There is the common belief that civilised dining out, with interest in good and interesting ingredients and enjoyment with alcoholic beverages in a socially interactive setting in New Zealand, did not take off until our servicemen returned from overseas duties after the Second World War. In ‘Dining Out’, Perrin Rowland debunks this myth and reveals the fascinating and colourful past in her book sub-titled ‘A History of the Restaurant in New Zealand’.
Rowland is an “experienced chef who has cooked and eaten her way through restaurants around the world”. With an academic background in anthropology in the United States, the history of the restaurant in New Zealand was the basis of her thesis for a Masters degree from the University of Auckland. Her writing in the book is indeed in a scholarly and near-academic tone, and the book is full of reference notes, showing her thorough research, which lends an air of authority.
This is not pejorative in any sense, as it sets the scene of a factual presentation and record of the dining scene from the very earliest days to current and modern times. Rowland sets the scene in the latter half of the 1800s when colonial New Zealand had built up the infrastructure and population base necessary to sustain a hospitality industry. Grand hotels were the feature. The time up to the First World War was a golden age for restaurants, and New Zealanders desired and surprisingly reflected the glamour of dining in Europe and in the United States. Even through the threat of prohibition and controlling licencing laws, as well as the Depression, there was strong support for good dining, as the construction of the Chateau Tongariro and sister Hermitage hotels testify. Perrin credits the establishment of tea rooms as a significant factor in popularising eating out during this time, but also describes the more risqué scene of night life and enjoyment of alcohol with a meal that was concurrent.
The Second World War was responsible for important developments in our dining scene, but more in the way that everyday dining out became the norm. Food was not necessarily better or more interesting, but often processed and faster foods took the stage for the common New Zealander. It was the post-war period that the major steps towards today’s dining scene were set. New ingredients, the influence of other ethnicities, innovative styles and techniques (remember ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’!), and real coffee became everyday and continued to evolve beyond. The way that food, eating and dining became even more part of our lives is described in racing fashion, reflecting the speed at which it all changed and developed. Coming from a restaurant background, this section was particularly enjoyable to read, as it was in my time! The final two chapters covering the ‘Coming of Age – 1980s to 2000s’ and ‘Restaurant Reflections’ fair gallop (a pun on the ‘Galloping Gourmet, of course) through personalities, establishments and cuisine trends. These were people I had met, places I had eaten at, and food I had thought about. The current trends of fusion and Pacific Rim cuisine and the incorporation of New Zealand’s unique culture and resources in our modern restaurant food and experiences are her final points.
Rowland’s conclusions are that dining in New Zealand has always been in step with that around the world, and often at the forefront of style development and innovations. It is only when comparisons with the past within this country that the New Zealand scene seems backward and dated. Her passion for food and the dining scene in New Zealand comes through strongly, especially in the latter part of her book. It made me want to go back to the start and pick up on some of the details and nuances I may have missed or passed over in the first half.
Dining Out, A History of the Restaurant in New Zealand, Perrin Rowland, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2010