Aside from a handful of clubs and bars – and even those seem to be closing – permanent, physical queer spaces are hard to find. Being able to choose queer-led spaces, whether a choir or fitness class or writing festival, allows us to avoid exclusionary ones, and embrace our full selves in more aspects of our lives. And if people like Leo Molloy are running food businesses in Tāmaki Makaurau, we certainly need queer people who are fighting back in the same industry. Amelia Leath and Jarrad Amanono are those people, as the queer polyamorous chefs who run Fat Kitty Cafe.
Fat Kitty is a queer, vegan-friendly sober space on Dominion Road that you’ll recognise by its big colourful cat sign and the beautiful cabinet of pies, cakes and snacks. The walls are home to local queer and BIPOC artists’ work, and there’s a box of free condoms on the counter. It’s clear that Amelia and Jarrad care about Fat Kitty being a home for queer people, as well as making excellent Asian fusion food.
Ahead of launching their new menu, Fat Kitty owners Amelia and Jarrad spoke to Bad Apple all about opening a cafe four days before the big lockdown, and what it’s like running a queer sober space.
Tell us about yourselves?
Amelia (she/her) is from Christchurch and Jarrad (he/they) is from Whangārei. Before Fat Kitty we were working together at a catering company (The Difference), which is where we met. It was hard but inspiring work, and food was what both of our lives totally revolved around at the time. We both learnt so much working for Philip and Steph Reynolds and that really laid the foundations for what Fat Kitty would become.
What were the origins of Fat Kitty Cafe – what inspired you, and how did you make it happen?
Amelia: I’m the entrepreneurial one and as someone with relatively severe and late-diagnosed ADHD, working for other people was really challenging. I had just been out to brunch when it occurred to me that it’s crazy that people are still out there having to choose only one dish for brunch. Sharing plates have taken over lunch and dinner, it seemed inevitable that brunch would be next. We gravitated towards Asian fusion naturally as it’s the amalgamation of our preferred cooking styles. We also set out to make an inclusive space, what’s the point of sharing plates if not everyone can share them? To us that meant heaps of vegan options and heaps of gluten-free options.
We wanted to build something that questioned the status quo, where we could be unapologetically ourselves even if some people thought it was weird. We embrace the weird here! Fat Kitty is really just the projection of us and what makes us happy; colours, art and creative quirky food.
It turns out you need money to start a cafe, we were SO lucky that Jarrad’s parents had some inheritance funds to loan us and that they believed in us (which is just wild in the middle of a pandemic when businesses are closing left and right!). We also had to secure a bank loan, again, it’s CRAZY to think of a roomful of real grownups signing off on loaning us money to start an incredibly queer and mostly vegan cafe in the middle of a pandemic with no real idea of what we were doing. The statistics for hospitality businesses to survive more than a year are pretty grim so we feel beyond blessed to still be here ten months in.
How was it opening amidst the year of lockdowns?
We opened in mid-August (Friday the 13th) and had four days of trading before the last lockdown suddenly happened. Honestly, it was nice to get some rest and that then became really precious time we wouldn’t have had otherwise to build a new relationship with our partner Kaitlin. But it’s been really, really hard, January and February really tested our mental health. It took a lot to keep going, but our customers were super amazing and absolutely kept us positive.
You’ve been really open about being in a queer, polyamorous relationship. Why is it important to you that Fat Kitty is visibly queer-led?
Amelia: I’ve always believed that you need to set the tone and then that signals to people how they should respond. We chose to be really public because visibility is so important for normalising queerness. We wanted to make it clear that that’s not something that needs to be hidden, and it’s not “unprofessional” to be open about your orientation or relationship. Love is love. I love that together with our customers we have cultivated such a queer dominated (sober) space. Community and a sense of belonging are such an important part of our emotional well-being, we deserve to feel safe and seen. That’s what we’re trying to do here.
An old colleague of ours sent us a congratulatory message when they found out about the cafe, but told us to “lose the queer thing” (thinking it would doom us), so naturally we decided the sensible thing to do was to be even louder about it. Every business has a message, whether they realise it or not. Saying nothing is saying something. We’re saying its okay to be gay, its okay to not have a label, its okay to be who you are and its okay to question who you are. That message, in its own little way, does flow through every decision we make and that has created a space that feels so inclusive.
How is your being queer and polyamorous reflected in your business? What do you do differently?
I think because we sort of threw the rule book out the window from day one by going straight in with the “we’re queer and polyamorous” thing has meant we haven’t been afraid to sort of just … do whatever we want. Something I’ve really realised throughout this process is that people just do what was done before them without really ever questioning it. It’s quite possible we’re about the only cafe in Auckland that doesn’t have an eggs Benedict or fries on its menu!
We also have this huge wall of art that’s for sale from LGBTQ artists and artists of colour. I was honestly scared to tell Jarrad my idea for this art wall because in a business sense it’s such a counter intuitive thing to do, but to me it seemed like something we couldn’t not do. Of course he loved it and said absolutely. We don’t take any commission (so many people have told us we should) and we never will, we just offer up our space and facilitate sales. I love the phrase “give before you take”, giving this wall space really helped to kickstart our little Fat Kitty community; our artists were the first people telling others about us and dragging them in.
What’s been your favourite moment since opening the cafe?
Amelia: That’s such a tricky question! It’s impossible to single out one moment, but for me each time I see queer youth bring their parents in with them its hard not to get a little emotional. Knowing that we’re (hopefully) helping some young people to feel more comfortable being themselves around their parents just gets me right in the feels.
Jarrad: For me it was the morning we drove to the cafe just before we opened for the first time and our signage had been put up during the night. It was a very intimate moment between us where all of the hard work and sacrifices behind the scenes became very real.
Amelia: We absolutely both had a little cry in the car that morning.
What has it been like running a queer-friendly space? How have your customers responded?
Our customers are amazing! So patient (we don’t have any staff other than us and it can get a bit crazy here!), friendly and lovely. Being so strongly niched towards the queer community has definitely attracted some awesome people and allies, and turned away those people we didn’t really want here to begin with (The girls that get it, get it, and the girls that don’t, don’t – not everyone understands us!). I think our customers love us and what we’re about too, we have some pretty involved regulars who want to do things like join in on our wacky photoshoots when we launch a new menu. We love having such a creative and interactive space, and being owner-operated gives us a lot of freedom to lean into that and create something really special.
And of course – tell us about your new menu! You’ve just launched a refreshed menu for winter, what inspired the new dishes?
At its roots, our food is comfort food. The core message behind our menu is always going to be fun, playfulness and surprise. We started by taking a look at the core flavours trending in London, things like nasi goreng, rendang, massaman curry and xo sauce. Then talked about how we could take that further and do something unexpected with it. It’s definitely scary putting out (another) menu that’s so far outside of the box for a cafe, but we’ve stayed true to what we’re about from day one and people seem really receptive to it and our flavours.
Fat Kitty Cafe’s new menu is available as of Friday 13 May, and you can find them at 360C Dominion Road, Maungawhau, Tāmaki Makaurau.
Featured photos courtesy of Fat Kitty Cafe and whenuafilm.