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Open home Juggling the many aspects of running a restaurant is a skill this sister act has down to a fine art. Jo Bates samples the warm welcome at Coco’s Cantina Photographs by Todd Eyre

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diningin Previous pages: A mural by artist Elliot Stewart is a striking backdrop in the dining room. This page: Cauliflower risotto (left) was part of the birthday lunch Damaris (bottom left) and her sister Renée (right) hosted for their mother, Nuku (below).

family photos and trinkets make coco’s feel like home – a place where people instantly feel welcome and relaxed


ou know you’ve struck gold with your new neighbours when they turn up with a greeting of food – tiramisu no less – and then open their own doors to the community with a warm welcome. It doesn’t happen often these days – unheard of, you’d think, when the new neighbours bearing gifts are restaurateurs on K Rd, Auckland’s notorious red-light district. Welcome to Coco’s Cantina. As far as sisters and proprietors Renée and Damaris Coulter are concerned, Coco’s is an extension of themselves and their own living rooms. Take a look at the selection of family photos on the walls, the trinkets and paintings collected in their travels and you’ll see that the personal touches speak volumes. From a young age, Renée and Damaris have felt right at home in restaurants. They grew up in Kaitaia in the Far North where their aunt and Swiss uncle ran a restaurant (it’s still running 30 years on). “It felt like an extension of home,” recalls Renée. “We’d get there and go straight into the kitchen to check out what everyone was doing.”

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From that early introduction, both sisters forged careers in the hospitality industry, working in Auckland, England and Italy as kitchen hand, cook, bar staff, waitress and maître d’. They covered all the bases; pretty good prep for establishing their own restaurant, which they opened to Taste on a sunny Sunday when celebrating their mother Nuku’s birthday. Lunch was prepared by chef Iason Hannick, who worked with the girls overseas and is now here from Italy to do a stint at Coco’s. Antipasto was followed by creamy, flavoursome Roast Cauliflower & Pancetta Risotto, then Roast Chicken with Morello Cherry & Pistachio Stuffing was served with greens, crunchy roast potatoes and roast Jerusalem artichokes dressed with lemony yoghurt. For dessert, a Brazilian friend made a coconut vanilla cake and chocolates for Nuku. Family and friends always know they are in very capable hands at Coco’s. Damaris’ experience has seen her work in some of London’s top restaurants, including Providore with Peter Gordon and Fig with

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These pages: With the sisters’ extensive experience in the hospitality industry and nononsense approach to service, family and friends know they are in very capable hands at Coco’s Cantina. And the food is pretty good too!

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Anna Hansen and Sarah Conway. She had the opportunity to maître d’ at Notting Hill’s E&O, which she describes as “the best thing I ever did. I learnt how to maximise a dining room, juggle sections, turn tables, not slam the kitchen with orders, read different personalities, and regularly got harassed by PAs to the stars demanding a table. It was full-on but it taught me how to see beyond one area of the restaurant and, of course, the tips were good and so were the goodie bags from Prada and others who wanted tables,” she laughs. “At any one time there would be four or five big names – Mario Testino, Mick Jagger – but I got to the stage where it wasn’t real, it was soulless and stroking egos and it wasn’t me.” Meanwhile, Renée had been working in Auckland and England, cultivating a career in what many people view as a part-time, one-time, or fill-in role – as a waitress. “There’s still a perception that waitressing is not a career, it’s not a real job, but it’s such a hard job and so much more than just plate carrying,” she explains. As well as being a charming host, the role encompasses judging a diner’s personality, their mood and ensuring they have a great night out. As Damaris says: “It’s like a circus!” And so it came time to join the circus when they realised they were running out of space at home to entertain. “Our houses weren’t big enough for doing friends’ weddings and throwing parties so we thought let’s just bloody open something so we can do these things and it’ll be 10 times easier!” says Renée. After numerous cook-offs, vision boards, discussions and hunting for a venue, Damaris and Renée opened Coco’s Cantina nine months ago. Borrowing ideas from their travels and work experiences, they strove for a balance of restaurant and bar, “where the service is really good but not fussy, a bit family and unpretentious. We wanted to create the kind of place we would want to go to,” says Renée.

They hit the mark. Coco’s was an instant success and recently took out runner-up in the Bar Bistro category in Metro magazine’s Restaurant of the Year awards. While the Mediterranean-influenced menu has helped cultivate regulars, it’s the sisters’ dynamic personalities that create the essence of Coco. They are on the floor every night using all the skills they’ve honed in the hospitality industry. “We have a lot of regulars and I think that’s how you stay stimulated in this industry,” explains Damaris. “You master the floor and the kitchen and the food and then what? If you build a rapport and a community around you, every day is new as opposed to it becoming a numbers

game. One of our goals is to bring back a little bit of community around eating.” “We try to instantly make people feel welcome and relaxed,” says Renée. “I think New Zealanders have really been let down by service and so they want to control the situation. We do this day in, day out and we have their best interests at heart. Our service is no-nonsense, it’s a place for grown-ups: if you are going to throw a tantrum you won’t get special service. It’s a trust thing and if you let us do our job and look after you, you are going to have a really good time.” These two not only do service with a smile, but with an abundance of style, charm and humour.

This page: After the superb main course of Roast Chicken with Morello Cherry & Pistachio Stuffing (see recipe over the page) guests enjoyed a coconut vanilla birthday cake and handmade chocolates, made for Nuku (left) by a Brazilian friend.

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Roast chicken with morello cherry & pistachio stuffing Ready in | 2 hours serves | 6 1 large chicken 4-6 good-sized potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks 1 lemon 8 cloves garlic, unpeeled Rosemary sprigs Olive oil Stuffing 1 onion, finely chopped 1 carrot, finely chopped 12 small sprigs thyme 4 large sausages, skins removed 1 celery stick, diced Large bunch parsley, chopped ½ cup pistachio nuts, chopped 1 cup morello cherries, pitted (dried apricots could be used instead) 1 clove garlic, finely chopped 1 egg 1½ cups fresh breadcrumbs

Roast cauliflower & pancetta risotto Ready in | 1¾ hours serves | 4-6 1 cauliflower 60g butter ½ cup olive oil 1½ litres chicken stock 1 onion, finely chopped 1 stick celery, diced 6 rashers pancetta or streaky bacon, diced 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 300g arborio rice ½ cup white wine 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese Herb croutons, for garnish (optional)

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1 Preheat oven to 180°C. Roughly chop the cauliflower. Set aside about 1 cup small florets. Put the larger florets in a roasting dish with a knob of the butter, a splash of olive oil, ½ cup of the chicken stock and salt and pepper. Cover with foil and roast until tender, about 1 hour. 2 Put the smaller florets and any cauliflower left on the chopping board in a separate dish, with a little bit of butter, olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast uncovered for around 25-30 minutes (until they get some colour but retain some crunch). 3 Heat the remaining chicken stock in a saucepan until hot. 4 In a heavy-based pan, gently heat a splash of oil and 1 Tbsp butter, then add the onion, celery, half the pancetta and the garlic and sauté until soft but not browned, about 3-5 minutes.

5 Add the rice, turn up the heat and give it a good stir so all the rice gets lightly toasted and coated. Add the wine and boil rapidly to reduce. 6 Add the large cauliflower florets, then add a ladleful of the hot stock, stirring until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding stock in this way until the rice is cooked – it should be al dente and have a creamy consistency. 7 In a separate pan, fry the remaining pancetta until crispy. 8 When the risotto has reached the correct consistency, remove from heat and add most of the parmesan and a knob of butter. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve garnished with the crunchy pancetta, uncovered roast cauliflower and remaining parmesan. To add crunch, sprinkle with herb croutons.

1 Preheat oven to 180°C. To make the stuffing, sauté the onion and carrot in a pan with the thyme until soft but not coloured. In a bowl, mix the sausage meat with celery, parsley, pistachio nuts, morello cherries, the sautéed onion mix, garlic, egg, some salt and pepper and enough breadcrumbs to make the mixture manageable. Stuff into the bird’s cavity; any remaining stuffing can be rolled into balls and added to the roast 40 minutes before the end of cooking. 2 Place the stuffed chicken on its side in a roasting dish, surrounded by the potatoes. Squeeze over the juice from the lemon and add the garlic, rosemary, some salt and pepper and a good glug of olive oil. Roast for about 1 hour 40 minutes or until the juices run clear and the whole roast is well coloured, turning the chicken once halfway through.

Confit garlic Slice tops off 6 whole garlic bulbs to show the peak of each clove. Place bulbs in a small deep saucepan and cover with oil (ideally use olive oil, but cheaper alternatives are also fine). Add 1 Tbsp fennel seeds, a few sprigs of fresh thyme, salt, pepper and a dash of sugar. Put on the lowest heat possible, bring almost to the boil and leave to cook slowly until the garlic is tender, about 30 minutes. Be careful not to overfill the pan. Remove garlic from the oil and serve on an antipasto platter. Ready in: 40 minutes Makes: 6

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