We caught up with chef Emilia Rowan recently to talk about healthy eatery Cocu and to learn more about plans to expand their catering menu and launch exciting new pop-ups at two of their locations.
You describe Cocu as “a healthy obsession”. How did you get started?
I’d just come back from travelling about three years ago when I was first introduced to my business partner. I was used to fantastic offerings and service in New York and London but I felt it was lacking here, and we both wanted to develop a stand-alone brand based around a healthy concept. We spent over a year developing Cocu. Looking for premises was extremely difficult and no one wanted us seeing as we were a start up, which is a lot riskier than a Starbucks or a chain. It took a really long time, so when we finally got the premises on Baggot Street we made it work! We got a lot of press attention and we were really lucky to have a queue out the door on the first day. The first few months were absolutely mental, working all hours, cooking lots of food with loads of learning curves.
Cocu has grown very rapidly. What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
While I know having three locations seems extremely quick it was the right thing to do at the time. Initially I hadn’t really thought any further down the line because it all kind of blows your head a bit. You’re just trying to take it day by day, get the place open and cook the food, so when we were being offered other premises and the locations were a good fit for our business we just jumped at them really.
Definitely the biggest challenge is finding and keeping good staff because it’s such a transient industry, so sometimes I still don’t believe that we’ve held on to these really wonderful people. Our key staff members do a fantastic job and that’s what makes life easier and enables me to pursue opportunities to expand in other ways. We have a brilliant system to incentivize them to do a great job and stay with us and we like to involve them in innovation as well. People have such interesting ideas, and it’s great to be able to say, “Well I put that dish on the menu”. Those things matter and that’s the kind of atmosphere we’re trying to cultivate.
You mentioned earlier that counter culture and the service element has been critical to the business.
Absolutely. You don’t want to waste your time on that hour of your lunch getting whatever, you want to be in and out. You can see especially in New York, how it works there. Wham! Bam! Thank you M’am! They’re a different class in fairness, and that’s what I wanted to capture here. It’s all about countering fast food culture. I wanted to be like McDonalds, extremely fast, exactly the same, every time. The name was the hardest part. We changed it at least four times because every time I was like “It doesn’t feel right!” but obviously every name has its flaw. It means cuckold in French so we have all these French people coming in thinking we’re absolutely bonkers!
Tell us about your approach to the menu.
We wanted to keep it a small tight menu, using fresh Irish ingredients with the food cooked on site. I wanted everything to taste delicious and from day one working with Orla Walsh on the menu she was intent on making it fit into this nice nutritional bracket. The way that we’ve done it is that you can have a base with a choice, so you can have a salad one day or rice with sweet potatoes the next. We have wonderful suppliers, great meat suppliers especially and with three restaurants we can negotiate a good price. I have to fight for what I feel is important and giving you a good brand that you can trust, that’s completely our ethos. We’re never going to drop that aspect of it.
What dishes have proved most popular?
Once they like something Irish people are quite hard to sway in a different direction, and I’m the same. Our most popular dish by far is middle-eastern chicken. It’s funny the amount of our customers who come in and I’d be urging them to try something else and they’d be like, “No, I just like this!” We recently developed a wrap that’s easy to eat on the go. It’s really filled, more like a burrito I suppose, toasted, delicious and tasty. That’s my new favourite thing especially as I’m hardly ever sitting down having lunches any more.
What else do you have in store this year?
With the new kitchen in Chatham Street I’m really looking forward to taking on new catering clients and expanding our catering portfolio. In this business a lot of interesting foodie people can’t get premises and there are some brilliant chefs coming home from London and New York. Our business is mostly a breakfast and lunchtime trade so we’re also looking at pop up restaurants. Chatham Street and Hatch Street are both brilliant locations, so if we can use the space that we’re not using at evenings and weekends and give them a bit of a chance to set up a pop-up it would be positive all round. I’d also love to try a healthy takeaway, a completely different menu people can have at home and see how that works. Food trends go in waves and there is a healthy food trend at the moment so if we can be leading that – amazing!
Words: Martina Murray