When Covid-19 forced restaurants to shut, they had to find new ways to feed their customers. At Auckland’s Cotto, their take-home service remained popular even after they opened their doors again.
Alert level three seems so long ago now, but I still remember that bone-deep relief as its announcement opened up the prospect of takeaways: a piping-hot symbol of the old world that broke up the monotony of lockdown life. It was good news for the hospitality industry, too, but strict restrictions came with unique challenges as restaurants were forced to pivot from dine-in models to other ways of working. The market was soon crowded with offerings that went beyond the norm, from produce boxes, to fine-diners serving up staff meals, to heat-and-eat options.
“We were trying to think of something we could do that was different,” Hayden Phiskie, co-head chef at Auckland’s Karangahape Rd Italian eatery Cotto, told me.
Cotto At Home pasta boxes were designed to allow customers to feel part of the journey, but with dishes kept simple enough that customers could execute them at home. All the prep is done by Cotto – all that needs to be done at home is cook the pasta, heat up the sauce, combine the two and plate up.
Phiskie was inspired by similar innovations from restaurateurs in London, whose dine-in services had been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic before us. “Pasta is one of those things where you can make it yourself, but it actually takes a lot of time. Especially if you’re making a filled pasta – a lot of ingredients go into that filling. It becomes a big task.”
There was also pressure to stay relevant and keep the brand visible during levels three and four, when diners couldn’t have meals at the physical Cotto space. The restaurant has always been active online, with a strong following on Instagram, where more than 24,000 followers lap up every new photo of an artful dish. Then, during lockdown, internet usage increased as New Zealanders relied on it for social connection; there were more people scrolling through social media feeds than ever before.
“The pasta boxes gave us something to talk about.” Phiskie said.
Phiskie was also asked to participate in a cooking series run by Everybody Eats during alert level four, where chefs from around the country demonstrated how to cook a dish through Instagram. They had to nominate a peer to follow suit the next night, creating a chain of mini cooking shows that allowed restaurants to connect with their diners even though doors remained shut.
Everybody Eats – the pay-as-you-feel dining charity concept founded by Nick Loosley that serves three-course meals made using mostly rescued food – wasn’t able to operate during levels four and three at either its permanent home in Onehunga or weekly pop-up in the central city. So Loosley started the Everybody Eats at Home series, believing the team could still help New Zealanders through the crisis in other ways.
“I didn’t know Nick at all before the lockdown, but I was just really impressed. [The chef series] blew me away, and I thought, ‘I really want to be involved with this,'” says Phiskie.
Together, they decided to collaborate on the Cotto At Home pasta boxes – $3 from every box sold is donated to Everybody Eats. Cotto’s chefs also assisted Everybody Eats with preparing ready-to-heat meals that were delivered to vulnerable families during lockdown.
“It did really well, and people added on donations too,” Phiskie said. “The day before Mother’s Day, we did boxes for around 120 people.”
Starting hot takeaways and pasta boxes during level three required an overhaul of everything Cotto knew. People couldn’t pay at the door, and pay wave at the window wasn’t an option because a crowd wasn’t allowed to gather outside. So to work efficiently within the restrictions, Cotto built a brand-new website, initiated new ordering systems, and utilised social media to communicate these changes to their customers.
Cotto decided not to take phone orders, so its entire ordering and payment system moved online. Having access to fast and reliable broadband was a key component in making sure operations would function smoothly; managing pasta box bookings and hot takeaway orders simultaneously wouldn’t have been possible without it. “It helped keep us in business, really,” Phiskie says.
The Cotto at Home boxes are now available Wednesday through Saturday. Now that dining out is back and Cotto’s restaurant doors are open, Phiskie believes they’ll still remain popular as a convenient option for a phenomenon that’s fallen out of favour in recent years.
“I reckon the dinner party might come back,” Phiskie laughs. “When I was a kid, you’d go to someone’s house – you wouldn’t go out for dinner. These days, we’ve become the place you’d go to have your family get-togethers, your catch-ups. But we want to re-promote the boxes as: ‘We’ll do the catering for you. We’ve done the hard work – but, hey, you’re still cooking it!’”
When I think of Cotto, I think of smooth sheets of yellow pasta flung over wooden beams, curtaining chefs from view. I think of their spinach, goat’s cheese and sage dumplings and lamb maltagliati; gutsy food that’s all buttery and salty and rich, the kind of generous fare you instinctively know you can’t eat every day but, by God, how good is it to be eating it right now. It’s a place that’s always humming – you have to show up between 5 and 6pm or risk waiting a couple hours for a table, and then when you get one, it’s so dark, you can barely tell gnocchi from pici.
The takeaway pasta boxes don’t come with all that, but it has its own pros – $3 goes towards Everybody Eats, after all; you can actually see what you’re eating (!), and you’re able to linger over wine as long as you like. After arriving at your pre-booked pick-up time, you’ll be handed a stamped cardboard box with everything neatly packed away: the fresh pasta, the sauces, parmesan, a chopped-leaf salad, focaccia. It can also include the dumplings, or a slice of chocolate nemesis cake.
So I whisked the box home and followed the laid-out steps: 1, 2, 3, 4, like a dutiful sous chef, plating it up for service by scattering the sage leaves over the ravioli just so, just like they do at Cotto, and dusting it all with finely grated parmesan. It was easy, madly easy, and the lamb ragu tasted even better when licked off a spoon that was just stirring the lot in a hot pan. “Add butter and pasta water to taste,” the instructions said, so, naturally, I added all the butter provided. The dishes turned out similar to dining in-house, even if the pasta didn’t end up perfectly al dente because of The Chase-related distractions, and my plating hands weren’t quite as precise. Eh, who cares. The flavours were bang on, and I happily ate up my share.
With winter bringing the air down to chilly temperatures and fewer people feeling a desire to venture out into the cold, a dinner party at home sounds perfect. If so, it’s nice to know there’s still a way to chow down on Cotto’s spinach dumplings – regardless of whether or not the plate looks quite as pretty.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.