It’s time to get real about dining out

Damaris Coulter is leading a food revolution in New Zealand, helping consumers make a more informed choice.

Today’s diners are confronted with more choice than ever, but it’s not just Turkish or Italian, the salad or the burger; it’s the ethical choice that is now front of mind.

These days when someone orders the chicken on the menu, they want to know more than the method of cooking. Often diners want to know where it was farmed, what its living conditions were like, and who farmed it.

These diners want to know who grew their tomatoes, if the grower elected to use spray, and how far the tomato travelled to be on the plate.

But above all, diners who have ethics on their mind are in search of an authentic experience delivered by people who are passionate about what they are doing.

Auckland restaurant owner, Damaris Coulter is determined to change the way we think as consumers, and she wants to make "making an informed choice" easier for people.

“If we just give people the end product, the food on the plate, we’re taking away their opportunity to learn and engage and change the way they dine and consume,” Coulter says.

Coulter’s latest venture The Realness is a platform where eateries can share their story, in their own words and connect directly with consumers who want an authentic owner-operator experience.

Of course, not just any establishment can showcase themselves on The Realness, there are a certain set of values that businesses must adhere to, but as Damaris says it’s all based around being a good and responsible human.

Core values include serving protein and meat that is sourced consciously and sustainably, and keeping the business free of any big partnerships.  Eateries also need to be operating in this way for at least 18 months before joining, to show a commitment to the cause.

Once a restaurant or café has met the criteria they are added to The Realness directory where they can edit their profile, add photos and connect with the consumer. They can even vouch for other eateries, which earns them extra brownie points.

Damaris first started thinking about the concept of The Realness when she opened Coco’s Cantina in 2009 with her sister Renee. Coco’s remains a hugely popular spot on Auckland’s iconic and colourful Karangahape Road and while Damaris has stepped back to focus on The Realness, Renee and the team practise those core values and champion The Realness message.

“At Coco’s we worked so hard to create an honest space, like all owner-operators out there who grind away every day out of love for what they do,” Damaris says.

Being immersed in the hospitality industry from a young age, Damaris saw how much work it took to run a successful, honest and ethical business. Once she ventured out with her sister it became clear that the playing field between an owner-operated eatery and a corporate backed establishment was entirely one-sided.

“Big businesses have such a strong platform to promote themselves, that it doesn’t even matter what they are selling or what their values are. Their values are money.”

Damaris’s mission is to level that playing field by changing the way people think about food and the economies they support. A lot of this way of thinking comes back to a deep connection to her Māori heritage.

“Māori have been living by the underpinning values of The Realness forever. Their connection to the whenua (land), produce and practices around this is so amazing.”

It is this part of New Zealand’s identity as a food destination which makes us unique Damaris says, and for tourists it is something they’ve never quite seen before.

“We have a responsibility, whether it’s the growers, producers or chefs in Aotearoa (New Zealand) to celebrate and engage with our indigenous culture at a base level, to incorporate the tikanga (values) around food into the New Zealand hospitality industry,” she says.

It’s not just a one-way street either. Owners want to tell their story to the people they are serving as well as the stories of their talented suppliers.

Rebecca Smidt, who owns Auckland restaurant Cazador with her partner Dariush Lolaiy, was early to sign up to The Realness and sees it as a great opportunity to reach out to conscious consumers

“There are so many dimensions to the dining scene and it can be confusing for consumers to find their place in the mix. But it's not just a tool for conscious consumers, it's a supportive community for the industry, too,” Smidt says.

“There's a greater respect for the individual expression of a restaurant's philosophy and culture, and a greater demand for honesty and straight up good food from good people. That's what The Realness advocates.”

Damaris has big plans for The Realness and believes it has the potential to morph into something massive and fantastic on a global level. Citizen Café and Bakery in Saskatoon Canada has already signed up as well as esteemed Melbourne restaurant Attica and café Etta. Damaris wants to change the way people engage with any type of experience be it food, clothing, art - if it is local and independent, then it is legitimate.

Damaris believes that if we truly want to change the system we need to put the power back into the hands of the people who are dedicated to better practice, strong communities and supporting local economies.

A Realness road trip around New Zealand

Auckland – Cazador, 854 Dominion Road, Mount Eden
Rebecca and Dariush will welcome you to their neighbourhood restaurant Cazador. Spanish for hunter Cazador has a focus on sustainably sourced game meat and a nose to tail philosophy.
Must try: Don’t overlook the bar snacks menu, the popcorn chicken hearts are a favourite for the regulars.

Coromandel – Eggsentric, 1049 Purangi Road, Ferry Landing
Sam Fowell and Alesha Innes’s quirky eatery on the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula features a sculpture garden, kids’ playground and the occasional concert by local musicians. The small deli onsite is a great place to grab some treats from local artisans after a delicious meal from the kitchen.
Must try: Sam’s seafood chowder with ciabatta packed with sustainably sourced kai moana (seafood).

Hamilton – Hayes Common, 33 Jellicoe Drive, Hamilton East
Brent and Lisa Quarrie serve up ethical and delicious food at their neighbourhood eatery in Hamilton. There is a vegan menu, kids menu and they are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Must try: The horopito salted tofu uses a traditional Māori ingredient and is 100% plant-based.

Napier – Hapi, 89 Hastings Street, Napier South
Hapi takes living a healthy lifestyle seriously and owner Gretta Carney’s shop and takeaway is organic, paleo friendly, gluten free, dairy free and cane sugar free.
Must try:  Takeaway some restorative chicken broth made using organic chicken, simmered for 8 hours with apple cider vinegar.

Wellington – Capitol Restaurant, 10 Kent Terrace, Mount Victoria
Tom and Kate Hutchison’s restaurant Capitol has a strong seafood focus and they pride themselves on using sustainable and ethical produce. They also ensure they have strong relationships with all their suppliers.
Must try: House-made saffron pappardelle with paua (abalone) & fresh herbs.

Marlborough – Vines Village Café, 193 Rapaura Rd, Springlands
Vines Village Café is not just a great place to eat, it also is a micro-brewery and live music venue. Owners Jeff and Tim Fulton support a wide array of home grown and local producers and have an on-site garden where the guests regularly help the chefs with their vegetable and herb collecting.
Must try: A Golden Mile Brewing Grand Tour Lager brewed on site.

North Canterbury – Black Estate, 614 Omihi Road, Waipara
Black Estate is situated in one of New Zealand’s lesser known wine regions, the Waipara Valley. It is a family-run restaurant passionate about local organic food and wine.
Must try: Black Estate Netherwood Chardonnay 2016. It's organic, biodynamic and delicious.

Christchurch – Gatherings, 5/2 Papanui Road, Merivale
Alex Davies organic menu at his restaurant Gatherings is an essential stop for anyone looking for exceptional, forward thinking fare.
Must try: Kina toast. A modern take on a Māori delicacy.