reflecting on sweaty sunburnt summers spent in hospo hell, and a love letter to the hot baristas of Aotearoa
When I was old enough to have my licence, but young enough that my superiority complex made me a danger on the roads, I spent my summers in the rural beach town my father lives in learning how to ride my motorbike. You may know this town, if, like me, you grew up watching Narnia, or if, unlike me, you grew up with parents that loved each other and therefore had the joint income to afford a bach there. Regardless of our origins, we all flocked to the bay for our holidays. If the Coromandel Peninsula was Epsom, then we were the kids tricycling around the cul-de-sac street of this dead-end settlement on the precipice of the Tasman Sea.
For my dad it was conditional that when moving from the back of his bike onto one of my own he was the one that would teach me, on quieter roads where I could unlearn my hereditary penchant for speeding. So, within hours of the Trade Me auction closing we blitzed away on the physical manifestation of my life savings, and I kissed the glamorous metropolis of Auckland goodbye. Like in Hannah Montana: The Movie, when Billy Ray forces Miley out to the countryside and she has to strap her hot pink city-girl luggage to the back of a white horse. Except for me it was Sarah J Maas’ entire bibliography and the Country Road overnight bag every child of divorce owns bungie-corded to the back of a glorified scooter that wasn’t very spiritually in tune with its fifth gear.
I spent my dawns in those months in the crash course of the Kopu-Hikuai Ranges, back country roads that exist for the main purpose of dick-measuring contests between utes with about 17 sheep dogs and a Swanndri pop-up-shop in their truckbeds. Which is to say there was no speed limit. The centreline was a line break in Waka Kotahi’s poem of road rules, a bit of creative licence up for interpretation. I spent hours following my dad’s tail lights, and when stopped at intersections engaging him in Socratic debate on why having to wear a high vis was cringe. Then he would deposit me back at his house and ensure my kickstand was firmly on the ground before heading to work for the day.
But, as someone who has been clinically advised not to spend too much time alone with their thoughts, too much of the Country Calendar life threatened to become a masterclass in popping a wheelie off of a cliff. So, I started job-hunting. Call me a nepo baby, but within ten minutes of my dad putting a post up on the community Facebook page a handful of his mates were begging for a teenage workhorse to exploit. In a town with a total of one road, the job economy was full of exciting opportunities—scooping ice cream at the dairy, scooping ice cream at the ice cream shop, washing dishes at the restaurant, or washing dishes at the café. Sadly, my one true calling was out of reach; I wasn’t allowed to pull pints at the pub because the one cop in a 100km radius was there too often, and my youthful radiance and boundless zest for life betrayed me as only freshly 16.
Through the process of elimination, I chose the café. The loudness of children sends me into sensory overload, something I find them morally blameworthy for—so foraying into the ice cream industry was a no-go unless I felt compelled to speedrun mass-pedicide. And my body’s circadian rhythm is aligned with when MAFS Australia finishes at 8:35pm sharp, so the late-night dinner services at the bistro would not have agreed with me. And thus, with not a CV nor contract in sight, I donned the livery of my first (and only) hospo job.
Let it be known now and forevermore that I am NOT someone with a strong work ethic. I will never be a “5-9 before my 9-5” girlie. Absolutely no grindset, and certainly no girlbossing. So to my beloved hospitality comrades, I salute you for being God’s strongest soldiers. Every night you wash away the sins of the industry and find it within yourselves to return in the morning, and yet years later I still see cronut filling and soy cappuccino foam floating on the dishwater of my dreams. I found self-actualisation at the bottom of a kitchen sink in the knowledge that I am profoundly lazy and am best suited to employment that accommodates that.
To set the scene: the shifts were long and so were our uniform sleeves, permanently broth-burnt and spirit-stained. No one taught me how to use the industrial dishwasher so for a hot minute there I was scrubbing everything by hand. We were staffed almost entirely by backpackers with questionable visa status and sometimes insufferably laidback attitudes to the thousands of customers that come with being the only café for literally fucking ages. There was no table service, so you had to order at the counter—something that cabals of American tourists viewed as a veritable humanitarian crisis. I spent my days welding my fingerprints to the bottoms of scalding plates then having to pry them off to point out directions—
trail walk that way beach this way bus out of town goes twice a day if Faith’s in the lifeguard tower can you tell her she left her sunnies at my dad’s house yeah just say the girl at the café she’ll know who you mean
—My narcissism revelled in masquerading like one of the locals, putting jaffas on Auckland holidaymakers’ takeaway cups and placing my pin on the world map on the wall firmly on the shoreline just a few metres from the door. The cell reception is patchy and my dad is one of those “what would I need wi-fi for” boomers, so all my city-slicking fans received was the occasional Instagram story of a beach sunset and attempts to soft-launch my future marriage to the gorgeous barista who either didn’t know how to pronounce my name with his German accent or just didn’t know it at all. Sometimes once we had closed, he would help me with the last dishes of the day, and rest his chin on top of my head so he could prop his phone up on the shelf above me and watch basketball. Then he and the other staff would go back to their hostel, to make the night into memories they could relay to me the next day over a symphony of milk wands. After work on those days, I walked the entire stretch of the beach, wading through the estuary (or swimming, depending on the tide), holding my Nikes, my phone, and my leftovers from the cabinet over my head so they didn’t get wet. I’d arrive home dripping, salt-crusted, hands steel-wool-scrubbed to the bone.
I’ve never felt much connection to food or cooking, apart from a deeply emotional relationship with Kebab King. I had a TV dinner childhood and my brother and I laughed my mum out of the room when she brought home a dining table one day that has still never been used. I prefer Uber Eats or food in packets that make me feel like a tribute in the Hunger Games nibbling on some bread from the Capitol in a wide angle camera shot that likely has some socio-political significance. But as much as I ached and I bitched and I scrubbed until that cutlery was more polished than any poem I’ve had to perform for way more money than what that café job paid, I loved being in that kitchen. The no-bullshit chefs that would give such terrible reckons they may as well have been Herald Premium opinion piece writers. The baristas who taught me how to use the machine because of how often I asked them to make me coffee. Skiving off in the walk-in freezer to cool down. Sharing half an eggs benny with a girl I spent nine hours a day with for two months then never saw again.
In the afternoons my dad deemed the roads were safe enough, he would bring my bike down to me at the end of the day. Come in the staff door, put an apron on, kiss the chefs’ cheeks. Some days he did fuck all but gossip. Some days he unspooled stories from the mouths of tourists. Some days he washed the dishes and I dried. At the end of it he would let me ride my bike for a few laps of the main road. What I loved most about that bike was the hidden compartment under the seat. The way it fit two takeaway coffees in it perfectly. The way he would sneak a jaffa from the counter to put on top of my cup.