No Kitchen Without Luke

Talking to Luke Reilly, from Luke’s Kitchen

By Emma Darragh

Luke Reilly just managed to meet for a chat, after being roped in at the last minute to make coffees at his Kuaotunu cafe. Seven years in business and Luke is still clearing tables, talking to patrons and cooking pizzas.

A chef by trade and local by nature, Luke worked in kitchens from age thirteen. He grew up in Kuaotunu, trained in Tauranga, then sharpened his skills in Queenstown, Perth and the Pacific Islands. He chose cooking because he could surf during the day and work at night. “I liked the idea of optimising my time,” he said.

At 21, he had been thinking alot about setting up his own business. Luke loved summer and the Coromandel, and especially surfing and diving. After a while he ‘couldn’t bear the thought of not being there.’

“It was basically a trailer,” recalls Luke, of the early days setting up Luke’s Kitchen. “It was very small and very local.” By the third year he’d acquired a liquor license, built a little bar, ramped up the restaurant. He remembers the first three years in business as exciting times. “It really grew with the community,” says Luke. “Kids would come in and make dough creatures and I’d cook them in the pizza oven.”

Luke’s Kitchen is Kuaotunu’s meeting place; for locals and holidaymakers alike. Luke says; “It’s a neutral environment where people can hang out and get together. Because of the layout, people are encouraged to mix and you’ll often get strangers sitting at a table making friends.”

Luke’s passion for cooking has been subsumed these days by developing the business. Years chefing in busy kitchens taught him he didn’t want to be cooking forever. He soon learnt that if he could run a business effectively, he could have ‘a life’ as well. Luke readily admits he’s got a good balance now. “I love getting behind the pizza bench or getting in the kitchen. It’s something I really enjoy. Chatting to the customers, clearing the tables, having a laugh. I love it, and people love to see that too.”

Luke’s Kitchen is well known for its music nights. What began as a bunch of locals having a few jam­sessions, has now become a sought­after venue for up­and­coming artists from New Zealand and abroad. Luke is driven to keep making things better. He’s always making a list, implementing a plan. “I just do it.” he says. “It’ll never be finished, as long as I’m still enjoying it.”

His latest aim is to capture the essence of the Coromandel with his menu; including seafood and local products. He’s also keen to create more opportunities for people to enjoy the stunning

nearby landscape. “Kuaotunu is one of the only eastern Peninsula beaches where you can see the sunset,” he says. “Couples can come to enjoy a drink and take in the amazing view.”

Luke has enabled locals to set up their own ventures through the Kitchen. Adam Coleman Smith recently started Blue Fridge Brewery in Kuaotunu and now sells exclusively through Luke’s Kitchen. Local artists feature their work in the cafe gallery. Luke employs local youth, and puts time into teaching them, so they can take useful hospitality skills out into the world with them when they leave. It’s these kind of projects that give Luke a great deal of satisfaction. His restaurant has been beneficial to his hometown community in many ways.

He credits his family with providing the support and skills that have made Luke’s Kitchen a success. His mum taught him the business­side of things, and he said his Dad is super­practical and has helped a great deal as the handyman. They also taught him the value of fresh food from a young age, with his mum tending a vegie garden and dad regularly fishing. Luke remembers his childhood being filled with plenty of food, people and music. It’s no surprise that creating a good atmosphere comes naturally.

Luke is deepening his Kuaotunu roots with a vegie garden of his own at his place in the village. “It’s cranking!” he says. “But the pukekos keep pulling out my leeks for some reason.” He’s also added two sheep and a planted a citrus orchard. His partner Steph made Kuaotunu home three years ago after visiting from Perth. Luke laughs as he tells me he used to go surfing in Indo’ every winter. Now he’s so settled, he stayed put for his first full winter and couldn’t be happier with the decision.

Luke may not have come back from Margaret River, Western Australia, were it not for the opportunity to set up the Kitchen and spend time with his family. He loved it there; enjoying similarities to the Coromandel, but with bigger surf and a more established food and wine culture. These days, Luke is seeing the Coromandel grow in the same direction. He sees more people moving permanently, and an increase in tourists exploring more of the Coromandel, not just hotspots like Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove. He is positive about the growth; “As long as we keep it cool along the way and don’t turn it into neon lights and plastic chairs.”

Luke’s Kitchen epitomises that elusive Coromandel essence people instinctively recognise. Luke is just happy people enjoy it. “I created a place I thought I’d like to go. I think it’s cool that other people like it too.”

He’s keeping the locals entertained over winter with film nights on the last Thursday of every month. Keep an eye out for more live gigs and great food coming to Luke’s Kitchen this summer.

Photos: Flea Photos