Sim­ply the Best

Eighty years after her great-grand­fa­ther landed a job in a small Dunedin cafe, Jess Marks is mak­ing sure it lives up to its name.

North & South - - Four Corners -

Glance in the win­dow of Dunedin’s Best Cafe and it’s like a time warp back into the past – from the vinyl-cov­ered ta­bles to the back­ground hum of classics like “Sweet Caro­line” and “King of the Road” that have pa­trons tap­ping their feet on the lime-toned lino floor.

Jess Marks took pos­ses­sion of the seafood cafe in Fe­bru­ary, after mak­ing the pur­chase long-dis­tance a few months ear­lier from her canal boat in Lon­don. On a whim, she’d looked it up on the in­ter­net one morn­ing and found, to her as­ton­ish­ment, that the busi­ness was listed for sale. “I had a sud­den surge of adrenalin in­volv­ing ex­cite­ment, panic, and fear of be­ing so far away and miss­ing out,” she says. “Some­thing made me be­lieve I was meant to find that ad­ver­tise­ment.”

Marks’ fam­ily ties to the cafe date back to the 1930s, when her great-grand­fa­ther Pa­trick Collins em­i­grated from Ire­land and landed a front-of-house job in what was then called Bon Cafe. He bought it two years later with his wife, Delia, and re­named it Best Cafe. Even­tu­ally, the busi­ness passed to Kevin, one of their five chil­dren, who turned it into a seafood restau­rant be­fore sell­ing up when he re­tired in the 1980s.

Marks, who was born in Dunedin but grew up in Christchurch, worked in the mu­sic and hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­tries be­fore she “ac­ci­den­tally fell into cook­ing” when she ap­plied for a stew­ard’s job on a yacht – only to find it was, in fact, the chef’s po­si­tion.

Re­turn­ing home, she trained at the New Zealand School of Food & Wine, then spent seven years in Europe as a pri­vate chef. “The fam­ily I worked for had a shoot­ing lodge in the coun­try where I learned to cook the best grouse you’ve ever tasted!”

Re­mem­ber­ing the “lovely lit­tle cafe” in Dunedin that used to be in her fam­ily, she and part­ner Brent Charn­ley popped by for lunch in 2014. “I was mes­merised,” she says. “I couldn’t help but imag­ine my­self buy­ing back the restau­rant one day.”

The fan­tasy faded with time, un­til that Sun­day morn­ing Marks woke up and turned on her com­puter. Now, with the Best Cafe back in fam­ily hands, Charn­ley has be­come a whiz in the kitchen and the cou­ple are due to add their own branch to the fam­ily tree later this year.

Hang­ing be­hind the counter is a pho­to­graph Pa­trick brought with him from Ire­land of his mother and sister (who he never saw again). Along­side, Marks has added a framed pic­ture of him with Delia. And as news has spread that the busi­ness is back in the fam­ily, cus­tomers who re­mem­ber her grand­fa­ther, Kevin, are start­ing to re­turn.

Over the years, the Best Cafe has be­come a Dunedin in­sti­tu­tion with a loyal fol­low­ing, rang­ing from the late Ralph Hotere to the All Blacks. And when they sit down to those clas­sic tunes, they know ex­actly what they’ll be served: sus­tain­able fish straight from the sea, the fresh­est and light­est Bluff oys­ters when they’re in sea­son, and a gum­boot tea so strong you could just about stand up a tea­spoon in it.

“Pa­trick and his fam­ily worked tire­lessly to fig­ure out all the hard stuff and set­tle at a sim­ple way of do­ing things,” says Marks. “It takes a long time to mas­ter sim­plic­ity, so I will not be chang­ing that win­ning recipe.” GUY FRED­ER­ICK

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