Starting over

Michael Coughlin with one of his new cafe creations, beef cheek pies for The Fix. Photo: Linda Robertson.
Michael Coughlin with one of his new cafe creations, beef cheek pies for The Fix. Photo: Linda Robertson.
Michael Coughlin at Olivers Restaurant (2015). Photo: Lynda van Kempen.
Michael Coughlin at Olivers Restaurant (2015). Photo: Lynda van Kempen.
Michael Coughlin at Bell Pepper Blues (2010). Photo: Gerard O'Brien.
Michael Coughlin at Bell Pepper Blues (2010). Photo: Gerard O'Brien.
Michael Coughlin at Pier 24 (2011). Photo: Linda Robertson.
Michael Coughlin at Pier 24 (2011). Photo: Linda Robertson.

Michael Coughlin has gone back to school, is trying his hand at cafe food and getting home at nights. Life for the Dunedin chef has been through some changes recently, Rebecca Fox learns.

He might have 25 years more experience than needed for his current job, but chef Michael Coughlin is loving the change.

After 36 years working nights, missing birthdays and anniversaries, Coughlin decided it was time to take a look at his life.

''I made a serious decision to take a few risks and try to change things. Things can become a bit like Groundhog Day, so I decided to stop.''

Part of that was the recognition that his skills now lay in helping to train staff and setting up and opening new food ventures.

''It's an area I'm quite good at.''

He has put that to the test a few times since he closed his Bell Pepper Blues restaurant to open Pier 24 at St Clair, and then when he left there to open the newly revamped Olivers restaurant in Clyde.

When family drew him back to Dunedin, he took on the role of reopening Pier 24 under new owners.

While all of this was happening, Coughlin was helping friends Kevin and Mandy Smart with their dream of opening a kitchen in their Dunedin cafe, The Fix.

''I'd often pop in on my days off for a coffee and we'd talk floor plans.''

However, he soon realised being back in Dunedin, despite his best intentions, was the ''same old''.

''A lot of stress, long hours and weekends. I soon lost touch with everything.''

He reconnected with the Smarts at a Food Share fundraising dinner and discovered they had still not put in their kitchen.

''I saw it as a great opportunity for me to step away from the kitchen and take on a new challenge.''

Not only did he have to design a functional kitchen in a small space, it also changed the direction of the cafe which had specialised in coffee and allowed people to bring their own food.

''The kitchen is smaller than mine at home. It took a lot of thought to come up with an efficient design.''

Once the new kitchen was installed, there was pressure to fill the cabinet with fresh food that tempted the established customer's taste buds.

''It can't be a big range because it's such a little kitchen, but as long as the offering is great quality.''

He has been developing recipes such as the beef cheek and kumara pies for the cafe.

''It's given me a chance to do some stuff I never get the chance to as an executive chef where my job was more about meetings and costings and writing budgets.

''There was not a lot of time to be creative.''

Now it is up and running, he admits it is not a huge challenge for him.

''I've been in the business 35 years so I'm probably 25 years too qualified to do this, but that doesn't stop me doing my best.''

A request for a French onion soup had him scratching his head and thinking it had been 20 years since he made one, but a customer had come in twice for it.

''It doesn't matter what level I'm cooking, my heart and soul still goes into it.''

It had been nice working in a different environment with people dedicated to good coffee and hospitality, he said.

Alongside his ''day job'' at the cafe, he has been working as a ''freelance chef'' helping other new ventures

with the tough stuff, such as staff and food control - ''the things that can send you into a dark place quickly''.

He is also completing his culinary arts degree at Otago Polytechnic. His experience has been recognised under the prior learning structure and he is enjoying classes.

''My tutor is my ex-trainee chef from Bell Pepper Blues. It's quite fun.'''

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