Entering Cocu's Hatch Street café in busy Dublin 2, it's impossible not to be impressed by the surroundings; the café sits within a stunning half-cylindrical space located underneath the stone facade of the old Harcourt Street Railway Station. Walls built using the original stonework adorn the spot and the cafe is suitably decked out in colourful benches and tables which truly give it the air of a modern, urban food space.
The café is one of three Cocu premises in Dublin (you'll also find it on Baggot Street & Chatham Street) which
have stealthily become a breakfast & lunch fixture in the city since opening three years ago. The cafe's mastery of quick but good quality, healthy food for those maintaining a busy lifestyle has certainly struck a
chord with Dublin's increasingly cosmopolitan mix of techie employees and health-conscious consumers.
Owner and Head Chef Emilia Rowan explains what was at the heart of her concept; "We didn't really have that in Ireland, healthy food was hard to get and the choices had quite a low standard of ingredients - we'd have delis but god knows where the deli ingredients were coming from. So offering normal healthy food, no fads, making it and simplifying it, but also using good ingredients. I didn't want it to be like a deli, I find I get really overwhelmed when I go into places like that."
"I always wanted to be my own boss, I felt I had really good ideas"
Emilia created the concept and opened the first Cocu premises after years spent studying Culinary Arts at DIT and learning her craft abroad in New York, London and South America. "Well I'm from a foodie family I suppose, my Mum is an excellent cook, she trained to be a chef in the Cordon Bleu in Paris so I've always loved food.", Emilia explains. "I worked in a lot of different aspects - waitress, chef, pastry chef, food stylist and went onto travel a good bit in summers. That opened my eyes to what was going on outside of Ireland. When I came home I got really lucky to work in a pop-up restaurant with Richard Gleeson (Irish chef, formerly of London's Ottotenghi restaurant) who taught me basically everything worthwhile I know. I always wanted to be my own boss, I felt I had really good ideas and would be well able for it so when I met my business partner it felt like the right time. It was very much week by week but we got there eventually and here we are three and a half years later."
Looking afield for inspiration thus comes naturally for Emilia but she's quick to assert the wonderful food craft building healthily here on our doorstep, "We're realising what great people, talent and resources we have in Ireland and all the lovely travellers that are coming back from places like Melbourne and London are now bringing these lovely food trends and ideas and we're taking the opportunity to embrace and enjoy them"
"You need more protein, you need less fat, or better fat!"
One aspect of the business Emilia kept patience with in development was the simple but effective three-step process of Cocu's signature menu which the chef designed in conjunction with nutritionist Orla Walsh. She laughs, "which was basically months of me working on the menu and her telling me "no you need more protein", "you need less fat" or "better fat" or whatever it was. So it was a great learning curve for me, I wanted the food to taste great and obviously have the nutritional information to back it up."
With Cocu a bonafide success, Emilia excitedly tells us what's next for her business including event and office catering, a healthy takeaway serving a different menu and a series of pop-up restaurants promoting young Irish chefs. "We're a daytime operation and we have two fantastic spaces that need to be used at night time so it gives them a chance to make a name for themselves. We have Ian Marconi who is unbelievable and set up the Jack Rabbit Food Truck so we're going to be doing a pop-up restaurant with him. It benefits both parties, we have the space so why not, it's a positive thing to do. With Ian, he worked in London for years and to get such amazing talent like him back into Dublin is great".
"We all work together and it's a nice community"
At this stage we duly tuck into some of the ridiculously delicious specials served at Cocu including the chicken, falafel and salmon lunchboxes and talk naturally turns to food and the sourcing of local ingredients. "It's very important obviously, there's a lot of things that we can't get in Ireland. Avocados for example, which are one of our bestsellers in both salads and breakfast. But the things that we can source here we do, and meat for me is the most important. I think in Ireland we're so lucky to have free-range and really good quality meat"
What is equally important to Cocu's ethos is keeping their snacks and drinks just as locally sourced. "We have Synergy Kombucha which comes from Donegal, that's just about the most natural drink you can have", Emilia tells us. "Nutmost (activated nuts, that have been sprouted, soaked and seasoned) which is an Irish entrepreneur you may have seen on Dragon's Den, both Green Beards and Cornucopia organic green pressed juices, Biltong, a high-protein dried meat snack which is delicious and being made here in Ireland, Cloud Picker coffee which is from a roastery down on Sheriff Street. It's nice to be able to stock them here and have them on display, we all do work together and give each other shout outs on social media and it's a nice community in a way."
If you want to try Cocu's awesome breakfast, brunch or lunch menus, check out the links below;