The first dust of winter speckling the hills near Ōamaru is a cue to cosy-up the menu at Cucina, the Tees St restaurant of Pablo and Yanina Tacchini. “When the mountains are all snowy, we need to put soup back on the menu,” says Yanina. “It’s crazy; suddenly all the tourists are here and everyone wants soup.”

At Cucina that’s not just any soup but locro, the hearty soup-stew of chunky winter vegetables and meat that is almost the national dish of Argentina, Pablo and Yanina’s birthplace. As with most regional dishes, there are as many recipes for locro as there are cooks. “I have my own version to adapt to what is available here,” Pablo explains. “In Argentina I would use white dried corn to give sweetness and a creamy texture. Here I use the beautiful pumpkin, which gives a similar texture and flavour. I also make homemade chorizo to an Argentinian recipe that has a beautiful, truthful flavour.”

It’s more than a decade since the couple came to New Zealand on holiday with one suitcase each, not much money in their pockets – and a baby. Fortunately, within a week Pablo had a job offer. Today they have three children (Ian, aged 14, Bella, 10, and Rocco who is 8) and no less than three local restaurants. They are proud to be among Ōamaru’s biggest fans, loving its small-town community and welcoming nature. “We’ve worked really hard but this is a place where you can achieve your dreams,” says Yanina. “We take things seriously, but knew that here we could make a life, travel a bit, even buy our first car – little things that people take for granted, but we were only able to achieve in New Zealand.”

The couple’s main focus, everything they are doing, is for their children, for family. “What is their future, what can we give them?” asks Pablo. “Especially for our oldest son who has a disability – his first job can be here with us. All that we do, we do for them.”

Riverstone Kitchen is where the pair first rolled up their sleeves with Pablo as sous chef and Yanina working front of house. After a string of other roles, including at Fleur’s Place and Merediths, by 2016 they were ready to strike out with not one but two new ventures: Cucina and Tees St. “Cucina is our food, our heritage and flavours from home with a Kiwi twist. Every meal we make there reminds us of who we are and where we came from,” says Pablo. “Tees St is a quirky little café with everything from Kiwi favourites to South American touches.”

The South American influence continues with Cucina hosting the occasional long lunch on the weekends; it’s done Argentinian barbecue-style where more than 80 people crowd around communal tables, sharing food and wine with those who may have been strangers a mere three or four hours ago.

The couple like a challenge so, as if two businesses and a young family wasn’t enough, in 2020 they opened Del Mar, a beachy family restaurant right on the sands, where you’ll find a seafood slant, including Peruvian-style sushi and ceviche, and homemade gelato. It is, as Pablo admits: “quite full on.”

While lots of hard work has clearly been required, Yanina is quick to give credit. “We look after the locals and we’ve never stopped doing that. If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be here today.” TRACY WHITMEY