WORDS TALIA WALDERGRAVE PHOTOS TRACIE HEASMAN

Peo­ple who care about food dine at Som­er­set Cot­tage. This beloved culi­nary land­mark has sur­vived and thrived for three decades because own­ers Anne Butcher and Rick Lowe have a love to feed peo­ple well. Here they take us on a nos­tal­gic and heart-warm­ing ride.

My first expe­ri­ence at Som­er­set Cot­tage is one I’ll nev­er for­get. Dare I admit that it was six­teen years ago? I can still remem­ber the food, so superb; a creamy salmon dish with pep­pers. It was an unfor­get­table expe­ri­ence.

If you’ve had the plea­sure of meet­ing Anne and Rick, or din­ing in the restau­rant, you’ll know what I mean. A down-to-earth approach is coun­ter­bal­anced bril­liant­ly with an immense, unwa­ver­ing pas­sion for food. It is the back­bone to the Som­er­set Cot­tage suc­cess sto­ry.

The Begin­ning

It’s your fault”, Rick jokes with Anne, whose par­ents were hol­i­day­ing in Tau­ran­ga when they spot­ted the restau­rant and home for sale. 

A My father is the most risk-averse man I’ve ever met, but to our aston­ish­ment he returned to Welling­ton with a busi­ness pro­pos­al; they would live in the house and we would run the restau­rant.

R Look­ing back, we were pret­ty naïve real­ly, but it felt right, so we took a punt.

A It was total­ly rural. We looked out onto shel­ter­belts, and Beth­le­hem Road was a tiny lit­tle coun­try lane. I’ve always car­ried around this incred­i­bly roman­tic notion of lit­tle restau­rants in France, tucked way out and hand­ed down through gen­er­a­tions.

Som­er­set Cot­tage opened its doors in 1986 to what Anne and Rick now dub an unmit­i­gat­ed dis­as­ter.  

A We were com­plete­ly unsure of what to expect because we were so green.

I loathe ging­ham with a pas­sion, and it was every­where. We opened with ghast­ly crock­ery, cut­lery and glass­ware and I strug­gled with that.

R We knew what we liked, so we just crossed our fin­gers and hoped that enough oth­er peo­ple would like it too. We worked long, hard days at the begin­ning until kids came along. It was a bless­ing real­ly because oth­er­wise I think we would’ve burnt out.

The Food

R There wasn’t a lot avail­able when we arrived in Tau­ran­ga. Back then you couldn’t buy a chick­en breast, and fresh herbs were so hard to come by — you had to grow your own. There was only one type of let­tuce avail­able and it was ice­berg, ice­berg, ice­berg.

Always aware of chang­ing culi­nary trends, Rick is quick to point out that for Som­er­set, food is less about fash­ion and more about enjoy­ment.

R Our focus is on being as true to the ingre­di­ents as pos­si­ble, and that shows in both our menu and our cook school. The first Som­er­set cook school was held in 1997, but the con­cept had been on the cards for some time before that.

A We kept putting it off, because we thought we need­ed a big­ger build­ing, but a whis­per in our ear from a prag­mat­ic friend point­ed out our already-estab­lished com­mer­cial kitchen, right under our own roof.

The Inti­mate Forum

Rick cre­ates an array of dish­es while stu­dents look on and take notes. His incred­i­ble focus and quick handy work is com­ple­ment­ed bril­liant­ly by Anne’s chat­ter. Her pas­sion for the food, the school and the arti­sanal pro­duce shi­nes through in her out­stand­ing knowl­edge.

A The small­er class­es cre­ate an atmos­phere of inter­est and knowl­edge, which encour­ages con­ver­sa­tion. If we’d gone for the big­ger school, this is some­thing we might’ve lost. It’s about encour­ag­ing peo­ple to cook.

Once the dish­es have been plat­ed, every­one heads out to the restau­rant, and there we get to eat the cook school food as lunch, along with some wine and com­mu­nal chat.

The Peo­ple

R Many would balk at the idea of work­ing with a spouse; for us, it’s not just about stay­ing on our respec­tive sides of the kitchen door, but also under­stand­ing our place in the busi­ness.

A Our staff is incred­i­bly impor­tant to us, but I believe the core of our suc­cess is that there is noth­ing Rick or I can’t do. We trust­ed our gut and we trust­ed each oth­er. We nev­er planned to build it up, flick it off and get onto some­thing else. This was always going to be long term and every­thing we have done since has been a nat­u­ral exten­sion of who we are.

The Mem­o­ries

A When our chil­dren arrived, we built a small room behind the restau­rant as a space for the kids to sleep. They would come over to the restau­rant to use the bath­room, and to stall bed­time would often chat to din­ers. I wor­ried that it seemed unpro­fes­sion­al but in actu­al fact, it was just part of the charm that makes this place what it is.

R Cus­tomers actu­al­ly still talk about it to this day.

The Future

A The fact that we have great kids who have been a big part of the busi­ness, the fact that we are still a strong cou­ple and the fact that we love what we do, is what’s most impor­tant to us. After thir­ty years, there is no place I’d rather be.

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