Fresh challenge on Sarah Turpitt’s plate

When Sarah Turpitt returned to the Waikato from England last year it was springtime, and she landed (happily) in the middle of the asparagus season.

The growers near her home in Cambridge were going gangbusters with her one of her favourite green vegetables, so she was a regular visitor to Boyd’s Asparagus, on Hautapu Rd, for supplies. She made her famous-in-the-Turpitt-family asparagus and parmesan tart many times, and enjoyed the fresh spears simply steamed and served with lashings of butter.

Speaking of butter, she quickly discovered the cultured butters and clotted cream made by Cambridge’s award-winning Bellefield Butter Co. And she also became a regular shopper at the town’s Wholly Cow butchery. She rates Bellefield for its delicious products, and Wholly Cow for the quality of its meats and its sustainable farming and marketing practices.

She says: “The wonderful thing about returning to the Waikato was to know the provenance of the fresh foods produced in this region. There is such potential for the Waikato to be a great food and wine destination; we just need to get everything lined up.”

Turpitt is well-placed to be part of this: she is the newly elected chairperson of Waikato Food Inc (WFI), the not-for-profit regional food promotion group that works with restaurant owners and producers. It supports local businesses and it runs special events such as Feast Waikato, Melt, Fermentfest and the Matariki Dish Challenge, all designed to raise the profile of Waikato food and hospitality.

Turpitt was involved in the earliest discussions around the formation of Waikato Food Inc nearly 10 years ago. She values its independent nature and spirit, and she wants to build on the good work that has already been done.

She says WFI provides a platform for people to collaborate and communicate: “It makes a conscious effort to do this, to encourage collegiality. It can be a central point for support, for getting people in the room, talking about issues.”

The goal, she says, from the beginning, has been to disrupt the traffic through the region, to make it a culinary stopover. “We want to change the narrative that it’s ‘just the Waikato’, it has so many hidden gems.”

Turpitt brings strong personal expertise to the WFI table. She is a trained chef, and has worked in many kitchens in New Zealand and the UK. She has previously been a culinary tutor at Wintec, and Rural Hospitals Operations manager for the Waikato District Health Board.

Her husband, Lee Turpitt, is a Cornishman, and in 2017 the family relocated from Cambridge to his native Cornwall, in England. Turpitt managed a Cornish boutique wedding venue, Polhawn Fort, until issues around the Covid pandemic brought them back to the Waikato.

She is currently team manager for Wintec’s Centre for Hospitality, and she sees this meshing neatly with her new (voluntary) WFI role.

“I can enable greater contact and communication between vocational education and the Waikato’s hospitality community, especially during this era of an acute skills shortage and uncertainty in restaurants. There is a danger when working in education to become siloed, locked into a particular narrative that may not actually be reflected in the industry. Through this role (with WFI) I can gather information and feed it back to the education sector. We can work our way out of the skills shortage together.”

Turpitt is backed by other new WFI board members, including Hannah O’Brien from Raglan. O’Brien represents WFI’s producers’ collective on the board, and is co-owner (with husband Rory O’Brien) of Raglan honey producer Hunt and Gather Bee Co.

O’Brien says she’s had strong support from the wider community in her own business, and she now wants to give something back.

She’d like WFI’s producers’ collective to be a voice for all Waikato producers, big and small. “We are all doing our thing, in our own way, from big producers to small start-ups. You can get a bit insular in this business, and there is not a lot that brings us together.  WFI provides a great opportunity for us to support each other, share information and expertise, and to develop a brand for Waikato producers and Waikato food.”

O’Brien says the Waikato brand has not been marketed particularly well.  “There are amazing people here; we haven’t done it (the marketing) loud and proud enough. And branding is really important to securing funding.”

Funding (or lack thereof) is an ongoing issue for WFI. It runs on a modest budget, and is frequently strapped for cash. It is largely funded by sponsorship, and by its own fund-raising events. It previously had a one-off grant from Hamilton City Council but has recently missed out on funding in council’s long-term plan.  There has also been support from WEL Energy Trust, and another application for WEL funds has been made.

Some local businesses have got behind WFI with sponsorship funding, including law firm iCLAW, Bidfresh, Good George Brewing, Meyer Cheese, ABC Business Sales, and Craigs Investment Partners (Hamilton).

Dwight Egelhof, investment advisor at Craigs, Hamilton, says the company likes to support champions of the Waikato. “And WFI have very much been that”. He says last year was a tough one for hospitality and it was important to get behind WFI, support the work they’re doing with restaurants and producers. “They are really good people and it is good to put our name next to them, help them with what they are doing.”

Owen Culliney, a managing partner at iCLAW, says the firm has loved seeing Hamilton’s gastro culture grow in the past few years, and he praises WFI for genuinely caring about the promotion of good food in the city.  The firm has sponsored WFI’s recent Matariki Dish Challenge. “We wanted to share the good food and the good times. The Matariki Challenge was an easy one for us; it is something important to our region and our country.”

Sarah Turpitt says such sponsorship is hugely valuable and it needs to be backed by a sustainable funding model that will enable WFI to drive its own agenda more successfully. It needs an estimated $200,000 a year for running costs, which includes employing 2.5 staff. Currently there are 1.5 staffers.

Turpitt says there are new funding plans in the pipeline, “We are a big organisation and we need to be bold about this. There is such a depth of talent here. It is a real privilege to do this job.”

By Denise Irvine