Meet the Med stars: Damaris Coulter, Coco's Cantina

. April 15, 2018
Photography by Josh Griggs.
Meet the Med stars: Damaris Coulter, Coco's Cantina

Yes, we’re tucked away at the opposite end of the world but that doesn’t mean the flavours, colours and rustic, romantic vibes of the Mediterranean are out of reach. Dish spoke to some food visionaries who are bringing some of that passionate Med magic to the New Zealand culinary landscape.

Aucklanders can count themselves lucky Damaris Coulter discovered alcohol young. Because what started as her booze ban from the local Mediterranean restaurant, segued into a metamorphic move to Italy – one which eventually inspired the gingham-checked food and culture cornucopia, otherwise known as K Road’s socialist eatery, Coco’s Cantina.

And it was all at the insistence of her over-protective Italian employers. “The restaurant became like my family because they banned me from drinking,” she explains, teetotal since that wild period in her teens. “When everyone my age was going to England for their OE I gravitated to Italy. They (the owners of La Gabbia in Auckland’s Howick) said, “You’re going to be fine. You just need to go and see how we live and you’ll understand you don’t need to drink like that.”

Once there, it became apparent there were other lessons she needed to learn. Like sitting still to eat, mastering cooking and immersing herself in the culture, which she eventually brought back home to open Coco’s with her sister Renee. She describes the effect as like learning to fully breathe. “Moving there just made sense. Being of Māori-European heritage, I slotted in really well. Māori are like Italians. Our cultures are similar in the way we eat. Family, food, friends, fun. It’s about quality of life. They’re educated to get in line and wait for the best French stick or loaf of bread. There’s a respect about where their food comes from.”

Growing up in rural New Zealand, in the Far North, both sisters earned their hospitality stripes, working in fish and chip shops and doing the milk run while still at school. Along with time “in the trenches” in restaurants in Rome, Sardinia and London, it’s an education Damaris is eternally grateful for. “Anything in a restaurant or a bar or a cafe we had done. We had worked in every single area and even then, we were afraid to open our own restaurant.” Using fear as a motivator, eight years in, she’s still pushing boundaries and never stops learning.

“I probably know more about plumbing than I should because I own a restaurant. I probably know more about teenage psychology, pregnancy tests, hangovers and drugs. And I don’t drink or take drugs.” The welfare of her workers is something that Damaris takes very seriously. She has a vision her staff will eventually only work 38-hour weeks and be paid a good wage.

“By the end of this year I have goals in place to be forward-thinking, at full capacity with an amazing social impact. I want to be totally local and organic and be the most-visited restaurant in New Zealand.”

Along with the business and work on her website and soon-to-be launched app, The Realness – a platform to raise global awareness for single owner-operated restaurants – it’s going to be a big year.

“I’m thinking of having Sardinia as our (The Realness app) launch location because if you drill straight through you’d hit New Zealand. It’s like a sister city and is predominantly owner-operated.

“They run on an ethical model and were the originators of the slow-food movement. I feel excited for our food industry,” she says with confidence. “We’re just trying to create a model that doesn’t exist yet.”

To learn more about Damaris or meet our line-up of local Med stars, pick up a copy of our April/May issue, or follow our Med series online.