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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.