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Tucked off busy Willis Street exists Wellington’s most ambitious food concept — Capital Market, the city’s current answer to the long-time global phenomenon that is the food court and home to the widest array of affordable food fare. With tall canopies, kaleidoscopic backdrops, and ill-fated pigeons on the prowl, the market announces its presence, and Wellington, having been starved of a proper food court for at least a decade, has found its answer here.
Within the complex, stalls like Where’s Charlie set the benchmark for food ingenuity and finesse, with beautifully crafted and delicious offerings. The recent addition of fusion food is a testament to cross-cultural pollination, or the side effects of globalisation, and give this food market an edge, embodied in shops like Quiquiriqui and Oriental Blues. The market is bustling during lunch hours with office workers and students enjoying different cuisines under a single roof. The jaunty epicurean adventure offers a brief respite from tight cubicles and computer screens. It’s no surprise then that the bad boy purveyors of sexual fantasy, John and Michael Chow, are behind this attempt at creating a home for heady food fantasies.
Opening in 2014, the market is owned by the brothers’ property management company CGML. You may or may not have heard of the brothers, and if you haven’t then you should. As brothel owners and “property magnates,” they intend on managing a $1 billion property portfolio by 2020. They are also proud members of the NBR rich list — a list that only millennials with parents already on it may dream of entering.
Emigrating from Hong Kong to Wellington at the ages of 13 and 8, respectively, John and Michael Chow spent their childhood working in their parents’ takeaway shop on Courtenay Place. Their rise is a classic rags to riches story, and could be used as an exemplar of the “model minorities” narrative by “bootstraps” and free market advocate-types who admire success ostensibly achieved through sheer hard work alone, with no excuses or blaming of a deck stacked against them.
The unlikely but sterling success of the Chow brothers as Asian immigrants, who have surpassed structural and social constraints, reflects the equality of our liberal democratic system. It wasn’t without difficulty; Michael Chow reflects that “I don’t feel our Asian heritage was a negative, though it certainly presented unique challenges for us to overcome.” However, the brothers overcame these challenges and have cemented their position as businessmen — and it is perhaps their position as such that reflects our system’s ultimate inequity.
Having control of 70% of the sex industry in Wellington through brothels and strip clubs, most notably The Mermaid, the Chow brothers have gained relative notoriety. Newshub has reported that women who have worked for the brothers in their clubs have felt “intimidated” by them. And a Stuff article, reporting on a case brought before the Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority in 2014, stated that former staff of the brothers’ “detailed claims of sexual assaults going unpunished.” Their position within the New Zealand Chinese community has also been tense, and at the 2014 Going Bananas Conference RNZ reported that members boycotted the event due to qualms about sex profiteering and business ethics. In an RNZ interview, Michael Chow said he believes that this “negative publicity” is good for them, citing a larger “hit rate” on their Facebook page with each bad story that comes about. It is with the same fortified attitude that John Chow emphasises “..not everyone loves us but this is who we are and we do it successfully.” For all the allegations, murmurs, misgivings, and in the current global climate of widespread inequality and discontent, the brothers have met the world on its own terms, and have taken their place at the top of the food chain with no apologies.
Paddling in deep pools of wealth, they have now become symbolic of the excesses of our culture — the uncaring commercial elite. Now owning expanding, self-perpetuating businesses, the brothers are major players in the property industry, running both residential and commercial portfolios. The sea of the property market that the brothers cruise and cream off is somehow also the exact same housing market that others have deemed a “catastrophe.” Our economic and political system has placed no constraints on them to worry otherwise, polarising us all as either fetishised winners or sooky losers.
The logic of the market allows the winners to be comfortably removed from the daily concerns of the homeless, of first-time buyers, or university students who can’t rent dry, affordable flats, and yet again, somehow, inextricably invested in this same system with us all. As one confronts the contradictions of a free world where the globalised flow of capital dictates our choices and limits our influence over the general orientation of society, increasingly there exists this class of elites enjoying modernity’s choice fruits. The modern world more and more so resembling a mermaid, seemingly beautiful, but with no legs to stand on.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, abstracting from the values that formed the Enlightenment, noted in eighteenth century France that if we all subscribed to the project of modern liberation, the more important question then is, to gain such liberation to do what exactly? Rousseau trenchantly despised the callousness of elites, using the term “ressentiment” to describe his and society’s contempt for them. Ressentiment, more than just the French word for resentment, means to suffer from a toxic mix of envy, powerlessness, and humiliation. Friedrich Nietzsche described it as “a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts.” Rousseau, who foresaw the embarkation of the project of individualism from the eighteenth century onwards, one premised on commercial competition, believed that it would only work to denude and wilt the modern individual from the inside. (It is probably worth mentioning then that Rousseau lived outside the circles of the intellectual and economic elite, bore children with sex workers, and had casually remarked on, in his pioneering autobiography Confessions, the fulfilment that came with masturbating in dark alleyways.)
It is within the modern world, far along the path which Rousseau foresaw, that the Capital Market exists. It started off as a food and retail venture and stuttered, never quite taking off. Michael Chow suggests: “We initially had a goal to create an undercover inner city arts, crafts, and clothing market. It didn’t work. Vendors simply couldn’t afford the space rental even at super low amounts and we are talking about $100 a week back then.” Eventually the designated retail spaces were converted into places for additional food stalls. This marked the moment of ascension for the market, allowing it to “fill a gap in the Wellington quick service dining culture to ensure our tenants had the foot fall they needed for success.” Embracing a singular identity allowed Capital Market to offer a wider variety of food choices and created a large airy space reminiscent of the classic food hall, thus legitimising its proclamation of being an “international food court.”
The brothers, as landlords, have referred to the majority of stallholders in the market as “hardworking immigrants” who are now successful and able to support their families. Perhaps reminiscent of their own journey, this venture could be seen as the Chow brothers using their commercial heft to provide opportunities to other immigrants like them in the food industry, and they have plainly stated this: in a 2015 interview with the Dominion Post, in reference to their tenants, they said “these are opportunities they would not otherwise have had.” However, their statement came in response to allegations by some tenants of exploitation, related to sudden hikes in rental costs among a slew of other more minor issues including “loud construction throughout the lunch-break.” The story made the front page of the Dominion Post, marking another moment of controversy. One stallholder referred to the brothers as “money-hungry.” In response, the brothers said that the operating costs are “fair and reasonable.” A social enterprise it never was — it’s nothing personal, it’s business.
There might be some fancy pants Wellingtonians who scoff at the market for not quite living up to its initial billing, and claim that the market is somehow lowbrow. Those criticisms are mere echoes of elitism and neoliberal snootiness; the same approach Voltaire took in his criticisms of Rousseau, his adversary. Regrettably, those same neoliberal impulses mean that tenants pay relatively high rents and have to make up for it through food prices. The market is not as affordable as it should be, which is its biggest letdown and conceptual non-sequitur. Sure there are other disharmonies within this market, not least last year’s report on rodent infestation, but fret not: orthodox theory tells me that the invisible hand of the market will fix it eventually. Alexander Herzen said that “modern Western civilisation is a civilisation of a privileged minority,” a “feast of life” where the masses are “uninvited guests” who have to be excluded or suppressed. Perhaps in our globalised world of free flowing capital markets, this is our literal hand-me-down version of a “feast of life” and it would be unwise not to bite the feeding hand.
To put it simply, these guys set the standards for everyone else to follow. Where’s Charlie have proven there is no limit to interpreting Vietnamese cuisine creatively and with finesse, while also understanding the needs of their patrons. It doesn’t just end with beautiful rare beef phở. Lush and substantial salad plates, enough to feed a hungry man I’m told, are filled with pickled carrots and a sprinkling of fried shallots, and did I mention that it comes with grilled lemongrass chicken if you so choose? The harmony of Vietnamese flavours is truly one of life’s greatest gifts, consider later the satisfaction of the cuisine’s fresh crunch and bite. Where’s Charlie understands this very well and they have designed a menu that meets the needs of a fortifying clean lunch, yet tastes better than your sinful dinner.
For owners Tina and her husband, starting Where’s Charlie was the beginning of a life’s dream. A dream that can only get better, as they have just begun operating their second outlet on Lambton Quay, across from the Supreme Court. This new café is an expansion of their current offerings and I am certainly very excited about it.
Consider trying their seasonal specials, which are creative explorations of the boundaries of Vietnamese cuisine without haughty tags self-proclaiming “artisanal” status. With a menu clearly marking vegan and gluten free dishes, Where’s Charlie is not about to leave anyone behind — the operational word being ‘inclusive’. Masters of their craft, a must try.
Oriental Blues opened in mid-January and is an exciting addition to the market’s eco-system. The owners describe their menu as “East-Asian-Fusion” and it’s a categorisation that sticks. The initially confusing, but actually very simple, menu allows for a choice of meats including karaage fried chicken, spicy pork belly, and spiced tofu. These “proteins,” as they are referred to, can be placed in any of their main dishes, the highlight of which is the kimchi fried rice; its pale red hue and pointed hum sets the standard for every fried rice dish you’ll try after this. The nori-taco is a seaweed shell taco, with bright freshness and crunch, which when served with your chosen protein is something worth savouring.
The genial South Korean owners, who have spent time dabbling in Japanese and Western cuisine before this, approach their food with invention. They mix and match flavour profiles like a greatest hits album, producing a final product that is so clever, you can’t help but be grateful for their efforts. The fried chicken box and the tempura broccoli with “hot glaze” are perfect snacks to pop, and would be my hot tip. I also want to commend the stylish recyclable packaging which they use for many of their items.
Producing quality bowls of noodles is no easy task. Countless television shows have romanticised the relationship and reward of noodle making. But beyond the complexity of the noodle making process are the under-prioritised harmonies of the broth and ingredients that go with it. Noodle Man craft their Sichuan noodle bowls, intense in broth and deep in filling, to nourish on a wind-swept grey Wellington day. Sichuan is a region in Southwest China well known for its cuisine, which features a liberal use of garlic, dried Sichuan chilli peppers, and bone broths. Starting from a food cart at both the Friday and Saturday night markets, the owners decided to do something permanent after gaining many positive reviews and a loyal following.
On the list of things to try is the squid noodle soup bowl; the grilled squid is decidedly perfection in your mouth. All the noodle dishes come with an option of egg noodles or rice noodles, which is ideal for those attempting a gluten-less lifestyle. Beyond that, there is also a selection of glass noodle dishes. Glass noodles are a recent discovery for me; they taste clean and have a firm texture. A throwback to their roots, Noodle Man’s street food classics like “Dragon man” pork dumplings and warm beef Bao buns are also excellent snacks. While there are two vegetarian dishes on the ever-expanding menu, I feel like more could be added. Noodle Man’s following can often be spotted sitting close by the shop, slurping down broths, with post-coitus-like satisfaction.
Meaning cock-a-doodle-doo in Spanish, don’t let the confusing name throw you off. Go through the menu… but wait is this Mexican or Korean? It is actually K-Mex, the successor of Tex-Mex and the newest interpretation of our Mexican favourites. K-Mex can be found in the brightest global cities, which offers proof that good flavours that match, stick, no matter how unlikely.
Quiquiriqui do fat juicy burritos while straddling delicate flavours. A layer of sweet caramelised kimchi is found bundled up with a choice of meats including Bulgogi beef and BBQ pork belly, foundational Korean flavours. For those not keen on fat wraps but curious with the flavours, the “naked burrito,” a burrito without the wrap, is a reliable bet. Perhaps the most popular item here is not a main, but a side. The Jalepeno Poppers — crumbed jalapenos stuffed with three types of cheese and then deep fried — are rewarding, however when compared to a very similar entree at the Wellington institution Viva México on Left Bank, Quiquiriqui’s rendition falls short, even though they have taken the crumbing to another level. Given that Mexican is a popular cuisine, it’s a shame that the veggie options, while available, are limited here.