Fredrick Sy and Tanah O’Dowdle made careers out of food — they’ve worked in and run resturants and styled food for advertisements. Now they want to share their knowledge by holding local food tours. Hannah JV sits down over a divine espresso with the pair to talk style and substance.
When you think of what a food stylist does, the last thing you think of is the appearance of a McDonald’s burger. But in the halcyon days of the advertising industry, styling a simple $2 beef ‘n’ cheese would net a food stylist a pretty penny. This was Tanah O’Dowdle’s bread and butter.
Turning back from the espresso machine in her Ponsonby kitchen, Tanah laughs, “I’d get paid $10,000 to spin a burger for McDonalds! It was when Saatchi & Saatchi was really at their peak and honestly you would get that much for a day-and-a-half’s work. These days you’d be lucky to get a couple of grand.”
Although Tanah got out of food styling when the work started drying up, her friend and cackle-buddy Freddy Sy stuck food styling out by moving overseas to Manila, where he worked on Filipino adverts from 2003-2008.
Freddy says, “I did a lot of food styling there as well but I just wanted to come back home. It was just a different lifestyle – it’s exciting but you don’t want to live there for too long or else you become too immersed.
“The business of food styling has changed and I wanted a change too. If you look at the way food is presented these days, food bloggers style their own food and they do it with no budget. Advertising agencies also have to cater to social media, in which there’s no money at all – you’re doing it pretty much to be popular and to gain a following; that’s it.”
Finishing up with the food styling trade when he came back, Freddy has banded together with Tanah to work on a new project that aims to get people excited about the food being made in unknown pockets of Auckland. Enter the exciting world of local food tours, where you’ll get to sample signature dishes from a range of restaurants along metropolitan Dominion Road. But to skip to the part where Tanah and Freddy take us on a tour of delightful Dominion Road restaurants is to skip over the real meat in the sandwich. We’re talking delicious tales of working in restaurants in the 1990s, when Ponsonby Road was the gayest, hippest place to be and the surrounding restaurants were packed to the rafters night after night.
The good ol’ days Tanah has spearheaded three restaurants over the years – Our Contribution (now French Connection in Newton), Pearls (on the North Shore) and Salsa, a Richmond Road staple where she worked with Freddy and a bevy of GLBT babes from around the city.
“Every night we’d have a ‘debrief’ in the form of Chardonnay… or sometimes slippery nipple shooters,” says Tanah. “I also made a devilish strawberry margarita that everyone seemed to like.”
“Working at Salsa was some of the best times of my life,” says Freddy. “There were nights when we’d get 200 people through the door at 9pm… on a Monday! And there was a real community in hospitality – we competed in waiters’ races along Ponsonby Road and partook in things like The Longest Lunch, which meant a huge table stretched along the road.”
And the events were just the kicker. Every year, around the time of Hero, the hearts, minds and butts at Salsa were taken by the gayest celebration in the country.
“I remember one Hero, I wore nothing but an apron, bra, panties and fishnets,” laughs Tanah. “You’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant these days that was as gay as we were back then.
“Even when I was looking after Pearls on the Shore, there weren’t a lot of gay restaurants around… well, there weren’t any restaurants in Milford! But because of this demand for a bit of a camp spot to eat, we’d have gay clientele drive over from the city – locals and visitors alike!”
It’s hard to put into print how effervescent Freddy and Tanah are in person without ending each and every sentence with the string of ha-ha-has that punctuate each story. What is easy enough to explain is their undying passion for food – a passion that will engulf you within seconds and have you recounting all of your own favourite food memories. Within 20 minutes of meeting them, they knew about my grandparents’ fig tree, my father’s bakery and my favourite foods. It’s unfortunate that no one can go back to that exuberant time where Hero ruled the streets and the restaurant scene was busy, camp and queer-dominated. But what Tanah and Freddy can do is take you into their world of food sampling and experiments on one of their upcoming food tours.
Sink your teeth in
“I think now is the right time to start introducing people to the sights, smells and tastes of Auckland’s forgotten food districts,” says Freddy. “People have become more adventurous with food, particularly now that more ingredients are readily available. This is at home and at restaurants – 15-20 years ago you wouldn’t find too many places where you could get food from overseas. Now look around you!
“I swear to God you couldn’t even get fish sauce at the supermarket 20 years ago! Now we are entirely saturated with choices but no basis to make choices with.”
He’s right – in a world of preservatives, fortification, fertiliser sprays and numbered additives that you couldn’t pronounce if your life depended on it, many people will find themselves staring blankly at something as simple as a stack of tomatoes, unable to choose the right ones to buy.
Freddy says, “Between Tanah and I, we have around 50 years of combined food experience, and that’s not just restaurant experience. Our mothers dragged us into food when we were very young.
“I remember being with my mother at a young age and going around markets – I was taught to smell a mango, pick watermelon and pick herbs. It’s given me a really good solid foundation to work with. Now me and Tanah will go out to [Asian supermarket] Tai Ping and get really obsessed with the sights and smells. You should hear us!”
Tanah quips about being a lesbian and Freddy being gay before saying, “One woman came up to us once and said, ‘You sound like you’re having sex’. And we laughed like, ‘I can’t imagine that!’
“We may sound like crazy people when we go food shopping, but so thankful for being given this obsession with food. Being taught how to select ingredients and how to do basic stuff in the kitchen gave us such a good base.”
In the know
“Being a hippie is coming back in,” says Tanah. “Knowing what’s in your food, where it comes from and how to select it is cool again; it’s not trendy to like convenience food any more.
“I can’t believe how much crap there is in the stuff you buy. I’m always surprised when I see people buying six-dollar yoghurt that you could assemble with a bit of natural yoghurt from [Indian food district] Sandringham and a bit of jam, or spice pastes that take a few seconds to make up. Everything’s full of sugar and additives and all that other stuff. Did you know margarine is grey until they dye it yellow?!
“It’s no wonder that farmers’ markets and buying your own and learning about food is coming back in. And that’s where our idea for food tours came in. Food tours have been run for years all over the world – it’s time we learned about the food that’s being made right under our noses.”
Take a tour
Under the banner of “Gourmet Joy”, Tanah and Freddy’s food tours launch with a “China Town” food tour along Dominion Road, one of the most culturally diverse streets in Auckland. To the click of chopsticks and over copious cups of smoky green tea, Tanah and Frederick have sampled and chosen the best that Dominion Road has to offer. “It is a fun, cheeky and informative; where our guests learn about sourcing ingredients with a philosophy of shop for the best and dump the rest’,” says Tanah.
On the tours you will enjoy having the unique opportunity to meet and great food personalities and different regional chefs. Try the house specialties in their authentic environment!
“Meanwhile, people who come on our tours will go away with a goodie bag and a few recipes to make some of the things they’ve tasted at home with friends,” says Tanah. “We want to be able to teach people how to make food conveniently and simply, but not in the way we’ve come to know. We want to show people how to do things like make a marinade or a paste, or how to make sticky rice, really quickly while you’re putting your meal together.”
The only trouble the pair has had in putting the tour together has been explaining the reason for the tour to the restaurateurs. Tanah says, “We’ve said to them, ‘We want this authentic experience and we’ll bring 16 people’. Then they’ll say they can do fried rice, because those are the dishes that European people will buy. So we’ve had to explain that we want to give these Westerners an authentic experience with extraordinary food.”
Freddy says, “We are going to a restaurant where a guy makes the noodles right there in front of you. It may take a little longer, but he’s making the noodles right there and throwing them right into stocks behind him.
“Then we’ve got a very lovely family who have a big pot of fire and charcoal with little terracotta pots inside the big pot. They serve the food in these terracotta pots and so there’s this awesome smoky flavour.”
Tanah says the aim of the tour is to make people feel like they’ve “actually left Auckland for a while”. “And once the tour is over, we want them to tell their friends and then go back to these places with their friends later.”
If the local food tours take off, Tanah and Freddy would like to expand the franchise.
“We can look to doing cocktail tours with 42 Below, or a food tour of the Pasifika Festival,” says Tanah. “In Melbourne they do food classes called ‘man classes’ where they have man-sized portions and man-cooking skills like barbecuing and wokking. Maybe that’s something we can look into!
With enough food tour plans to last them a lifetime and enough exuberance to get them through another ten lifetimes, you know there’s no stopping Tanah and Freddy on their quest to recruit more obsessive foodies. There’s just one thing they’re missing so far.
“Sadly, alcohol is not in the culture of the people who own restaurants along Dominion Road,” says Freddy. “We’ll definitely have to seek these places out to sweeten the walking tour deal,” laughs Tanah. “It might turn into a bit of a stumble!” For more information on Gourmet Joy tours, visit www.facebook.com/gourmetjoy.
| Hannah JV