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Business Is Boring #24 – the couple behind Cazador talk modernising an old favourite

‘Business is Boring’ is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt.

Down Auckland’s Dominion Rd, past the collection of Chinese restaurants and predating them by about 30 years, there is a very special restaurant.

For years it was famous among game enthusiasts for selling exotic meat, like venison; where you could get your kill cooked for you. And among some foodies it was famous for the interior – stucco walls, animal trophy heads, deer hooves holding a gun – and menu, both seemingly untouched since the 80’s.

But then a few years ago Cazador started getting noticed for different reasons – word got out that the family’s son and his partner had come in and were gently but firmly modernising the food. Taking one of the city’s most enjoyable and unique restaurants and making it one of the best, too.

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The distinctive Cazador veal tongue salad. Photo by Pippa Drummond.

We’re joined today by that couple, Rebecca Smidt and Dariush Lolaiy, to talk about a tasting menu of topics – the hospo business, family business, partnerships, their new Cazador book and about what it takes to successfully update an institution.

Either download (right click to save), have a listen below, subscribe through iTunes or read on for a transcribed excerpt.

How does it go to come back and take over not only a family business but an institution, and then set about modernising it? How did that go?

RS: It was really difficult and it was an experience that I’m really glad we had. It’s probably a different kind of hospitality experience from a business than most would have. We had a challenge to bring the restaurant into what it could be. Because it was already something great, but if we were to work there day in day out like we do, it needs to reflect what it always has been but it also has to satisfy us because it’s such a demanding job. Also its a job where, particularly in the kitchen, you need to be free with your creative instinct, and you need to be able to put out dishes that really inspire you.

As much as Dariush’s dad’s cooking was wonderful, Dariush’s own experience was quite different from that. His training was in a different country, it was here in New Zealand. His experience was different as well. We worked in Greece and London and Italy, and you can’t help but acknowledge those when you’re working.

We also knew that we had this existing client base who, for them, the restaurant actually belongs to them. I don’t think I understood that as well then as I do now. Because when you think about what restaurants mean to people, they’re places where they celebrate all those special occasions – the how many birthdays they’ve had there year on year. The Cazador clientele are people who don’t necessarily go out for dinner, they go out to Cazador. Imagine walking in the door one day and the woman that said hello to you for 25 years is not there, some imposter in her place, and the menu’s changed. Horrifying.

DL: And the reason you booked that week in particular is because you wanted to chat to her about your latest success.

RS: It must’ve been difficult for the customers and it was difficult for us. We did it as a really gradual approach. So we kind of, for a while, had two concurrent menus running at the same time. We had a blackboard menu that was more where we were going to be, and we had the legacy menu which appeased that customer group as well. Until the point when we just couldn’t do that anymore and we were just confusing customers that had never been there before, of which there were becoming more and more. And it was confusing us. We just had to bite the bullet.

We decided over the summer of 2013 to renovate the restaurant because we knew we had to do some structural bits and pieces. The building’s been there since 1904. Having had one family in there the whole time, it’s been lovingly maintained but nothing dramatically updated, and we knew we needed to do that. We needed to change the interior architecture just a little bit to make it the kind of social space that we wanted to have. So we wanted to make it a bit more of a bar and we wanted to put the banquette seating, and that we have done.

Because when you are in the restaurant it now has that feeling of our favourite places from when we travelled that is a bit more relaxed. The service is fast and efficient and knowledgable, but the atmosphere is relaxed. You will be sitting quite close to somebody that you don’t necessarily know in that banquette which I really like. Because it facilitates the kind of interesting conversations around our food that we want to encourage. Somebody on that banquette is going to order the tongue salad first and when they do, you see everybody turn and look for the reaction. And when it’s a good one, okay there’s five more tongue salads now coming out of the kitchen and five sherries to drink with it.

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