Our People: Pavlovas to politics and fixing fiats

Aaron Campbell was axed as deputy chairman of a community board  for speaking out of turn about the city’s water issues. He talks to Julia Evans about the road to local body politics and the host of jobs he’s had

Have you always lived in Christchurch?

I actually grew up 10km north of Invercargill, in a small rural town called Makarewa. My dad is from up north, he’s part Maori from the Tainui iwi, which makes me part Maori. My mum’s from Invercargill. My grandmother was actually the first woman at the sight of the Homer Tunnel in Fiordland National Park. It’s a fascinating story, there have been books written about it. My grandmother, with three young, young children basically in a frontier-type spirt in every sense of the word, raised my older aunts and uncles in the wild of Fiordland as New Zealand was tunnelling through this big piece of rock as we were tunnelling through to get to Milford Sound. I went to the ‘top 20’ in New Zealand for swimming, but I wasn’t a rugby player, which is unusual for down there. Then I went to Otago University for four years to get a nutrition degree. I studied a variety of things. If I could sum up a description of me, it would be a jack of all trades but a master of none.

You seem to have had a number of jobs over the years?

When I was 11-years-old, I had my first job on a poultry farm collecting eggs from where chickens had laid them and putting them on trays. My mother also worked there, so I was taking cash and cheques with mum’s supervision from about eight-years-old. But I had my own IRD number from when I was 11, working weekends and school holidays, which is how I bought my first computer, a Commodore VIC-20. I spent $500 on something that has about four pixels. We moved to Invercargill and when I was at Southland Boys’ High, I had a job in a video game parlour, a place called Wizards, giving out the coins. That was when I was 15 or 16. After that, I had the odd job down in Bluff on the wharf just being a labourer. The hardest day’s work of my life was unloading a deep sea trawler with frozen fish. We were in a chain tossing 25kg boxes to each other. It was -28 deg C, so as soon as you descended the ladder, your snot would freeze. At uni, I worked quite a bit when I was studying at the student union in the bar. I was a doorman, and the smallest guy there, but I could always talk to people. After I graduated, I went back down to Invercargill for a two-week holiday and stayed nine months. I got a job at the Grand Hotel, but quickly realised Invercargill wasn’t big enough for me. I had my nutrition degree but I needed to learn how to cook. So I went to the polytech in Dunedin and then came to Christchurch. I got a job at the Quality Hotel doing breakfasts in 1996-ish. I was doing my second year of study at Christchurch polytech and an English butler came recruiting for a hotel in the British Village in Japan.

I went over to Japan on a working holiday visa and that’s how I met my wife, Kazumi, she was in the Tokyo sales office.

How long were you in Japan?

I spent a year in Japan. After working in the village, I spent a month in Kyoto, living in the middle of summer in an un-air-conditioned flat and renting a bicycle. Then I travelled down to Hiroshima, which is such an emotional place. I kept on going down western Japan on the local trains, down to Nagasaki. I went back to Tokyo for the last three months, teaching conversational English with no qualification. I also had a part-time job at an after-school programme with kindergarten age kids. Then I spent two years in London on a working visa again. I was temping as a chef. You might spend a day, five days or three months in a place. It was all about getting yourself up to speed and surviving. My girlfriend, now wife, came with me. She was working at a receptionist at a swanky hotel in Knightsbridge. Six months before we left, we took two weeks holiday and did a car trip around the United Kingdom. We went to the spot where the Campbells famously massacred the MacDonalds at Glencoe, Scotland. On the way back to New Zealand, we stopped in Japan and stayed for five years. The thing that always nagged me as a chef, I had that idea of ‘am I good enough for those fancy hotels’. I had an interview and got a job at the Westin Hotel, a five-star hotel in Tokyo. First year was in the banqueting area, cooking and preparing food for 27 weddings over a weekend. There was a year in the preparation kitchen for the buffet. The final year I spent as a teppanyaki chef at a Michelin star level, which is pretty cool for a foreigner. I did a fine-dining restaurant as well, cooked for former United States Vice-President Al Gore. I was the unofficial assistant to the executive chef. He was as good as Gordon Ramsay, but didn’t have that media profile. At the end of one night, he said to me ‘I thought all the best chefs came from Europe, but tonight I realise that’s not the case’. I was reading about business when I was in Japan, I was looking to buy a business back here in New Zealand. There was a bed and breakfast on Bealey Ave that we looked to buy, we looked to buy a catering business in a homestead.

When did you come back to New Zealand?

We came back to Christchurch in 2006. I did a few temp jobs in rest homes, then I got a job at a restaurant for a short period of time. One lunch-time, I saw an ad in the paper for a caterer at the Workingmen’s Club in Kaiapoi. We put a business case together and basically got the spot. We took over at the end of January 2007, which was a mad scramble. After another two years I was waiting for yet a bigger challenge.

That challenge being a very big pavlova?

Yes, so I came up with the idea of doing the world’s largest pavlova. It was a problem-solving task. How do you get a 50m2 pavlova into the Christ Church Cathedral with the Bledisloe Cup in the middle? It took a lot of planning and help and support. But it was great. Every dollar that was donated went to the Children’s Cancer Trust. The pavlova was part of a trilogy. I made a 15kg replica of the Cathedral out of gingerbread and the follow up to that was making rose window out of rice bubbles and icing sugar.

So how did these jobs lead to local body politics?

We did six years in Kaiapoi and I got interested in photography again. In 2012, I bought a digital camera and got really involved in making good photos. I did look again to polytech to do a photography course, but it didn’t suit my learning style. We worked hard enough so I gave myself six months to work out a business model for photography. In three years, I was busier than I’d ever imagined, but I started losing my passion for photography, so I had to pull back. I needed something else, which is where Lianne Dalziel came along. I took Deon Swiggs’ campaign photo and he asked Lianne’s opinion of it and that’s how we started chatting. Having never been in a political campaign, looking back on helping someone who had 23 years of experience and who was going up for mayor, I was cheeky. I wanted to give it my best shot and help her, then being able to do that was great. I lost 10kg over that period, there was a lot of work. I was delivering flyers over the Harewood Ward for myself just to get eyes on the street and see how people were living. I just wanted to get a detailed look at the community. I finished the campaign and Garry Moore, who was chairman of Lianne’s campaign, said what are you doing now? He invited me to meet Duncan Webb and manage his campaign.

So you went from managing Lianne Dalziel’s campaign to Christchurch Central MP Duncan Webb’s?

I said I was happy to meet him, but I wanted to make sure we got along. I was really impressed, genuinely after I met him. We got along great and I could see that he was a good person. It was a privilege to go into the co-management role of that campaign. My role was around the mechanics of the campaign, scheduling stuff and looking at it from a social media perspective. It took a step back from a party perspective and just wanted to make sure people could relate to Duncan and what he is about. I think the campaign was quite successful, it was a hell of a result.

How did you get onto the Fendalton-Waimairi-Harewood Community Board?

I’m an accidental part-time politician. It was by chance, two days before the close of nominations for the Harewood Ward, no one was running. I asked my wife and I asked Lianne and they said go for it. It’s as simple as that. It cost $200 to register and put out some flyers.

What do you do on a day off?

I kind of don’t have any in a way. That’s the sad part about me. Photography was always a passion and that’s now a business. I’d say the community board is my hobby but I get paid for it. I kind of like being busy, I am a workaholic. The downside of being a small business owner is you don’t have much of a chance to have a holiday. We often go back to see Kazumi’s parents in Japan, her dad is 92 now. The Fiat bambina is probably my hobby, I’m not a petrol head, but I love it. My brother’s got an old Holden and threw a V8 into it so I was thinking about getting something myself. I just realised how much personality classic cars have got. A 1969 Fiat bambina, an original, blue outside with a red interior with a 500cc motor has a lot of personality. I’m getting a trailer made for it out of the front and back of a trashed bambina, a wee mini trailer.

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