Carl Koppenhagen and Natalia Schamroth. Photo / Stephen Tilley

Festive Entertaining Tips From Auckland's Best-Loved Restaurateurs

Owning a restaurant is like hosting a perfect party every night; attention is in the details. Some of Auckland’s best-loved restaurateurs share how to host with the most this festive season

December is the busiest month for The Engine Room, the Northcote dining institution owned and operated by Natalia Schamroth and her husband, Carl Koppenhagen. So busy they’ve added on lunch services on Wednesdays and Thursdays to cope with all the festive season demand. So when it comes time to entertain, they’ll have to wait until the restaurant closes for its annual two-week break to take a breather.

Christmas Eve will be spent at Carl’s parents’ home in Auckland. Traditions come from Carl’s Dutch heritage and Hanukkah from Natalia’s family. It all revolves around food: oliebollen, speculaas biscuits, gouda and Carl’s mum’s chocolate meringue torte. “It’s so amazing it wouldn’t be Christmas without it,” says Natalia.

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Their son, Marlow, recently turned 6 and is already beyond excited about Christmas. “[He’s] all about sucking up to Santa by leaving out a buffet by the fireplace next to his stocking,” laughs Natalia. “Taittinger rosé, blue cheese and crackers, chocolate truffles...”

On Christmas Day — after a breakfast of “croissants and champagne” — the family will drive out to Carl’s parents’ Hahei bach to unwind and invite friends to stay over the holidays. “It will be very low key this year,” says Natalia. “We have a feast packed with us and we just slow down and quietly cook away.”

At the bach they avoid strict schedules and formality when entertaining, with food served on platters to share. “We’re so driven having a restaurant where everything is all about the timing and having to be so spot on so it’s really nice for us to undo all of that,” she says. “But it’s important to be organised. We’re all about the prep lists, we can’t help ourselves, even on holiday.”

Who’s cooking at your Christmas soiree? It will be a joint effort.

What’s on the menu? Late Christmas lunch: bowls of salty olives, anchovies and roasted nuts to go with our aperitif. Always freshly shucked, ice-cold oysters. The rest is played by ear. The Webber will be fired up, even just for grilling asparagus and heating duck confit. Depending on how we feel, it may be Middle Eastern inspired, perhaps Spanish or if the weather is super-hot we might go spicy Thai — we’ll probably decide the day before.

What’s your tipple? A negroni (or three) to start the festivities. Taittinger is our Champagne of choice. Chablis for sure and we have a few older vintages of Pyramid Valley Pinot Noir stashed for Christmas drinking.

What do you bring to a Christmas party? Champagne, Natalia’s Valrhona chocolate truffles from the restaurant. Often something from our vegetable and herb garden, The Engine Room coasters made by Deadly Ponies.

Ideal Christmas party guest — or the worst? The ideal party guest is one who knows how to mix a cocktail. The worst is the one who expects the same level of service as we offer at our restaurant — it ain’t gonna happen at home — even if you tip!

The party season is long…. what are your survival tips? No matter what — don’t stop exercising. Our naturopath advises to drink Campari before eating a meal to activate the digestion process; we interpret this to mean that a negroni is practically a health drink, so at least one before every meal. Champagne is barely drinking — it’s full of air — so drink plenty. You can create amazing non-alcoholic cocktails with Ecology and Co and Seedlip to alternate between negronis. Fernet-Branca is the ultimate breakfast and hangover cure.

How to deal with the Christmas ‘bulge’? We are super active at the restaurant from morning until late at night — so the trouble starts on holiday. There’s a lot of negroni stirring to keep the arms toned, walks to Cathedral Cove, surfing, chasing after our 6-year-old on the beach. And when we are back to reality and our regular routine… jump squats and boxing. There is no avoiding the bulge of a Christmas holiday.

Will Santa be kind this year? What’s on your wishlist? We think we’ve been good this year … Lord only knows what Santa thinks. The wishlist, in no particular order: something small like a swimming pool (with a waterslide from the top storey of the house); hospitality superstars to join our fabulous team at The Engine Room; a plane ticket to Greece; the metabolism of a 20 year old; another new surf board (Carl and Marlow); another Georgia Alice frock (Natalia); a child who starts saying “yes” rather than “no” to everything; an instant and miracle cure for global warming.

Mark Wallbank. Photo / Stephen Tilley

“Christmas is one of my favourite times of the year,” says restaurateur Mark Wallbank, the man behind The Blue Breeze Inn, Woodpecker Hill, Chop Chop and Gogo Daddy Thai Canteen — Auckland’s mainstays for delicious Asian flavours revved up with high-octane glamour.

He loves turning his eateries into festive haunts throughout December, dressing them up “to the nines”, creating Christmas playlists, devising special treats and surprises in-store for patrons to enjoy in his restaurants. “I love the energy from the people and the big groups, it’s four weeks of good, fun mayhem,” he laughs.

With the restaurants at their busiest in December, by the time Christmas Day comes around “I’m sort of knackered. I roll out to my father’s place and let him feed me. I love a very low-key Christmas.”

On the evening of Christmas Day he’ll have a few friends over and begin preparations for his Boxing Day party at home — “I love it for the horse racing” — which he will keep to a maximum of 12 guests. Mixed in with his friends he tends to invite his restaurant “orphans” — foreign staff without families in Auckland to give them some festive cheer.

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“I get the barbecue cranking and just drip feed through the day and have a whole pile of fun,” he says. With the Ellerslie races live on TV, Mark divides his guests into two teams by drawing names out of hat and gives them each a TAB account to have a go on the totes. “It’s hilarious. The winning team is the one that makes the most money on the day.”

What’s on the menu? Typically, he will start with oysters, then crayfish, and then a roast lamb on the barbecue using Japanese charcoal, finishing off with a big “luxury pav” and his grandmother’s cherry trifle.

Any tips for the perfect pav? “Not really, I just roll through it. Sometimes it’s a bit touch and go. But for the meringue, heat up the sugar, that’s the winner.”

Mark says the secret to a good party is to prep everything before guests arrive so he can join in the fun. “Organisation is key. I don’t want to be slaving in the kitchen, I want to make sure everything is sorted. Before the first person arrives, I want to be there with a glass in my hand ready to roll,” he says. “The music has to be spot on. I’m a bit of a music Nazi, I don’t let anyone bring their own music, it’s pretty much dictated to them.”

His other secret? Curating a good guest list. “I refuse to have boring people.”

Who’s cooking at your Christmas soiree? I will be, I love to cook for my family and friends, let them relax and enjoy themselves — it’s my gift to treat them.

What’s on the menu? We tend to celebrate the amazing summer produce available. I make my grandmother’s boozy cherry trifle, the macaroon layers are the secret.

What’s your tipple? Gin, as many ways possible. We will be setting up a self-serve gin bar on the deck.

Do you have a Christmas tradition? Every year I make the family Christmas cakes, tweaking the recipe to perfection, and getting the house party glam.

What do you bring to a Christmas party? An offering of a bottle of champagne is always well received, but three bottles is welcomed with open arms.

What are your party survival tips? Make sure you use Fever Tree Light Tonic, and don’t scrimp on the gin.

How to deal with the Christmas ‘bulge’? Exercise is crucial, I don’t want to be mistaken for Father Christmas.

Will Santa be kind this year? What’s on your wishlist? If Santa can squeeze down my chimney with a 1.5 litre of Botanist, I’ll be very happy.

Clare and Joost van den Berg and their son Harvey. Photo / Stephen Tilley

This Christmas, Clare and Joost van den Berg — the charming and stylish restaurateurs behind Odettes and Hugo’s Bistro — will have plenty to celebrate. They are expecting their second child in April, a sibling to their son, Harvey, 4. The couple have also recently sold their majority stake in both restaurants to enjoy a bit of downtime and to focus on new projects. “A very big decision for us, but also very exciting for us with the next step,” says Clare. “Having Harvey, having another [baby], we also want to have that balance. Joost would go gung-ho, but I’m a bit more of a handbrake in the situation!”

Joost is already scouting the city for the next location. “We are waiting for the right opportunity. There are lots of ideas though, especially after our trip to Europe last year,” says Clare, referring to their recent trip to Paros in Greece, Puglia in southern Italy and various hillside villages in Majorca. “We’ll definitely be keen to do another restaurant together.”

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In the meantime, Clare is forging ahead with a second career as an interior designer, with retail, residential and commercial projects in the pipeline. She’s collaborating with Zoe Williams of Zoe & Morgan to renovate and expand the brand’s City Works Depot store early next year. It’s a natural progression from the beautiful spaces she created with Odettes and Hugo’s, something she developed under the tutelage of interior designer and architect Nat Cheshire. “You always need a kind, calm and considered sounding board like Nat,” she says.

For Christmas the family will be heading to Kawau, an annual ritual they began when Harvey arrived into the fold. “It’s a time for cooking, reading, swimming, hanging with the locals at the yacht club while watching the boats and boaties come and go,” says Clare. “It’s bach life and a real Kiwi summer, how it used to be. Nostalgic.”

They have plans to host a New Year’s lunch in the garden on a long table with close friends. For the menu, the couple prefer a Mediterranean menu of “salads with fruit — watermelon, peaches — and a good cheese. Good oils.”

The secret to a good party? “Being with your guests. Not stuck in the kitchen. A welcoming delicious drink to get everyone in the mood, music is a must and the food, of course. Glasses and bellies full.”

Who’s cooking at your Christmas soiree? We all love to cook, however, Joost is master planner. He is a stickler for perfection on the day.

What’s your tipple? Bubbles to start, of course. For Clare this year, it’s Seedlip and East Imperial Grapefruit Tonic.

Do you have a Christmas tradition? We’ve integrated New Zealand traditions and Dutch now. Weeks before Christmas we start making brandy mince tarts with Clare’s mum; if you are lucky you will get a box! To us a special ritual is Christmas Day breakfast, taking our time and organising a breakfast of bread, Dutch cheeses, cured meats and stollen bread. An afternoon siesta on Christmas Day is essential.

What do you bring to a Christmas party?
Good wine always and a delicious family recipe — pavlova: cream not too whipped, lemon curd, toasted almonds and lots of grated lemon rind.

Ideal Christmas party guest? Ideally all of our family. Joost’s brothers, who live in Holland, cousins and Joost’s parents, who live in France. We are all pretty scattered. Ideally, a white Christmas in France is very special; cosy, with great food as the family are all such foodies. It’s also a dressy occasion compared to a casual Christmas.

How to deal with the Christmas ‘bulge’? Walks. Yoga for Clare… or even better, deal with it like everyone else does — from New Year’s Day.

Will Santa be kind this year? We hope he is kind to everyone. Just to be together makes you feel pretty damn lucky, and seeing our little boy happy. Christmas is for children and the joy it brings to them. That’s a gift.

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