Q&A with Rachel Taulelei

26 August 2014

“We are committed to the idea that we add value to communities through food”: Q&A with Rachel Taulelei, Yellow Brick Road

Rachel Taulelei is Founder and Managing Director of Yellow Brick Road, a sustainable seafood business. We caught up with her to find out how her business is contributing to a more sustainable New Zealand.

What does Yellow Brick Road do?

Yellow Brick Road is a seafood business; we work with fishermen who catch and farm in responsible and sustainable ways. We supply seafood into restaurants throughout New Zealand that have more discerning chefs with a real passion and commitment to providence and traceability where their seafood products are concerned.

Which restaurants do you supply to?

We supply to hundreds of restaurants throughout New Zealand – particularly smaller, regionally-based restaurants. They include Ostro, The French Café and The Engine Room in Auckland; Palate and Victoria Street Bistro in Hamilton; Rouge in Cambridge; and in Wellington, the Museum Hotel, Boom Rock and Olive Café. When we started, we mostly worked with fine dining restaurants, but we’ve slowly but surely managed to find really great species that fit every level of market.

What is Yellow Brick Road’s vision?

We like to say that we take those who catch closer to those who cook. Where our vision is concerned, we are committed to the idea that we add value to communities through food.

How is Yellow Brick Road contributing to a more sustainable New Zealand?

We contribute in and around the conversation where seafood is concerned. We preoccupy ourselves with the conversation around responsibility, where oceanic resources are concerned. If you don’t have the conversation you can’t advance any of the issues. Sustainability is one of the most over-used and misunderstood words in our lexicon. In seafood, specifically, there is a great deal of confusion over what is sustainable at both a consumer and trade level.

We routinely get calls from consumers and those in the trade saying, “Hey, I need a sustainable fish on my menu”. That raises alarm bells, because theoretically all fish caught under the Quota Management System are caught sustainably. However that is only the starting point. There are ways and ways of catching fish. We like to work with fishermen who catch with long lines; we like to work with people who are hand-harvesting oysters, or who are using relatively traditional methods of eel catching. If you know the person who caught a fish, and you can account for it at every moment, from the water to the restaurant, that is a sustainable practice.

Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?

The people. The fishermen that we work with are really pragmatic and interesting, and steeped with stories and legacy. They know things about the ocean that we will never know, because it’s their life blood. The fishermen we work with are more like guardians than businessmen; many are multi-generation fishermen. They’re certainly a very interesting group of people to be around, and are very grounding.

I love working with the chefs, because by their nature they are one of the most hospitable people you’ll ever encounter. Fishermen and chefs are the two ends of the scale, and to sit between them is a privilege.

What are the main challenges you have faced with the business?

The main challenge for Yellow Brick Road has been moving people’s mind set from cost to value. We often hear the question, “What’s the best deal you can give me? What’s the cheapest fish you can get me?” However in the space we’re in, we’re not solely centred around cost. There is a cost to everything you do. We work with fishermen, who, by the very nature of what they do, have an expensive product. There’s a cost involved in long line catching fish, which is much greater than trawler catching fish. That obviously flows through to the customer.

It’s difficult to move people from, “What the lowest price I can pay?” to “What’s a reasonable price for a great product?”. It’s a delicate balance, and that is one of our biggest challenges.

How do you try and overcome that challenge?

You’ve got to think more laterally. There are a lot of snapper in the ocean – we can all eat and sell snapper until the cows come home but that won’t do anyone any good. You can over-rely on one species. I would much rather work with a wider variety of fish, for example using trevally over tuna, and tarakihi over snapper.

Equally we need to utilise the fish in a wider way than we do currently. Rather than being a nation of fillet eaters, let’s use the whole fish. You can easily generate four or five meals from a whole fish. So greater utilisation and more spread across species is what starts to shift the goalposts.

Have you got a nugget of wisdom for our readers?

With sustainability, you need to get clarity and confidence over your own position. That’s not to say there needs to be rigidity about what’s sustainable, but we have to recognise that it’s a very complex world and seafood, for example, is a very complex sector. If we’re going to eat fish, and if we’re going to catch it recreationally and commercially, we have to find a space where there’s a comfort level over what we’re doing individually and collectively.

I also think we have to be authentic about our position. We can’t use catch phrases like ‘world-leading quotas’ and not have it be the reality. There’s a lot of work to do around authenticity in business.

Rachel Taulelei will be speaking at Project NZ, Sustainable Business Network’s national conference, which will be held from 17-18 September at AUT University, Auckland.

Rachel will join celebrity chef Mike Van de Elzen and NZ Warriors team nutritionist Lee-Anne Wann to provide food for thought at the Good Food Feast on 17 September. Click here to find out more.