The new manager of Nelson’s Comida restaurant brings an authentic blend of Mediterranean heritage and culinary experience to the role.
Aurelie Zentaoui hails from the south of France and more recently the French restaurant La Fourchette in St Helliers, Auckland.
She is now a key part of Comida, the Buxton Square restaurant that is part of the Prego Mediterranean Foods store, started many years ago by owners Mac (Peter McNairney) and Claudia Kern. They began selling coffee and a few homemade treats from their old store in Halifax St.
When they relocated to the current site they opened a restaurant with a strong focus on Mediterranean foods using the beautiful ingredients they stock in the Prego part of the premises.
Comida is a café during the day that serves breakfast, brunch and lunch before turning into a restaurant in the evenings.
While the initial focus of the restaurant was on Italian dishes like pasta and risotto, the Spanish dish paella, French food like confit duck and a few Kiwi favourites with a Mediterranean twist they have since added a wood-fired pizza oven.
Aurelie (pronounced Oralee) is from Antibes, close to Nice on the French Mediterranean coast, where she says the culinary culture “is already quite mixed up, French, Italian with a little Spanish” so she feels really comfortable with the foods being served at Comida.
She spent a few weeks travelling around the country on holiday before moving here in 2013. “When I arrived in New Zealand to live I thought it would be easier to get work in Auckland and was there for three and a half years, I started as a waitress and worked my way up to restaurant manager.”
She had been to Nelson during her travels in 2011 and liked it a lot so decided to move here after she needed knee reconstruction surgery. “I needed to recover from surgery and in Auckland I was working 50 hours or more a week and the restaurant was over two levels so it wasn’t good for my recovery.”
“I just wanted something more relaxed and I find Nelson so beautiful it was an easy choice for me to make to move here.”
Aurelie’s heritage is half Italian, a quarter French and a quarter Algean. “People sometimes think I am Spanish, I don’t speak much Italian but understand it, I have a strong Italian heritage.”
Her full-blooded Italian mother was born in France and when she was nine years old lived with her Italian grandmother for a couple of years.
“My grandma used to make me good food, I grew up with pizza, lasagne, tiramisu and French food as well. It wasn’t great for my weight but it was wonderful home cooked food using fresh produce, she even made her own sausages.”
Aurelie has an older sister who is living in Canada and working as a pastry chef so the love of food obviously runs in her family.
From the time she started university in Nice Aurelie knew everything she did was working to one day own her own small restaurant or café, she studied management for small & medium business and while the course didn’t have a focus on restaurant management it means she has skills that are perfectly suited to restaurant management.
When it comes to doing business she says the French and Kiwi markets are quite different, “the French are straightforward, especially with staff management and when it is rush time they don’t have time to be nice to you, it is all about just doing the job but here it is quite different, here we have only one service each night and it tends to be early, in France most people won’t eat until 9 or 10 pm.
“French dinner is much later than the average, people get together earlier for a drink and nibbles then decide to go to a restaurant.
“I love it at Comida, it is a really nice place to work and the chefs work with really good ingredients, we only have a small kitchen with one pizza chef (Mauro Berri) and a head chef (Nigel Bethwaite) for evening dining so they need to work hard.”
Dinner service at Comida is also the sort of dining she enjoys. “People who come in groups like to take their time and enjoy the atmosphere, there isn’t a rush which means the chefs can take their time and make food with love rather than just feeling a bit like a production chain. It is very much the Mediterranean style of relaxed dining over a couple of hours.”
At home she only cooks for pleasure, “French or Italian mainly depending on my mood, I love too many styles of food but I can’t eat spicy food.
“When I was young my grandma would put harissa on my finger to stop me sucking it. It didn’t stop me but I cried a lot and today still don’t eat a lot of spicy food.”
I asked her what impact she was trying to have at Comida and the changes she is making, “Mac & Claudia work during the day with the retail side of the business and only help in the restaurant when it is really busy so they have trusted me to help them grow their evening business.
“I want every staff member working in the café during the day and restaurant in the evenings to be more versatile. I have been working on the coffee so there’s more consistency no matter who makes it. In a small business everyone needs to be able to do things like use the till and serve tables so I have streamlined some of the systems a little bit and that has made it easier for everyone,
“Really my focus is on organising the dinner time, two chefs, me and one other general staff person so with just four of us it can be challenging on busy nights but I like to set the expectation and do things for our guests they don’t know they want but makes a real difference to their dining experience.”
So while she works from 3pm on the days the restaurant is open in the evening Aurelie also works all day on Monday while Mac and Claudia have a day off after working during the weekend.
She gets to enjoy Nelson during the day and play a bit of tennis and volleyball when she gets a chance, even though it was playing volleyball that she injured her knee.
As to the future: “I love Nelson, it has lots happening but isn’t too big or busy like Auckland and I love seeing happy diners so I think I will be here for a while yet.”
Comida Restaurant is open Wednesday to Saturday from 5pm. www.comida.co.nz