Like the sound of a meal that could be anything, anywhere, with anyone? You’ll want a seat at the most thrilling pop-up restaurant around.

WORDS ANDY TAYLOR / PHOTOS SUPPLIED

We’ve come a long way, baby! It seems that just a few years ago, New Zealand cuisine was stuck in the ’80s, with sundried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar being the height of sophistication. Now we’re spoilt for choice and have the world on a plate, but one Bay resident believed there was still something missing – and set about sorting it. 

Stacey Jones hails from the UK but has an admirable amount of can-do Kiwi attitude. She grew up in and around London and spent several years at leading advertising agencies there before the travel bug bit and she ended up here. After establishing and selling an e-commerce site, she helped set up Tauranga’s first innovation festival, Groundswell, then worked on marketing campaigns for regional economic development agency Priority One. Throughout these adventures, however, food remained her passion, so when she saw a gap in the market for a different dining experience, she decided to fill it. 

“There are so many good restaurants in the Bay and a great café culture,” says Stacey. “I just felt there was space for a really unique food experience and to utilise venues in new ways – such as cafés at night – something with a bit of mystery. Food has an amazing power to bring people together, but we tend to get a bit stuck in our ways, so I thought something experiential would help change that. That’s how Kitchen Takeover was born.” 

The idea is simple – for the diner, at least. After signing up, you’re given a date six to eight weeks out, then two hours before dinner, you’re texted details of the location. And that’s it. “Suspense is really important, so you don’t get a menu, you’re only told what kinds of things will be served, like fish or meat and nuts or seeds,” says Stacey. “You don’t know who else will be there or what it will all look like on the night. It’s a leap into the unknown, which is a nice thing in modern life.” 

With loads of locals willing to take a walk on the wild side, the first Kitchen Takeover event sold out in two hours. Diners raved about the eight-course Vietnam-themed banquet hosted at the Mount’s Spongedrop Cakery – the food, the styling and the concept – and it was quite an experience for Stacey too. 

“I cooked it all myself – and I was pregnant at the time,” she says. “I loved it, but I was doing absolutely everything, from the menu to the table settings to the marketing. I knew that trying to be super-mum was just too much, so I kind of put it out there that I was looking for a partner – and along came Shane Yardley. 

“He’s an epic chef,” continues Stacey. “He’s cooked internationally, he’s been Simon Gault’s right-hand man, and he came here to teach at Toi Ohomai. His sweet spot is in the kitchen, and that works well with my sweet spot, which is coming up with the ideas, styling and marketing; it seemed natural that we’d work together. The next concept we came up with was Hunter Gatherer, with various themes: from the sea, from the woods, from the hedgerow. We teamed up with Julia Sitch from Julia’s Edible Weeds and incorporated loads of wild ingredients, such as borage, speedwell and amaranth.” 

With Shane on board, this second Kitchen Takeover, held at Mt Maunganui’s Central Deli, was even bigger and better than the first. Some diners have even gone so far as urging others not to sign up so that they have more of a chance of being invited to the next one. Also surprising was that everyone who came to the first night of the event did as asked and kept the proceedings a secret so as not to spoil it for those that came the following night. 

“People have been great at embracing the concept,” says Stacey. “All the venues we’ve approached have been right behind it too, because they get it – they get how food creates the conversation, and how we want Kitchen Takeover to be different.” 

As with so many things, the devil is in the detail when it comes to experiential dining. Fortunately, Stacey does details, from hand-designed menus to ensuring every dish has a story and working with talented people to guarantee the styling of each event is perfect. 

“I want it to be the ultimate dining experience,” she says. “There’s so much talent here, and we have such great produce and awesome venues, so with Kitchen Takeover we want to bring all that together with great company. In the last Kitchen Takeover, I saw two couples, one in their 30s and the other in their 70s, arrive as strangers and leave as friends – they even found out they lived on the same street but had never met before that night. That’s what we want Kitchen Takeover to do – create a community.” 

The next Kitchen Takeover event is secret-garden themed The Plant-Based Edition. Diners will be taken on a plant-based adventure via a five-course dégustation dinner with a botanical cocktail bar. Anyone can prepare plants, but throw in a secret garden and suddenly you have people’s attention. 

“There seems to be a thirst for this here,” says Stacey. “People seem to be looking for something with a little magic to it. If you’re an egg-and-chips kind of person, that’s fine – but we’re not your tribe! If you want a night to remember with some amazing food and fantastic company in a really cool setting, then we’d love to make you dinner.” 

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