an hour after they clock off. By the end of a shift, they’re usually exhausted and ready to get back to their lives anyway. To bed.
Hughes is cashing up the tills. There are rosters to sort and phone messages to check. Callers will get a ring back in the morning to confirm bookings. The books don’t balance.
One large group told the cashier three times they were sitting at a different table from the one they were on and consequently under-paid their bill by $99. Hughes is weighing up whether he will telephone them to chase up the money or ring it up as waste. It’s a tough call. Is it the system’s fault or customers’ deception? He’ll decide tomorrow.
The chefs have scrubbed and mopped the kitchen. Marsden has made his food orders. Canestri has a beer at the bar before the lights are switched off and the doors are locked. “You don’t realise how thirsty you are until you sit down.”
Woodpecker Hill won the Best New Restaurant award in the 2015 Metro Peugeot Restaurant of the Year Awards and was runner-up for Best Room. Co-owners Mark Wallbank and Che Barrington were named Restaurateurs of the Year.