With an exuberant energy and a smile that lights up the room, it’s hard to imagine Damaris Coulter has ever exuded anything but graceful confidence. But Coulter, one-half of the sister duo behind Auckland’s legendary Italian dining spot, Coco’s Cantina, says her biggest lesson in life has been learning to feel good about who she is. “When I feel good about who I am, I feel well and happy, and when I’m well and happy, I feel at my fullest and most beautiful,” she says.
For Coulter, beauty stems from confidence. “I can’t rely on someone else to make me feel beautiful,” she says, turning to Bobbi Brown training manager Olivia Wild. “Beauty has to come from within.”
Self-acceptance has helped her find her feet, and Coulter admits an important part of that journey was giving up alcohol in her early twenties.“I spent the next 10 years really trying to figure out how to be happy and getting to know myself without outside feel-goods,” she says.
While Coulter once used to struggle with her quirks, these days she embraces them. “Women are complicated, we’re layered, we’re beautiful, and I’ve come to love that,” she says. “I just don’t see these things as flaws. I’m a tapestry. Who wants to be a picture-perfect tapestry? I like the colour, I like the mess, I like complexities.”
DOWN TO BUSINESS
It’s not only Coulter who has had to embrace her eccentricities. For Coco’s Cantina to be as successful as it is, she and her sister Renee have had to invest a lot of time in their relationship. “We do couples counselling,” says Coulter, laughing. “It’s obviously sister counselling; we are complete opposites.”
In her own words, Renee is the lion tamer while Coulter is the lion. “We have amazing qualities that complement each other but also clash.” One of the biggest challenges Coulter faced recently was realising there could only be one chief to run the tribe. “I had to relinquish the reigns, and that was hard on the ego,” she says. “But Renee’s the chief of the tribe. That’s what she’s amazing at.”
Her honest approach seems to have rubbed off on her staff. The chefs at Coco’s all wear T-shirts emblazoned with the sister’s mantra and ethos: be kind. “It reminds us all that we’re human. We’re here on the planet for a short time but we should still be kind to people.”Coulter says that being female in the male-dominated hospitality industry isn’t without hurdles but the sisters have risen to the challenge and take an honest approach to the way they do business.“We’re open, we might even over-communicate,” she says, laughing. “But now all our chefs have this amazing ability to share ideas and critically think.”
As for a uniform for the female staff – and some daring men – Coulter says the only uniform is red lipstick. The pair realised early on that it was too hard to put people with unique styles into a uniform but they still wanted something beautiful and to make a statement.
“Coco’s became a ‘she’ when we started. It was originally going to be just Cantina but we wanted something feminine.” A bold, deep red lipstick has been the rule since day one. And now it’s Bobbi Brown’s Rich Lip Colour in Old Hollywood, and Art Stick in Harlow Red, that her staff are wearing. “It makes sense to align (with Bobbi Brown),” says Coulter. “It’s important for us to align ourselves with people and brands that are healthy, that are well.”