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Navy joins the team at Government House

A lot of very important people pass through Government House, something two Navy personnel have gotten used to as part of an unusual posting to Wellington.

09 January, 2024

Able Steward Karen Brown and Able Chef Nadia Mwila are at the end of a six-month posting to the Governor General’s residence in Wellington, as part of a household team managing the day-to-day routines and special functions that come with the job of the Governor General of New Zealand.

ASTD Brown, from Gisborne, and ACH Mwila, from Wellington, say it’s been an enjoyable posting and an amazing experience for their tradecraft. Although it used to be a regular posting a long time ago, what they’re doing is seen as a trial, with the possibility of other Navy personnel following after them.

ASTD Brown asked for the posting, seeing it as an opportunity to further her steward skills and enhance hospitality in the Defence Force.

“It’s pretty similar to day-to-day at the officers’ wardroom,” says ASTD Brown. “We have a daily lunch and dinner routine. But then there are the informal and formal events, so it’s not like a set routine that you’d have on base. Having a flexible background already, it made it easy to maintain it here. You could have a formal dinner one day, then a formal lunch tomorrow, or a morning tea or afternoon tea the list can go. One day we had two Prime Ministers attending for a formal dinner, and that went really well.”

What stood out for her is the daily interaction with Their Excellences who I had the opportunity to meet them within the first week and the detail. “They go into really small detail in the day-to-day routines, and then the fine detail that goes into the functions. And the passion they put into it. It really kick-started my mojo, ignited my passion for hospitality. I wear the staff uniform and blend in with the team.”

There are a lot of staff at the house who make you feel very welcome, and more casual staff can be called in for big events. “For a formal dinner we have a wine steward, a team for food service and clearing, there’s staff rotating around the tables, observing, making sure people have what they need. Once staff started to realise I was also in the Navy, they become quite curious about my role and the Navy, the most common question that comes up ‘Why the Navy? Two points, my great-grandmother served and the opportunities, like my time here at Government House, to the amount of travel that is out there. Perhaps I might inspire someone to join!”

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Her advice to stewards following after her is to be patient and be ready to embrace a routine that isn’t a routine – each day is different. “Communication between what you’re used to in the Navy and in the civilian job can be different. Military have a way of talking with each other and it’s a different environment here, definitely in a good way. When there is some down time at the house, I was able to attend a Kaupapa with other NZDF Personnel.  I would love to see this going for 12 months, and get more responsibility and more independence, but that’s a long time out of uniform.”

ASTD Brown joined the Navy in 2019, attracted to the idea of travel. COVID-19 curtailed that a bit, but she’s had a posting to HMNZS TE MANA, bringing the ship from Canada after its Frigate Systems Upgrade. “I love being part of a ship’s company, taking on challenges and making new friends.”

ACH Mwila says she was offered the posting and thought it sounded interesting. “I wanted to see what it would be like working as a chef at that level,” she says.

“I work with a head chef, sous chef and another chef. We do daily meals for the Governor General and staff – lunch and dinner. Lunch and dinner service is rather like the wardroom service on base. Then we have functions. It can be busy, but it can be quiet as well. We had Prince Edward here recently, so we had a lot of people here.”

The pair usually work from nine to five, or 11am to 7pm, and sometimes in the weekend. “With someone in charge it’s not too hard, but the hours are probably more than in the Navy.”

She’s glad she opted for the chance to work at a high level of dining and functions. “I’m learning skills from chefs who have had many years of experience in restaurants,” she says. “If you like wardoom-like functions and want to take it to the next level, this is ideal. The head chef is really helpful. If you want to learn something, do something or work on something, he’s got lot of connections and could connect you up with a restaurant.”