When Broccoli Row opened it was tucked away in a small space with a courtyard in the Buxton carpark and its focus on vegetarian and seafood dishes was my first introduction to how good vegetarian food could be, it was vastly more than mung beans and tofu.
When Sue McNulty opened the business in 1992 she had plenty of doubters in the hospitality industry tell her it was the wrong location and a restaurant serving just vegetarian and seafood dishes would never work; 24 years later I think it is safe to say she was right, the doubters were wrong and quite interestingly none of those doubters are in business anymore while Broccoli Row continues to thrive.
There have been a number of people working in hospitality in Nelson for 20 years plus but as far as I am aware Broccoli Row is the only cafe to be owned by the same person for that period and that is a testament to McNulty’s love of food and passion for the business.
She told me last week that when she and initial business partner Nicky Beale who was working for The Nelson Mail and was her flatmate at the time started the business she gave herself two years and if it didn’t work she would close it so after 24 years they must be doing something right.
At the end of the first two years Beale moved to Wellington and McNulty has owned it by herself since then.
One of my fond memories of Broccoli Row when it was in Buxton Square was the delightful haven McNulty had created in the outdoor courtyard where she grew herbs and edible flowers to use in the café and it is where I had my first proper Caesar Salad, made with cos lettuce, proper homemade Caesar dressing, anchovies scattered through the salad and served with a homemade focaccia bread.
This simple dish showed me how lovely fresh ingredients could be turned into something special and remains one of what I call my ‘food moments’.
The ability to produce delicious food from humble ingredients came from a love of food and the fact she grew up in a home that had a huge vegetable garden, where food was made fresh from scratch every day, where they snacked on fresh vegetables rather than packets of crisps, “we had treats too of course but everything was made fresh, especially the baking” she says.
Today she uses those early food experiences to create the dishes that are so popular at Broccoli Row but she also brings a huge amount of training and experience to the business.
When McNulty left school she first studied horticulture at Lincoln University and the plan was to grow things to cook but while at Lincoln she had a part-time job at The Greenhouse in Christchurch where the owner was also a chef tutor at CPIT and he encouraged her to do her City & Guilds chef training.
McNulty says she was “incredibly lucky along the way, working for and with very talented chefs and discovered how rewarding and creative hospitality could be.”
As with many chefs her food career saw her working in a number of places in New Zealand, Australia and London; while still training in Christchurch she worked at Pedro’s in Worchester Street for two years after the Greenhouse followed by a short stint at a hotel in Freemantle when she finished training.
After Freemantle it was a move to Nelson where she worked at the original Robinson’s Restaurant in Stoke that was owned by Tony Smith and Mike Bennett, “it was a new café set in the last of the old Robinson’s Orchard so with fruit trees surrounding the outdoor garden tables and jazz on Sundays it was lots of fun and a great place to work” says McNulty
From there her food career saw her working in London in a large kitchen at a place called Greens Restaurant & Oyster Bar located in Westminster and owned by Simon Parker-Bowles, with the main clientele being MPs, Lords and many of the rich and famous people.
The Head Chef at Greens, Beth Coventry, encouraged her to open her own place so she came back to Nelson ready to do so when the opportunity presented itself but while looking for the perfect location for her own café she worked for Jane and the late Nigel Price at the original Pomeroy’s as the evening chef, when they closed for dinners in the winter she bought the run down Hole in The Wall restaurant.
With her experience overseas she saw an opportunity for courtyard dining serving fresh local food prepared simply and intended to start small to see how it went, they “were really lucky three months after we opened when the famous London food writer Prue Leith visited and wrote about them, we got great national coverage and the business just took off”.
It came as a real shock when her landlord came in during a busy lunchtime and gave her a letter telling her she had three months to leave because he was going to demolish the building, “it really hurt because we had poured so much into the place it was very sad for everyone not just me, my staff and our customers were all shocked we had to close.”
McNulty kept the Broccoli Row name alive for two years as a catering company, primarily for her husband Rob Douglas’ business Simply Wild Journeys.
Simply Wild Journeys is a high-end adventure tourism business, so whether it was white water rafting, kayaking, cruising on a luxury yacht or flying to a remote beach in a helicopter, McNulty was on hand to prepare and serve wonderful food, something she still does today.
One of a group of doctors setting up a new medical centre with space for a café, Dr Andy Dawson asked her if she would consider re-starting Broccoli Row as a café and her first reaction was to say no, but she thought more and it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, now she appreciates the great team environment at the Centre.
A very important part of Broccoli Row is the staff, who have been incredibly loyal over many years “Kate has been with me for 17 years, and after 15 years Karin is leaving us to pursue another career. And Keeley has joined us again after 10 years away. With such key players in the team we have attracted many other stars”.
“When Kate & Karin were asked if they were keen for another Broccoli Row, they said yes, so the decision to re-open was that much easier and I feel so, so lucky, but it is about the environment in the workplace, we have a lot of fun every day, you need to laugh as there is constant pressure to perform in this industry”.
“We started up to consistently provide honest, quality food & service to our locals, in a welcoming environment and that remains our mission statement.”
The main reason I love Broccoli Row was summed up by McNulty when she told me “if I don’t like it I’m not going to serve it, you should eat what makes you feel happy and if you start analysing food too much it takes the pleasure out of eating…where’s the fun in that?” and they make damn fine coffee too.