Dean Betts Opens Slow Food Café in Matakana, NZ

When passing through Matakana seems like a regular small town north of Auckland surrounded by beautiful landscapes and a stunning coast line. However if you get the chance to stop there and spend some time you'll soon come to realise that things run a little deeper and a little slower in this town. In fact it has been said that Matakana is on it's way to becoming the first registered Slow Town in Australasia. The Cittaslow movement started in Italy in connection with the Slow Food movement that concentrates on protecting the environment whilst promoting local goods and produce. The success of Matakana's local farmers market shows just how popular the idea of supporting the local food industry is in this community. It is not surprising then that the American chef Dean Betts, who brings years of Slow Food experience to this part of the world, has chosen to open Cosi, his latest restaurant, here. Dean and his Australian wife Toni have taken on the job of giving new life to a local café at the Morris and James Pottery. The café has been there for years but had been criticised by locals for selling average, overpriced food to rich tourists. Dean and Toni's job brief was to create a new food experience that would attract locals as much as the tourists and day-trippers from Auckland. They aim to do this by using as much locally grown food as possible and forging good relationships with farmers and suppliers like Trish and Joe of Rainbow Valley Farm.

Dean Betts is as well know in his native California as his is in New Zealand for his dedication to the Slow Food movement. Before moving to New Zealand 12 years ago Dean Betts made his name as a Slow Food cook with his chain of seafood restaurants The Fish Market. While Dean was based in San Diego the success of the restaurant meant he opened several more up the California coast. He says that two of his main inspirations during this time were The Chinos, a Japanese family who run a 40 acre farm and farmers market in San Diego and Alice Waters the founder of the famous restaurant Chez Panisse in San Francisco. Dean told me a lovely story about the connection between him and these other two Slow Food pioneers.

Dean had to travel up the coast a lot to his other Fish Market restaurants which were supplied by the Chinos farm and one day Mr Chino, an admirer of Alice Waters' cooking, asked Dean to drop in a box of his vegetables to the kitchen at Chez Panisse. Since it wasn't far out of his way Dean agreed and began taking this gift up to San Francisco every week. One day, after a several visits, Dean was dropping off the vegetable box when Alice popped her head out of the kitchen door and said "I don't know who you are or what you are doing, but please keep on doing it!" This was the beginning a long friendship between the Chino Family Farm, Alice Waters and Dean Betts. Dean says he is particularly excited by Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard project, which creates kitchen gardens in schools to educate children about food and nutrition.

Since moving to New Zealand Dean has run several restaurants, the most notable being The Anglesea Grill in Auckland. While he has cooked with seafood for many years in New Zealand Dean says it is very difficult to get access to the best local produce. Echoing what Joe Polaischer told me about New Zealand's tendency to export all their best food Dean said that the coast around Matakana has some of the best seafood in the world, but up until now none of the local chefs could buy it since it was all exported. Dean says he has only managed to persuade Leigh Fisheries very recently that they can afford to let some of this fish go to local restaurants like his, but this has taken years of persistence on his part.

Dean is an advocate of locally grown produce and organics but is wary of the cost to get organic certification and the bureaucracy that surrounds it. He prefers to get to know his local producers and understand where and how his ingredients were grown, rather than relying on labels or certification. He believes Slow Food is not only about using local produce and supporting local farmers but also about rediscovering the pleasure of taking time to cook. He enjoys the old way of doing things, before mechanization and industrialisation. He is particularly enjoying his newly built brick oven in the courtyard of the café where they are cooking pizzas. The customers in the café, on the day I was there, were also visibly intrigued by the enormous bread ovens in the dining room where Toni was baking the delicious artisan breads. Just this simple idea of making the bread in front of the customers serves to connect people with the creative process of cooking.

Cosi at The Morris and James Pottery is open seven days a week for breakfast and lunch and is open four nights a week for dinner, Wednesday to Saturday.

Tags: Alice Waters | San Diego