It is a pretty safe bet that nobody has been cooking food in hospitality venues in Nelson longer than Rob McKegney.
I first met him way back in the late 1970’s when he co-owned the Hitching Post restaurant in Bridge Street with his partner Gerrie White. It was where he introduced Nelsonians to great pizza and I fondly remember plenty of times with friends at the Hitching Post where, hidden in the courtyard out the back, there was a giant backgammon set painted on the ground. Regular mid-week backgammon competitions generated business on quiet nights.
It was McKegney’s first hospitality business in Nelson; having grown up here and after earning himself a degree in chemistry he spent 3 ½ years travelling the world before returning home and creating a career in food.
McKegney hasn’t had any formal chef training, he just loves food and discovered all sorts of wonderful flavours and ingredients during his travels, things like olive oil that you could only buy in a pharmacy here and lots of other foods that were thought of as very exotic in New Zealand in the 1970’s.
His inquisitive mind meant he always wanted to know how things were made and what created the wonderful flavours in the foods he experienced in other countries.
In the 1970’s it was a pretty turbulent time politically here, particularly around this country’s ties to apartheid South Africa, he had heard all of the rhetoric about apartheid but was disillusioned with HART, the anti-apartheid organisation headed by Trevor Richards, so decided he had to see what was happening in South Africa for himself and that became his first big OE destination.
In South Africa McKegney and his mate decided to hitchhike from Cape Town to Cairo, they travelled through what was then Rhodesia and made it as far as southern Sudan to the White Nile, a river that feeds into Lake Victoria.
One day they looked around themselves and decided as the only two white guys around it may not be the greatest idea to carry on hitchhiking so they went to Israel where they lived and worked on a kibbutz as labourers picking bananas, milking cows and doing whatever else had to be done, all for $20 a month, food, clothing and four packets of cigarettes a week whether you smoked or not.
Next stop was London just to have a look around however he ended up in the North Sea working on the Brent Delta oil rig that is still operating today. This was another stint labouring, “starting as a roustabout and ending up as a roughneck on the drill platform floor feeding pipes down the hole.”
This international travel had exposed McKegney to a wide range of foods and cultures and fed his interest in hospitality service and cooking so when he arrived back in Nelson in 1978 he knew he wanted to do something with food.
While he had developed some pretty handy cooking skills and food knowledge he didn’t have any experience running a business so he spent three months at McDonald’s management course in Australia before he came back and set up the Hitching Post with White.
McKegney taught himself how to make pizzas and Nelsonians soon started flocking in, not just for the pizzas but for the lunchtime cabinet food; “we introduced Nelson to carrot cake and mung beans, the carrot cake totally bemused customers initially but soon became a real point of difference for the business. It was all pretty revolutionary at the time” says McKegney but it was food he had eaten while he was travelling and as he couldn’t source many of the ingredients he wanted he had to make the most of what he could get here.
After the Hitching Post, along with another couple of business partners and friends he was part of the team who opened Nelson’s first night club.
Horatio’s was on Halifax Street next to what is now the library and was a much needed addition to Nelson’s night life, it was the first venue in the city to be open for trading after 10pm, how times have changed.
“They were great days, we had a huge amount of fun and the Nelson public really embraced the night club. We had a really loyal clientele who supported the business for many years, I was in the kitchen and the others had things they looked after, like running the bar, managing the promotions and business side or organising the music.”
There were a number of very well known people involved in Horatio’s, Ronnie Nilsen, the late Kevin Ihia and late Digby Lawley were all part of a great group of people who went on to be instrumental in making other changes in Nelson and New Zealand including setting up one of the first independent radio stations in the country, Fifeshire FM.
After a few years at Horatio’s McKegney set up a Tex-Mex restaurant in Bridge Street, Chattanooga’s was opposite what is now Noel Leemings.
McKegney says we are lucky to live in Nelson now where we have a large source of fresh and varied produce but back in the Chattanoga’s days they still struggled to get things like olives so the food focus was on prime beef and Mexican style food like corn chips. It is hard to believe now that these foods were almost exotic in the mid 1990’s.
In 1999 he and business partners Steve Russell, Reece Odey and Leanne Murray set up Lambrettas, Reece and Leanne met at Horatio’s and are now married and have bought out the others; the Lambretta’s story deserves a column of its own at some stage so watch this space.
McKegney sold his shares in Lambretta’s in 2002 when he turned 50 and started cooking at the Boat House in 2003 and has been here ever since.
The Boat House is owned by a society with club members who paid to join, they went on to restore the building. In the early years McKegney “started doing a bit of food for members on Friday nights” and 22 years later is still doing that as well as being open Wednesday, Thursday & Friday lunchtime to the public.
“The Boat House Society started with 176 members and now has well over 200, the society obtained an on-licence and quietly built the food side of the business and while the society doesn’t make much money it’s a great function venue that I think really adds something special to the Nelson community and the view makes it a pretty good place to work.”