Coco’s Cantina on K’ Road clearly isn’t a bad place to work. The lowturnover of staff is proof of that, along with the owners’ — sisters Damaris and Renee Coulter — egalitarian philosophy. “When I worked in Europe, there was such hierarchical structures,” Damaris says. “I think that’s less prevalent in New Zealand — maybe it happens on the Waterfront or in Federal Street — but certainly not here. Tips are spread half between the floor and kitchen, and everyone from the head chef to the dishwasher gets the same cut.”
Those tips, coupled with the fruits of some serious budgeting by the staff, were recently put to very good use, for September saw the crew embark upon an once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy, with the cost of the accommodation taken care of by the sisters. “It was Coco’s fifth birthday last year and a trip was something we’d always wanted to do,” Damaris tells me. “Some old staff members are now living in London, Amsterdam and Berlin, so we thought it would be cool to invite them all along for a catch-up too.”
You don’t need to be flash to be a good restaurant, you just need to be in love with what you’re doing.
The sisters wanted their staff to experience some traditional culinary methods, to taste history. “We visited little owner operated bars and cafés who use local suppliers,” says Damaris. “The type of places where the menus and the wine lists are a reflection of who they are and how they operate, just like Coco’s. We wanted the kids to see that this has been done all over the world for hundreds of years. That it’s nothing new. Kiwis can get too caught up with fads and trends.” It’s also important, she adds, to see that you don’t need a showy establishment to create Michelin quality cuisine: “One night some friends of ours put on a degustation menu with raw beef and the like, stuff our staff had never had before. It was in this tiny ghetto room and it was great for them to see how Europeans have been mastering food and drink, without pretence, for centuries. You don’t need to be flash to be a good restaurant, you just need to be in love with what you’re doing.”
For most members of the Coco’s team, it was their first trip abroad, and, good food and wine aside, Damaris says it was such a thrill to be part of their adventure: “I used to live in Rome, so I knew what to expect, but for some of these kids who had never even been on an aeroplane before, they may as well have been dropped off on another planet! It was overwhelming and an amazing thing to see.”
As well as taking in the likes of the Vatican and Colosseum, the gang also spent time exploring the markets and old towns around Tuscany, Pisa and Florence. Damaris hopes that the trip will have far-reaching consequences, both on personal and professional levels. “It was a great opportunity for us to get to know each other better,” says the boss. “It was interesting seeing their different characteristics and there have definitely been changes since we’ve been back. They seem calmer, with more perspective and are very present.” There is even a video documentary and cookery book to come.
Damaris, who has been in the business for over 20 years (“that makes me feel old!”), says the trip also magnified just what little respect the hospitality industry has in New Zealand, still so often considered a stepping stone rather than a serious career path. “Being a waitress is not just a job for uni students,” she says. “You should take pride in it, like you do with anything else. Hospo attracts a lot of quirky personalities, those who often think differently to the mainstream kids. They learn differently, have different temperaments, but once they get it, they’re fantastic, high in creativity, high in empathy and often destined to make great entrepreneurs.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces