A year earlier, the 15 Afghani women had been among the hordes of people at Kabul Airport fleeing the advancing Taliban.
Here they were, 12 months later, in a restaurant in the Wynyard Quarter in downtown Auckland with chef Peter Gordon teaching them how to make pavlova using his late mother’s recipe.
A chef for 30 years, Gordon had returned home to New Zealand in March 2020 planning to hang up his apron and enjoy a less hectic life.
But instead he and partner Alastair Carruthers opened Homeland, a facility that is part restaurant, part cooking school and part food retail outlet.
Every second Wednesday, Homeland opens its doors to community groups to teach them how to cook and enjoy the pleasures of a shared meal.
On the day the Afghani women learnt to cook a NZ dish, they in turn taught Gordon and his staff how to cook dishes from their homeland.
Gordon had worked in the United Kingdom since 1987. In that time he had owned his own restaurant and was an ambassador for Beef + Lamb NZ, unashamedly promoting NZ red meat.
When they arrived home – a day before the country was locked down due to the covid pandemic – it dawned on the couple that local producers needed help.
“Markets were closed, farmers were having problems with processing issues.
“We decided to provide a venue that is a conduit between consumers and producers, including a cooking school and a dining room where we support local producers.”
They use only NZ and Pacific produce, if it is available.
“Homeland is all about supporting our producers,” Gordon said.
Homeland uses miso from Nelson rather than importing it from its native Japan, and paneer from Southland dairy farmers the Guise family.
The Guises started making the Indian cheese after meeting an Indian migrant family.
They launched their own paneer only to have the main market in Queenstown disappear during covid.
When Gordon heard about them, he tasted the paneer and decided to use it in his kitchen – and stock it in his retail area.
“We also put them in touch with a company that does our branding and they rebranded it Good Guise.”
Good Guise paneer is now stocked at Costco in Auckland, among other outlets.
One goal when establishing Homeland was to have a social conscience, hence the decision to every second week open their cooking school to community groups.
Homeland, which receives support from Beef + Lamb NZ, provides the staff, food and cooking space.
Ethnic groups and clients of groups such as Auckland City Mission and the police charity Blue Light are provided with recipes and taught to cook.
Gordon recalls how Blue Light brought 18 young women to the cooking school.
Initially, many were kidding around and not focused on learning to cook.
Within 20 minutes, however, most were engaged and three hours later they all sat down and ate a meal together.
“Community days are the most rewarding thing we do here,” he said.
Recently a number of young farmers attended the cooking school. Their visit included a demonstration from a master butcher on how to break down a forequarter and then lessons on how to turn the cut into a dish.
Gordon said diners want to know the origins of the food they are being served.
They want to know the story behind their food, to have an assurance that it has been produced ethically and is of a high standard.
“A good story always works well,” he said.
If there is one thing he would like as a chef, it is access to good quality hogget and mutton, something he struggles to get.
“I grew up on hogget and mutton.”