The Westport woman putting an award-winning twist on the classic Kiwi pie
A Westport business set up in 2020 has outgrown its original pandemic-proof online-only model into bricks and mortar retail, with a commercial kitchen and 17 staff.
Words: Kate Coughlan Photos: David James
The challenge of cooking for a crowd has never overawed Emily Lucas. One of 10 siblings from a busy rural Taranaki family, she says everyone had to be useful. Even before she left primary school, she was adept at preparing and cooking meals for large numbers.
“My mother grew vegetables, baked all our sweet treats, and mostly only went to the supermarket to buy dry goods. Sometimes, we’d spend a weekend killing and bagging an animal for the freezer. I grew up knowing where my food came from, which cut comes from where on a beast, and how to prepare and cook each component so a meal comes together on time.”
These skills were invaluable when Emily and her geotech engineer husband Tom moved to Westport for his short-term role at Stockton Mine. Emily began work at the West Coast’s then most successful restaurant, the Bay House near Cape Foulwind. Within a few years, she had purchased the restaurant and, unable to find qualified staff, stepped up as chef.
“It was a steep learning curve, with up to 200 a day for lunch, but it was manageable once I broke it down into processes. You could say I only became a chef out of necessity, but I wasn’t a novice in the kitchen after all that cooking at home.”
The Bay House was successful despite its remote location. However, at the end of its lease in 2010, a hefty rent rise and the difficulty in finding skilled staff led her to decline to renew the lease. She moved her chattels and equipment into a new site for another restaurant, this time in Westport and called it the Townhouse.
When Tom took a contract in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, Emily sold the Townhouse. She headed to Auckland, then out to Rakino Island in the Hauraki Gulf to re-establish Hurakia Lodge, a small boutique accommodation and wedding venue where sportspeople Beauden Barrett, Andy Maloney and Ryan Fox, among others, chose to marry. Simultaneously, she did post-grad studies in digital marketing.
Fast forward to early 2020; Tom and Emily are back in Westport, and the world has come to a standstill as the pandemic spreads faster than a wildfire. Emily starts imagining a new business; it must be pandemic-proof (naturally), and use sustainably produced ingredients (ideally).
“The original business model was to bake to online orders in a one-week turnaround. I didn’t have a commercial kitchen but was able to use a local pub kitchen as they could not open. I spent that first lockdown developing the idea and brand. I wasn’t sure if what I wanted to produce was what the market wanted, and I needed to test the concept.”
What Emily wished to produce were meat pies filled with wild-caught game meat.
“During my time at the Bay House and Townhouse, I became curious about the origin and sustainability of food supplied to commercial outlets like restaurants. I wanted to know, ‘How is it being produced? What quality is it?’ Something about the whole process weighed on my mind. Living on the West Coast, where many people hunt and have freezers full of venison, I began to wonder why couldn’t I serve wild food at my restaurant.”
The Townhouse restaurant had become renowned for her wild venison steak pies, so much so that after she sold it, friends and acquaintances regularly badgered her to make batches of meat pies for their special occasions. The West Coast has a rich history with the humble, iconic meat pie where, as the saying goes, a three-course meal is a pie and two beers. Emily had a rush of inspiration. “Could we pay homage to a simpler way of life, epitomising the trailblazer West Coast spirit and history as wilderness pioneers? We would honour this with a great pie made using wild venison as an approachable introduction to the flavours of the wild.”
The ideas married as beautifully as a rich, meaty gravy does with a flaky pastry. She developed her wild venison steak pie, and the crowd went wild. That pie remains the most popular of the West Coast Pie Company’s many varieties — all hand-baked, all made with wild game meat. Her tiny shop in Westport’s Palmerston Street is filled with customers daily keen to get their hands on them. With a regular variety of wild game available from goat and pork to rabbit — and even hare — there seems to be no end to what might be tucked into flaky pastry in Emily’s kitchen.
“I’ve never believed there is anything wrong with farmed meat, but wild game is better nutritionally, more flavoursome and environmentally beneficial. So it’s a no-brainer. Wild game is an underutilised resource. Sometimes, staunchly anti-game eaters come into the shop, and we watch them try their husband’s pie (or their wife’s) and enjoy their genuine surprise that there’s nothing odd or gamey about it — just tender meat with a lovely flavour.”
It’s 21 years since Emily and Tom arrived on the Coast for his “short-term” contract and a hard and fast three years since Emily vanished into the idle pub kitchen to trial pie production. One of her meat suppliers — who also sold her pies on its website — Premium Game (winner of the Spirit of New Zealand Award, 2023 Outstanding NZ Food Producer Awards, NZ Life & Leisure, May/June) invited her to join their stand at the Auckland Food Show in 2021 and that publicity was significant.
“I could never have afforded to go on my own, so that was a big thing. At the show, I met Outstanding NZ Food Producer Awards (ONZFPA) head judge Lauraine Jacobs, who steered me to enter the awards (Wild Nanny Goat Spiced Pie won a Silver Award at ONZFPA 2022) and the business began to grow even faster. A collaboration with the Chatham Island Food Company (Supreme ONZFPA winner in 2022) to make their Wild Paua Pies brought more publicity and a further increase in pie sales.
In August this year, she purchased a commercial facility in Westport in which she and her team now bake 5000 pies weekly, plus bakery goods for the retail shop. In addition to being sold in the shop, pies are sent nationwide via online orders to individuals, speciality retailers and commercial outlets. She employed five more staff in August, taking her payroll to 17, and began collaborating with original craft beer brewer and West Coast brand royalty Monteith’s, now supplying pies to 40 of Monteith’s bars. It just goes to show that there’s no end to the appeal of a classic West Coast three-course meal. She’s right as rain, mate.
PIE-EATING ADVICE FROM THE ‘PIE LADY’
Take time to sit down to a pie. Serve it on a plate and eat it with a knife and fork.
Our pies are so rich, they only need a fresh salad — perhaps a Grilled Cabbage & Fennel Seed or a simple green salad. Home-cooked fries optional.
A beer is a great accompaniment; two is an even greater accompaniment. Perhaps a Monteith’s West Coastin’ Hazy IPA or Gold Dust Hazy Pale Ale?
Emily’s Grilled Cabbage & Fennel Seed Salad
Heat oven to 200°C. Slice 1 head cabbage into 2.5cm-thick slices, retaining the core so the pieces stay together.
Lay flat in a roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil and season generously.
Sprinkle over 2 tablespoons of fennel seeds and chilli flakes to taste and top with ¼ cup freshly grated parmesan.
Roast for about 10-15 minutes until the cabbage is golden brown and slightly charred on top but a nice, fresh colour underneath.
Remove from oven and serve immediately with more parmesan or allow to cool. Once cool, it can be chopped and mixed with salad leaves and cooked puy lentils or bulgar wheat to make a substantial side, perfect for serving with a pie.