When Israel Cook started as head chef at Frankton's Cafe Agora eight months ago, he was told that this was not a place where he should feel restricted - he could develop the food and ideas that suited his style.
This is not always the case in cafe kitchens, he says, and he's relished the opportunity to glean new ideas from cookbooks, magazines, televisions shows, and translate them into dishes for Agora. "I think I've found a flair for freshly baked pastries, brioche, tarts and other sweet treats."
At present, Cook - a serendipitous surname for a chef - is enjoying the abundance of summer stonefruits and berries, making things like individual tarts packed with fresh berries. And a plum and almond tart (see recipe) that can be adapted to other seasonal stonefruits such as apricots and nectarines.
"We like our food fresh here. We change with the seasons, we make everything here." Agora's muffins and scones are popular, as are big cakes, brioche, and the house-made rosemary and sea salt pretzels.
Cook's first culinary lessons were at Te Awamutu Intermediate when he was a kid; he remembers making double-chocolate muffins and he quickly cottoned onto the concepts being taught. He left school at age 15 because he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He enrolled at Wintec, trained as a chef, and has worked in restaurants ever since.
He's now 22, married with two young children, and the daytime hours of Cafe Agora suit him very nicely, as does the story behind this spacious, friendly eatery in Frankton's Kent St. Cafe Agora is owned and operated by Agora Community Trust, established by the community of City Bible Church in 2008. It was envisaged as a place where people matter, where compassion and creativity are valued. "It's a space where anyone can come in and feel comfortable - a happy, safe environment, " Cook says.
"We have lots of kids here, mothers' groups like it, staff try to inter-act with our customers."
They also like to feed them well. As well as the baking, Agora offers savoury cabinet food such as Cook's five-grain bruschetta with pan-fried mushrooms, blue cheese and honeycomb. "It melts under the grill. I've always liked the combination of blue cheese and honey."
There are fresh salads that change daily, and a menu including French crepes with Cook's popular homemade lemon and lime curd and fresh fruit; pan-seared salmon with a lemon, caper and pinenut crust; open ciabatta sammie; toasties; and the Agora tasting platter. The kitchen runs a specials board as well, putting up dishes like linguine with green-lipped mussels in a creamy sauce, served with crusty bread.
Agora uses La Mai coffee from northeast Thailand. It is ethically grown and produced. Its purchase at fair trade prices is designed to lift the income of local farmers, some of whom have supplemented their meagre finances by selling their children into the sex trade in Bangkok.
All profits from the sale of La Mai coffee go to helping Thai farmers, and supporting a group in Bangkok that rescues women from prostitution.
At Agora, they continue the helping hand notion; 50 cents from each cup of coffee sold goes towards a selected New Zealand charity.
PLUM & ALMOND TART
Line a generous 30cm flan dish with sweet-short pastry, and blind bake.
Brush the cooked base with plum jam.
Make the frangipane mixture: cream together 150g butter and 1 cup white sugar, beat in four eggs, fold in 3 cups ground almonds, 2 Tbsp flour and a few drops of almond essence.
Spread the creamy frangipane over the tart base, cover with halved, stoned plums (face down). Use fresh plums, or canned Black Doris.
Bake at 150 degrees Celsius for 40-50 minutes, dust with icing sugar when cooked, and serve with Greek yoghurt.
This tart works well with halved apricots, and apricot jam. Or any other stonefruit.
Note: This makes a large tart; you can peg back the quantities for a smaller version.