Everybody around us is uncomfortable. We are sitting in a rustic family restaurant overlooking the bay in the remote New Zealand village of Moeraki, and our table is now drawing sideways glances from the rest of the patrons.
The General is being loud and obnoxious. The General is always loud and obnoxious. As the number 5 government official in Russia and an old-school military brass, The General is not used to hearing any form of “no” or wasting time on pleasantries like “please” or “thank you”. Everything out of his mouth is a command, or an erratic soliloquy on why Russia is the best at everything. The General is on a business trip here in New Zealand, and I’m hired by the receiving side to help steer him towards the successful completion of the mission.
It’s lunch time. Our table has already ploughed through the restaurant’s supply of smoked fish, oysters, fresh crab and champagne. The General is in good spirits (i.e., loaded) so he awards the table with his prize anecdote of how in pre-school, they kicked him out for molesting his teacher, and in the third grade, they almost sent him to jail for attempting to rape another one. While I try to put a Disney spin on the X-rated original in translation, The General is cracking himself up by wildly gesturing with his hands what, where, how big and how fast. The guests at our table along with the rest of the restaurant are now staring at us in horrid disbelief.
The one-man show comes to a screeching halt when The General decides it’s time for vodka. When a young waitress brings him a shot and attempts to leave, he grabs her by the wrist and pulls her in. I register the look of horror on her face and start scanning the table for sharp knives to use as jaws of life, if he doesn’t let go. Turns out, The General just wanted to inform her that one sip of vodka at a time is not something he’s used to – or going to – waste his time on. She starts explaining that the New Zealand law prohibits serving more than one shot per person at a time, while trying to wriggle herself free.
All of a sudden somebody from behind our backs plops on the table a silver bucket full of ice and in it, a properly frozen bottle of Russian Standard vodka. The General lets go of the girl’s wrist and slowly turns around. This is how I meet Fleur, the owner.
Fleur immediately assures The General that of course no laws apply to a man of his status. She knows Russians are very special, she says with a straight face – and she’s here to help. In front of our eyes, The General converts from a belligerent bear into a happy puppy. The rest of the lunch is a study in crisis management. Fleur does shots with the General and gifts him a jar of her homemade pate. He keeps kissing her hand and rolls his eyes to express how smitten he is with such a worldly hostess. We finally leave after the two finish off that bottle. They hug it out on the porch. For the rest of his stay in New Zealand, The General keeps talking about Fleur.
I return to Fleur’s Place after he’s gone, because I can’t forget her either. The first thing out of her mouth is “Did you see that giant flock of mutton birds in the sky? There must have been a hundred!” I’m confused at her excitement. Fleur disappears in the back and returns with a faded newspaper clipping. The headline retells another instance when a giant flock of mutton birds flew by Moeraki , seen as an important omen by the locals. It happened on today’s date exactly 100 years ago.
Everything else she says that day is extra memorable. How she went from being a teenage cook for the truckers to running a local pub at 22. How she didn’t want to be just a stay-at-home wife after getting married, so at 28 she bought a vintage 19-room hotel, which she expanded by adding a restaurant, a gallery, and an antique shop. How happy she was with it because it made her learn how to do interior designing, gardening, and plumbing. How her husband took out the mortgage on the place without telling her, and how she had to sell it when the marriage fell apart and move to a new town with her 3 kids and $60 to her name. How she built a new restaurant there, which in 20 years became one of the New Zealand’s most famous places because of its stunning food made from all locally grown ingredients. And how she had to sell it all because a rare cancer hit her hard and she was getting ready to die.
Fleur moved to the tiny fishing village of Moeraki because it was serene and it had a bay. She loved going out to sea on the boat with the fishermen, it made her feel calm. It didn’t take long for Fleur to notice they were throwing away the carcasses after filleting the fish, and she started thinking soup. Hearty, filling, inexpensive, easy to make soup. Honest food she could sell from a one-stove shack to fishermen and passing drivers. Something to do while she healed. The soup caravan blew up immediately after it went live. And then Fleur noticed the abandoned whaling station sitting in the bay that could easily house a kitchen and a few tables overlooking the bay. Against her own judgment and despite her children pleading with her to focus on getting better, she turned the abandoned station into Fleur’s Place.
The local council was vehemently opposed to Fleur’s plans. No woman had ever owned a business in Moeraki, plus Fleur wasn’t even a local. The day Fleur’s Place was scheduled to open, her fisherman came in and said “You have to go outside now”. In the bay looking at the restaurant sat a huge single whale. They hadn’t seen any in Moeraki in years: the locals believed the whales were avoiding it because it used to house a station where slaughtered whales were carved for meat. Except the station was now Fleur’s Place. Fleur went back inside, told the kitchen staff to stop chopping and prepping, turn off the stoves and join her on the bluff. They watched as the whale cruised up and down the bay three times before he left. She wasn’t the only one who saw the sign: a local Maori elder went to the council and told them to leave Fleur alone.
Fleur’s Place is now a gastronomic treasure of New Zealand. Everything she cooks is locally grown, every supplier is family. She saves her food scraps for her egg farmer’s pigs – and he brings her parsley from his garden. Her fishermen adore her. Her venison-rabbit-pickled walnut dish is so popular, all of New Zealand now orders pickled walnuts from her guy. Fleur says she is healthy now and has no plans of slowing down. She tells me she wants to fly to Nordic countries to see how they harvest and use seaweed. When I leave, she hugs me like she means it.
I don’t collect cookbooks, but years later I still keep a copy of Fleur’s. She signed it “You never know who you’ll run into at the fish market”.