Meet the ex-scientist who’s taking our humble meat pie to the gourmand streets of San Francisco
It's Sunday morning in San Francisco and the stomachs of the city's 800,000 residents are growling.
People rise and take to the streets in pursuit of breakfast in a town that offers gastronomic treats on every corner.
I jump on the M train to the Stonestown farmers' market. I'm hoping to get there before the New Zealand-style savoury pies, raved about in local newspaper SF Weekly, sell out. I'm a little anxious.
Then it happens. I hand over $5 for an oven-toasted butter chicken pie, ease it out of its paper bag and take a bite.
It is utterly delicious. The soft, flaky pastry and meaty texture melts in my mouth. It's barely 10am, but I'm greedily eyeing another.
San Franciscans can thank New Zealand's own Alka Patel, a former chemical engineer and mum of one, for their latest culinary arrival.
The 33-year-old, who grew up in Auckland's Onehunga and Epsom, moved to San Francisco in 2001 at the peak of the dot-com boom.
But she gave it all away in 2007 to start a family and is now on a mission to bring Kiwi pies to America's 12th largest city.
"The first thing I do when I'm home is buy a pie," she says. "Over here they've never seen or heard of a Kiwi pie. To Americans, 'pie' is sweet—like apple pie."
The first thing I do when I'm home is buy a pie. Over here they've never seen or heard of a Kiwi pie. To Americans, 'pie' is sweet—like apple pie.
ALKA PATEL, PIE MAKER
So Patel's business challenge is twofold: to make great Kiwi pies and to convince Americans to give them a go.
Patel reckons the city's many farmers' markets provide the perfect opportunity to do both. People come for top-quality fresh produce and to meet growers and producers face-to-face.
"Locals here enjoy learning about food as part of their shopping experience. That's why a market is ideal. I've got a unique product and time to talk about it in a relaxed setting."
San Franciscans are adventurous when it comes to food and are delighted by all things Kiwi, particularly the accent, says Patel.
It's a vital point of difference and a brand she's happy to exploit. She takes time to talk to curious punters about New Zealand and our love affair with the humble pastry.
She emphasises the product's quality, explaining her fillings are organic and the crust devoid of meat fats.
As money is exchanged, she coaches her customers on eating etiquette, suggesting the tasty treats are best held in your hands and consumed straight out of the bag.
"These things are ingrained when a food is part of your culture," says Patel. "Like most Kiwis, I remember devouring my first-ever mince pie—peeling back the lid and using potato chips to scoop out the meaty filling."
Patel secured her spot at the market in June 2009, bringing with her a range of five Kiwi pies with an Indian twist: butter chicken, lamb curry, sweet potato, chicken and vegetable, and bacon and egg.
Today, under the company name Pie Press, she sells around 300 pies a week, whipping them up in a friend's commercial kitchen.
She's added sausage rolls to her repertoire and another vegetable pie, this time in tarragon sauce.
Most weeks demand outstrips supply and production volumes continue to increase. She and California-raised husband Binoy, a company director, are keen to expand into more farmers' markets, sell into cafes and eventually get into wholesale distribution.
The entrepreneurial couple has a website for online orders. They're on Facebook and tweet to their pie-loving followers.
But to say Patel is carving out a niche in San Francisco's burgeoning food market is only part of her story.
Her passion for cooking runs deep and is grounded in a family whose knowledge and understanding of food, particularly Gujarati fare, has been passed down through generations.
"In my family we love food. Mum and Dad are both great cooks. Cooking and eating—it's what we do."
She laughs when I ask if she's planning to add a mince or steak pie to the menu any time soon.
"All Kiwis and Aussies ask me that! Yes, I'm planning on it. My fillings are inspired by food I know and love. I'm really picky about quality and getting the flavour exactly right."
This story was first published in Idealog magazine.