Harbour Light Bistro on Wakefield Quay may not be hanging over the water but the views are spectacular from the elevated dining room where diners at every table can be entranced by the environment as well as the wonderful food.
I remember when Buzz Falconer set up the restaurant many years ago and while it has had a few owners since then I think the current owner, Steve Coyne, has taken the restaurant to a whole new level when it comes to quality; from fantastic front-of-house staff to the kitchen team he leads.
Coyne has also catered a charity black tie dinner and auction we helped organise for many years and when he has the opportunity to really express his creativity in that environment he simply excels, he now has a separate catering business that is going from strength-to-strength, especially in the business catering sector.
That doesn’t mean his food at the bistro isn’t creative because it is. Coyne brings a huge amount of experience to his business. Born and raised in Paremata just north of Porirua and just south of Plimmerton, before moving to Auckland for his secondary schooling in Auckland, he left school when he was 16 and started washing dishes at a pub called the Shoreline Milford. As Steve says “you always start at the bottom and if that means washing dishes that is what you need to do, you didn’t just walk into a job as a chef straight out of school”.
His formal chef training started in 1988 at Auckland Technical Institute (now AUT) and after two years training he started cooking at the Aotea Centre when it first opened, the head chef was Carl Rayner at the Aotea Centre and the sous chef was Warren Bias who moved on to become the head chef at the Sky City Centre where he has been for about 20 years.
Coyne on the other hand went to Australia for a year and that move became the first of many as he travelled the world, moving from one kitchen to another. After a year in Australia he spent a year in London where he worked at the Regents Park Hilton next to Lord’s Cricket Ground. “That was a really cool place to work, we got to cook for some top international sports people as well as the well-heeled UK cricket supporters who flock to the spiritual home of cricket”.
After London he moved to Zimbabwe where he worked for a year for a catering company in Bulawaow that included functions at some of the mines, all of this by the time he was just 22 years old. “It was a pretty insane time, driving a truck and being handed a gun by your employer when you leave on a job, fellow workers in their 40’s all had military training”.
When things got a bit too unsettled his father lent him some money for an “escape-from-Zimbabwe” airfare home to New Zealand where he had to work to pay him back and save enough for another airfare, this time back to London.
As soon as he landed he phoned his old head chef from the Regents Park Hilton who happened to be working as head chef at the Heathrow Hilton, “he asked me if I needed a job, I said yes and he said when can you start? I told him I would get a cab there as soon as I had cleared Customs, so I had a job within minutes of arriving.”
At the Heathrow Hilton he cooked for many international dignitaries including Mikhail Gorbachov in about 1994 and then it was time to travel again, this time to Germany when he was just 25. He lived and worked in Constanz near the Swiss border for just under two years in a Michelin starred restaurant and that was his first experience of high quality fine dining rather than hotel dining. “It was one of the toughest things I have ever done, I had to learn the language and there were 8-10 chefs for a 40 seat restaurant with about 600 wines on the wine list, perfection was the only quality level that was acceptable.”
After a short stint back in New Zealand, and his introduction to Nelson where he was chef at Lake Rotoroa Lodge, he got his first job working on super yachts. He was based in the Bahamas and Florida for the first year, “we sailed up the eastern sea board of the US to Nov Scotia, through the Panama Canal (3 times now) up the western sea board as far north as Seattle and the last six months was in Tahiti. This was followed by a yacht in France for 2 ½ years.
From Southern France we started in the eastern Mediterranean and went through the Suez Canal down to and around the eastern side of the African continent. “This was a fantastic time, it is a great way to see the world and save money while you do it, not only do you travel but you get to take part in other shore-based trips as well”.
The next yacht was based in the Baltic and “we worked from there for six months visiting St Petersburg, down to Stockholm, Helsinki basically touring around the Baltic. The last boat I was on the owner didn’t like boats but they had one of the busiest programmes of any yacht I have worked on because the owner was forever sending colleagues and friends on trips.”
The last super yacht was based in Alaska and he cooked for then US Vice President Dick Cheney and Neil Armstrong who he talked about quiche with, not once was the moon mentioned.
Then it was back to New Zealand where he set about looking for somewhere to settle down and start restaurant, “I always liked Nelson and it was my first choice. I had been working at a law firm in Wellington that had its own chefs and over several coffees and cheese scones one of the partners helped me by the Harbour Light Restaurant business. Some of the partners in that law firm come to Nelson and often stop in for a chat and dinner.”
When he started in his own business the learning curve became a right angle, very steep. “I had to learn about running a business not just a kitchen, things like managing staff and paying for everything with your own money not someone else’s were all things I had to get my head around”.
Coyne met his partner (Jessica) who was working at the Boatshed across the road and they have two young children. They married in November and even though they are juggling owning a business, working (Jessica still works at The Boatshed) and family isn’t easy he says “I has never been so content. I have earned more money in other things I have done but it is quite satisfying having your own business, starting a family and living in an outstanding region, I just love Nelson and think tourism here is going to really take off in the next few years.”
“With Jetstar and other airlines coming into Nelson, the unsettled situation in other parts of the world, our lowish dollar against the US dollar and the Euro New Zealand and Nelson are looking at the best three or four years it has ever had in the next few years. While it is unfortunate what has happened in Europe it is really going to push things here.”
Coyne says that when it comes to owning a restaurant on the waterfront just having a great view from every table in the room isn’t enough, the food has to be good and the service has to be good. “Nelsonians are quite discerning and it is good to hear feedback from diners that the view isn’t the main reason for coming, some of these people come in three or four times a week. We are always looking to improve”.
For me Harbour Light Bistro is all about fantastic food in a wonderful setting and as well as being a genuinely nice guy Steve Coyne brings huge experience to the kitchen. And that view? Well I think it is the most panoramic view you will ever get from a restaurant dining table in Nelson.