Hats off to Nelson's local food heroes – Stuff

Column: Two weeks ago the Cuisine Good Food Awards were announced with some local winners shining a light on the quality of the dining experiences available in this region.
Hopgood’s & Co were awarded Two Chef’s Hats and were named as winner of the Food Legend/Long-Term Player Award while Hawker House & Bar and Urban Oyster Bar & Eatery were awarded One Chef’s Hat.
The Chef’s Hat Awards are hugely significant, there were only around 100 awarded across New Zealand, so they are highly prized by recipients.
The fact two high quality bar/restaurant businesses were awarded Hats also reflects the way we are dining these days; we may want to be casual, but we want quality – outstanding food, quality beverages and great service.
I caught up with owner Matt Bouterey and chef Riki Day from Hawker House & Bar to find out what it takes to reach this level of success. This is the third venue Matt and Tania Boutery have won a Cuisine award with, something that reinforces their hospitality credentials.
The first was at Bouterey’s in Richmond in 2006. In the days before Chef’s Hats were being awarded, that restaurant won the Best Regional Restaurant Award three years running. After selling Bouterey’s, Matt and Tania opened Urban Oyster Bar & Eatery, another legend in town. Here they gained One Chef’s Hat in their first year and then Two Chef’s Hats with Riki at the helm, which was a significant achievement for being simple, tasty and no flash stuff.
The Cuisine Awards went into abeyance for a couple of years and when they started again Hawker House won its first Chef’s Hat.
“We started this business too late to qualify for the awards in the first year so were rapt to win a Hat in our first full year of trading,” said Riki.
So what makes a great hospitality venue?
”It’s about quality in everything we do,” said Matt.” From having a very high work ethic, integrating with the local farmers who let me pick, harvest & grow our produce, to making everything from scratch. And of course, most importantly, our team and the locals who support us.”
Riki has worked with Matt in four different places, firstly at The Abbey, then at Bouterey’s, Urban and Hawker House as well as a couple of stints overseas.
“Matt is absolutely fastidious about everything, from making sure the kitchen and restaurant are spotlessly clean to growing his own vegetables for the restaurant and making sure staff are well-trained. It has to be right or we won’t do it.”
Riki brings those same standards to his cooking and restaurant management.
“We’re not in it for awards,” he says. “But it’s nice to be recognised, especially for our team. Tim and Sandra our restaurant managers, are totally dedicated to making sure our guests have a great experience.”
Matt told me “Riki has a very similar attitude to me when it comes to running a great kitchen and is mentoring two apprentices at the moment, Cuba and Trinity, both are young people with a fantastic attitude.
“They are simply fantastic to have as part of the kitchen team alongside our sous chef, Manuel Montagna from Italy. Riki knows the standards we need to be successful and these young people are learning those same skills – keep it clean, keep it simple and we are all about showcasing the produce – nothing flash!.”
Riki told me to be a chef you need to simply just love cooking and want to make food that makes people happy.
“Being a chef with the number of hours we work it has to be about the food we’re passionate about, not awards.”
To be successful a venue has to deliver the full package, “from the greeting when you walk in the door to when you leave, it has to be quality from everyone in the business but in these challenging times we also need to be smart in how we run the business”, said Matt.
“I spend my days at a farm growing almost every vegetable we use in the restaurant while Riki runs Hawker House. We focus on minimising wastage, we shop around to get the best product at best price so we can keep our prices reasonable for diners, but at a quality level you find in the busiest restaurants.”
Riki told me that just like for shoppers at the supermarket, the price of everything is going up each week.
“We have to be smart about how we run the business to make sure we survive these unprecedented times,” Riki said. “Although tourists are an advantage, they have never been our priority – our priority is our locals. We like to get to know them, keep welcoming them back and create a hub of goodness for everyone.”
In August 2020, Matt and Tania redesigned the restaurant layout, moving to an open kitchen where diners can sit at the counter and talk to chefs who are making the food, “showcasing what we do and talking about the food lets diners see the effort that goes in to making each dish”.
Matt has always believed that bringing the chefs out of a kitchen into the open it helps to create the personality of the business.
“That’s why Urban Oyster Bar was hugely successful from the day we opened to the day we sold.”
There is also now a private dining room where the kitchen was that seats up to 12 people, a great area to sit back, relax and let the Hawker family take care of you.
The menu regularly changes with specials each week, what’s new and what they are picking.
Riki says “we get whole arrow squid and use everything from the fins to the tentacles, even around the beak where there’s a really thick part that most people would throw away, we slow cook and pickle it to use as a garnish on the squid dish – multiple textures of squidness and flavour in one dish!”
But the most important thing to Matt, Tania and Riki is that they know others rely on them too.
“It’s not just about the owners, it’s our staff and their families who rely on having a job that rewards them for their efforts, we know we have an impact on people’s lives so making sure we’re smart about how we run Hawker House in these interesting times is really important.”
And I say, get out and support local dining establishments that have great processes in place and that really value their staff.
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