Growing up in Nelson on New Zealand’s South Island, Shepherd Elliott would regularly make the six-hour bus and ferry trip to Wellington to visit one of the city’s many cafes. Cut to a few decades later, and Shepherd himself is now a fixture on the New Zealand capital’s dining scene.

Elliott is the executive chef at Concord, a European-bistro-inspired eatery he co-owns with business partner Sean Golding. The two also co-own food truck Donnie Taco and the modern dining destination Shepherd, while each owns a couple of separate venues as well.

Having lived in Wellington on and off for the past 30 years, Elliott has seen the food scene grow by leaps and bounds – particularly since opening Shepherd in 2016.

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“Wellington has always had amazing cafes,” he says, “but dining has become a stronger part of the city. And there’s a bigger range, from your casual cheap eats right through to your high end.”

According to Elliott, the impact of travelling overseas and bringing those influences back to Wellington has been one of the biggest drivers of change.

“You go experience the world and bring that back to the style of restaurant you own,” says Elliott. “It’s an eclectic mix of all the experiences that people have overseas: this mixture of flavours and combinations.”

This was Elliott’s own experience, having lived for a decade in London and Sydney and travelling across Europe, Asia and North America, before opening (the now-closed) Ti Kouka Cafe in 2010. Since then, he has taken influences from his time in London – particularly in Japanese restaurant Mju – and incorporated it into his work in Wellington.

Since then, Elliott has seen a vast improvement in finding great, local ingredients.

“There’s definitely been a shift towards better quality produce for restaurants,” says Elliott. “And I feel like we’re still in the middle of it, working towards being better and better. I can see it expanding in the next five or 10 years, especially on the smaller scale.”

The city’s walkability is another key factor behind the boom. Combine that with the hidden bars and restaurants packing into laneways and alleys and you’ve got a thriving food scene.

“I think we get more tourism than we think we do, partly because we’re the gateway to the South Island, via the ferry,” says Elliott. “But also for the food. This year we’re finally getting the international tourists [returning], with lots of cruise ships coming into Wellington Harbour.”

Wellington also plays host to a diversity of cuisines, from top notch Indian eateries such as Great India and Chaat Street, to authentic Burmese courtesy of Mabels. According to Elliott, the city’s best chilli-oil dumplings can be found at Rams, and Little Penang is a go-to for Malaysian food.

Iconic Cuba Street is home to such well-loved restaurants as Logan Brown and Floriditas and elevated cafes like Olive. Meanwhile, just a few minutes’ stroll away is Majoribanks Street, home to the Japanese-inspired Koji (opened by hospo workers fresh from stints living in Australia), the well-established Ortega Fish Shack and Capitol.

Between the local foraging being done by sustainable seafood-focused Graze, plant-based Thorndon eatery Hillside and chef Monique Fiso’s Māori cuisine at fine dining restaurant Hiakai, the next step in Wellington’s food boom seems to be native ingredients. Elliott has even opened a small research and development kitchen with an aim to provide more direct access to those ingredients beyond foraging, including the “untapped potential” of seaweed as a sustainable local ingredient.

“There’s a new, vibrant energy that has come into the hospitality scene, especially in the past 15 years,” says Elliott. “And I think in the next few years, you’ll see that grow.”

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Wellington NZ.