Photo: Florence Charvin

[As published in July/August BayBuzz magazine.]

On the eve of 5 February 2022, the skies of Havelock North were washed with a fire wall erupting from Black Barn Bistro. An icon in these parts was burning down. By morning, it was a skeleton of its former self. 

But its spirit remained. 

“AND there was never any question that we would not rebuild,” says Kim Thorp, who along with his business partner Andy Coltart, owns Black Barn. 

Black Barn originated over twenty years ago, when Andy Coltart approached Kim Thorp about planting some land he had been planning to subdivide. Objections led instead to the area becoming a ‘special character zone’. Consequently, Andy was left with some 22 acres of land – land needing a raison d’être.

Andy and Kim both come from Hawke’s Bay and knew each other from earlier days. “But it was more a connection than a close friendship,” explains Kim. At the time they were more interested in learning about wine through their venture leasing the Lombardi winery than planting vines. But the timing was ideal.

The land became theirs – and a faint friendship flourished into a deep camaraderie, “with never a cross word spoken in those 20 years,” comments Kim.

Kim had returned to Hawke’s Bay with his family after a star-studded career in advertising. As one of the top team at Saatchi and Saatchi he travelled the world continually. He wanted a calmer life.

But Kim’s brilliance in branding was not to be foiled. The idea of planting vines turned into reality in the mid to late 1990s. Rush Cottage, sitting in the middle of those vines, was dusted down and polished up to become a rental ‘home-away-from-home” in 1994 – at a time when the B & B business was booming as ‘the’ thing to do. The Black Barn Retreat followed in 1997. And the name Black Barn finally became a brand in 2003 for wine.

Like the Pied Piper, Kim has drawn friends and family to this part of the world. Hawke’s Bay Tourism has bequeathed him their Legend Award for his crafting of food, wine and accommodation as one brand. Previously known as ‘the guy from Saatchi’ Kim is now ‘the guy who brought New Zealand to Hawke’s Bay’. It also explains why there was never a question about the rebuild.

“Andy and I now own the bistro in partnership with Chef Regnar Christensen and as such we have reassessed our requirements for it,” he explains. With his usual ‘glass half full’ attitude he views the fire as an opportunity. The bistro also plays a big role in the purse-strings of the winery. “Two thirds of our volume we sell directly from our premises and that’s one of the key reasons why we have a bistro.” The winery obviously also gives the bistro a substantial base. “We don’t want to scale up, we don’t want to be in the middle ground, and that philosophy of ‘growing the business without growing its size’ is a good thing,” says Kim.

Black Barn, the restaurant, also opened in 2003. The same time as Sileni and Craggy Range. “These two big boys allowed us to duck between them and be very New Zealand. They also put Hawke’s Bay on the map and helped us define our identity as a region. I have nothing but praise for the arrival of those larger wineries like Elephant Hill, Craggy Range, and Sileni – they broke the ground that helped us to recently become the 12th Wine Capital of the world.”

“From planting to branding took us nearly ten years. It took a while because Andy and I both had day-jobs and we wanted to create a whole lot more than a vineyard.”

The bistro

He reflects on his partnership with Andy with warmth. “Andy and I are such an unlikely pair to be business partners. We have completely different skill sets but we both totally trust each other’s abilities. He is the expert on architecture, landscaping and all things wood – where we do come together is with an almost intuitive agreement on an aesthetic and style – we know in a nano-second what is Black Barn and what is not.” 

Commenting on the architectural style of the bistro, “It’s all very well thinking we have a very New Zealand feel but there is no doubt an aura of Italy and France inspires the look and atmosphere of the sunken courtyard at the front.” And on the layout of the land which surrounds the bistro he says, “We knew we had to step down from the building at some point into the courtyard; we needed elevation for the bistro to give it the views. Planting the canopy of the courtyard at the same level as the surrounding grapes has allowed that. It has been one of the best things we did.”

Before 1997 when the Black Barn Retreat opened, Andy had cast his eye on an old fruit siding shed alongside the railway line which runs through Hastings – the HDC wanted to get rid of it. He got it, cut it in two, turned most of it into the olive shed which still sits on the property and used the remaining native timbers and beams to put into the build of the Retreat.

The feeling of it was how he could see the future look and feel of Black Barn – not necessarily rustic but a bit of a collision of classic rural and urban cool. And that in simple terms relates to the very high ceilings, the barn-like massive doors with cross beams, the simplicity of the clean lines of the building which are almost as if drawn with a protractor’s precision.

Commenting on the development of the bistro following the fire, Kim says, “You know, we probably never would have refreshed the bistro as a major redo, but because we had no alternative, we went for it.”

“One of the great things about the original design of the bistro was the size of the kitchen. As Sam and Mary Orton ran the bistro much of their catering business was from there as well, so the kitchen was vast. And fortunately, we had that footprint to work with for the complete rebuild of that area.”

“The other plus was Regnar, our executive chef, being able to have a big input – the kitchen was built for purpose, but with Regnar’s eye we have very workable spaces – a wood-fired grill, which is absolutely amazing in itself, but as well it has allowed us to apply that focus to the food; to have that wood-fired philosophy throughout the menu.”

“Regnar is a partner and a shareholder – there is no between layer, and we are keen for him to create his own fame through his work at the bistro.” He is also passionate about local produce. Soon a substantial garden is to be created across the road from the bistro specifically for it. Frayne Dyke-Walker is a part of that process, and we all know her skills,” Kim comments. (See BayBuzz Issue 68.)

“And of course, the other important factor is the wine. David McKee, our winemaker, worked alongside Regnar to create a stunning wine list for the bistro. Apart from a couple of mandatory champagnes it is entirely and proudly all Hawke’s Bay. Dave and Regnar liaised with a number of smaller winemakers in the region – often without their own cellar doors – to pioneer a really innovative and original list – complete obviously with all the Black Barn classics.

“This is our 20th year and I think we have grown up. In a good way.” Perhaps interpret that as “let us be youthful and not get old.”

A wood nutter

Andy Coltart has farming in his blood. And originally it was his life.

But lurking in his hands and his head was a passion for design. And wood. Buildings. Structures. Objects. A contract to work on an outback property in Northwest Queensland allowed it to thrive – he learned just about every skill needed for outback life – house building, welding, horse breaking, butchering cattle, building cattle yards, long distance trucking, maintaining water bores, building dams – and making do with little or no back-up, living three hours’ drive from town. (Thanks to Black Barn, the book – for that description.)

His venture into property development was a side kick to his farming, but it was that passion for wood which finally took over. “I worked in a sawmill as well as running a small farm when I returned and was contracted to make 1,000 pallets per week for the Milk Board. Then the Milk Board attempted to make a twin-saw machine which I could see had potential so when I moved back to our family farm, I made one. And operated that as well as working the farm.

I was always peddling in property development at the same time. The Black Barn property. Then the Retreats. The Poplars development. Buildings in Joll Rd, Matangi Road, Te Awanga and Tukituki.”

A Coltart build is easy to spot. They have a marvellous sense of space. Wood features strongly. “I’m a wood nutter. The rings, the bark, the curves, the colour, the lustre, the texture. The size. Every facet.” So, his developments are big and demand a feeling of freedom. His superbly sweeping landscapes offer areas of beautiful green undulations with vast views. You could say they are faultless and not be wrong.

The original Black Barn was his – unmistakably so in its design – elevated with a sunken courtyard. There’s simplicity in the spaces and the structure. The footprint of the original Black Barn was naturally the inspiration for the new. But inside there is much change.

“Redoing it [the kitchen] was a challenge but a joy. And having Regnar on site made it perfect. His attitude is really gutsy, and he has very strong opinions which made it far more stimulating and thought-provoking when doing the planning. We also opened it up so diners could see the action and the preparation going on in various parts of the kitchen – particularly the wood-fire grill, which is enormous.”

The bistro rebuild is Andy’s latest venture and has occupied him well since the fire. His passion for wood is obvious here. “The floor is New Zealand elm as are the dining tables – all milled in Hawke’s Bay.” Red Cedar plus Redwood (which is from Andy’s tree developments) also feature. In regards the rebuilding of the barn, he says, “Basically the plans are the same, but we have taken the time to upgrade the hidden essentials like the IT and sound systems. The acoustics have been very carefully reviewed. So important in a restaurant.”

And there is a new lightness.

Rafters interrupt the space up to the vaulted ceilings giving a new proportion to the main dining area “and there are no dead spaces. Also, there’s a new modern vernacular with wider passages, the bar has changed and of course there is that wonderful window.” The pull to look at that window when entering is insistent – looking as it does straight out to the stunning views of the vineyards.

The other factor that makes the barn, so beguiling is that it faces North – “and that’s a treasure,” adds Andy. “The whole rebuild has been just hugely enjoyable. Having Kim on side of course makes all the difference.”

Both Kim and Andy highlight how different it is to rebuild on a site which has all its surrounds in place. “It has made it so much easier because the views are all there. And the ground is planted with vines and trees. The landscape is laid out. And of course, in the original build we had none of that – this time we had the positioning perfectly placed so it was easy to see where the windows could play to take maximum advantage of the views.”

You could say with ease, the owners knew what they were doing.

Liv Reynolds (née Thorp) It’s not just a business, it’s family

Of the fire Liv says, “I will never forget the images of devastation. And then the outpouring of emotion – and the love. That fire was immense; little was salvageable. But there is always a silver lining. Aside from the original footprint, and much exterior cladding, we had a clean slate meaning we could pretty much start again.”

There is no question that Liv (short for Olivia) is part of the family. Her immense enthusiasm for the restoration of Black Barn is compelling. The project – starting as one of sadness, “became fresh and exciting. Things like getting the perfect balance inside the space – where the traffic would be focused to prevent bottlenecks, till and point of sale placements, bar tender access. Plus of course the massive job of recruitment.” Something Liv played a pivotal role in.

As an ongoing part of the senior bistro team and with significant hospo experience herself, Liv had already done her Black Barn degree. I’ve grown up with Black Barn – it’s part of my upbringing and part of me.”

While getting her Finance degree she worked pretty much across all the evolving components of the Black Barn operation. From waitressing at the bistro, to bed making, to becoming Retreats Manager across Black Barn’s renowned luxury retreats (now at 17), to involvement with launching and helping in the Black Barn Gallery – run by Liv’s late mother Bronwynne – Black Barn was always part of her adult life.

She remarks with genuine regard, “Dad and Andy are yin and yang but together they have literally helped put Hawke’s Bay on the map. Their foresight is extraordinary.”

Brigit Christie
Décor and design

Although she holds a degree in architecture from Auckland University – Andy asked Brigit Christie if she would like to be involved with creating the interior of Black Barn. His instincts were right. Brigit has brought wonderful warmth to the space.

Perhaps it could be put down to the fact that, “I love restaurants – not so much for the food though that is pretty important – I want to know how people feel when they eat out. What makes them comfortable?”

As anyone who visits eateries on a regular basis knows, designing the interior is vastly different in some ways, yet strangely similar in others, to doing that of a home. The time factor is vital in a restaurant – an understanding of what makes the space immediately enticing is essential.

Brigit was introduced to Andy 23 years ago when on holiday and not only did they form a firm friendship, but she also loved the region. She also loved the architecture of the houses that are in the Black Barn vicinity. But knowing whether she would like living and working in Hawke’s Bay was another thing entirely. “I said I would only move if we could find a house in that area.”

She did. And as Andy had worked on most of them, giving the area around the Black Barn Road a distinctive look and feel, it was natural that they would enjoy working with each other on the Black Barn project. Since she came to Havelock North nine years ago with her husband and teenage girls, Brigit has worked alongside Andy on many architectural projects.

However, this is the first real interior she has worked on – “that means everything including the loos”. The ‘loos’ are one of her favourite areas. A delightfully fresh tangerine creates a point of difference to the bistro itself which is shaded in both a warm ginger biscuit and a clotted cream. The logo BB has become an overall wallpaper design – note the back wall of the bar. And then there are the many design details which Brigit has introduced.

The blueprint of the tables and their positioning in any restaurant takes considerable thought. “Where they are placed makes such a difference to the traffic flow, the ease with which the wait staff are able to move around – and also the sound effects from other tables. The attention to detail with the acoustics has been minute. The credit goes to Andy for leaping onto the acoustic ceiling panels early. So has the shaping of the table placement. It was essential we create a cosy comfortable atmosphere.”

The rounded back chairs are an open rattan weave, immediately inviting and tactile. There is not a lot of difference in the shapes of the tables – round, square and oblong – except for one oval which has a banquette backing. “We call that the ‘Top Table’, she says laughing.

The high vaulted ceilings have had the air space broken by barn-like beams, giving the bistro its character and also creating an intimacy to the very considerable space. Should one study the geometric patterns of the seating arrangements, the subtle ways in which traffic is guided through appears simple – only another designer would know the hours and hours spent creating atmosphere and traffic flow in a restaurant. “The subtle glow of the lights comes from orbs which have an almost celestial feel. The highly regarded Tom Dixon has created those. And then there are the bronze side lights from Nightworks Studio which pepper the walls like scattered pieces of jewellery.”

The tall, rounded table which greets and farewells guests is also laminated with the same BB design. “It’s a bit like chefa pulpit,” laughs Brigit. It is certainly a spot that’s easy to identify for guests going in and out yet creating a place to meet and greet with conviviality.

When the Dick Frizzell drawing that had acted as a backdrop to the bistro was burned to a cinder, it presented what was apparently an insoluble problem. Until Brigit remarked that the view they had been busy covering up with an artwork – stunning and all as it was – should be given space. A full-length paned window now stretches right behind the cellar door. The views are so very typical of Hawke’s Bay – vineyards bordered by paddocks filled with sheep. It’s hard to believe no-one noticed what was being hidden by that immense artwork.

Subtle touches bring their own unique appeal. “Everything is soft and curvy,” Brigit explains, “to make guests feel relaxed.” And she proudly notes that everything has been obtained locally – “the paint is by Aalto, the touches of bronze scattered over the walls are lights obtained here, the elm wood for all the tables came from one of Andy’s properties.”

Then there is the kitchen, with its central focus of attention – the wood fired grill which brushes pretty well every meal served, providing its own unique flavour to the bistro.

Regnar Christensen
Black Barn chef
The footprint of Black Barn Bistro has been reestablished by a team totally focused on making it succeed. Obviously the chef is a key ingredient.

Regnar Christensen grew up in Hawke’s Bay. He left school early always having been drawn subconsciously, he feels, to catering. “I started as a kitchen hand and even then, I was absorbing the extra things.”

Ultimately, he landed up in Wellington becoming head chef for Ortega Fish Shack (a hugely popular place owned by award-winning maître d’ Davey McDonald and Mark Limacher, an award-winning chef who has been quietly influential in the food world. That influence, Regnar acknowledges, played a big part in his progress. “The menu changed a lot.”

Winning Apprentice of the Year provided a trip to London working in some of the most famous restaurants in the city – Le Gavroche; the Berkeley Hotel where Marcus Wareing – a Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur, TV personality, judge of Master-Chef and an acclaimed cookbook author held court. Plus, Gordon Ramsay, a chef of similar ilk who needs no further introduction.

“It’s a brutal world,” comments Regnar. “You learn that it’s best to put your head down and do the job as quick as you can. I didn’t get caught up in the detritus. But I did find it overwhelming.”

He returned after four months – to Ortega as sous chef, soon becoming Head Chef. And joined the bistro team in October 2020. “I saw an ad. And was cooking in the bistro kitchen the next week.”

Pretty much left to his own devices he changed the menu, challenging the approach which had been for “deconstructed and foams”, to the food he felt it should be for a restaurant with a winery – naturally with a strong focus on Hawke’s Bay wine. “ I saw it as an opportunity for us to get back to basics – to what we were originally – a bistro with bistro style food. Accessible but interesting.”

The silver lining to the fire disaster was that it allowed Regnar time to bone up on how he wanted the bistro to focus when it reopened. “Everything had to be tasty – that was just yum. No smears. Really good honest food that wasn’t muddled by a mass of ingredients.” He points to a wall in the kitchen – visible to all – lined with jars of pickles, preserves and vinegars. “That is what I am really proud of – every single item there we produce. My menu is inspired by a desire for simplicity, freshness and most of all – flavour.”

Regnar is very proud that the restaurant also uses ingredients provided by a small group of passionate producers and growers in the region. “I believe this is not just desirable; it’s a duty. We can grow extraordinary things here but only if we support the people who are taking the risks and putting in the hard work. We are supplementing this with our own garden, currently being established, plus various plantings around the vineyard.”

The new garden is destined for an area across the road. Regnar is himself an ardent horticulturist and his knowledge is another attribute that separates him from the crowd. Strolling through the grounds he asks, “Do you like oysters?” Receiving an enthusiastic affirmative, he deftly snips a shoot and offers it. “That’s borage.” he explains. Helping him with the planning is Frayne Dyke-Walker – a renowned horticulturalist in these parts whose influence can be seen in the beautifully manicured area that makes the Black Barn domain.

The huge woodfired grill is unique. “This lets us do everything from slow cook to gently smoke to rapidly sear.” Many of the items on the menu will have had at least a brush with the grill. Adding to that, Andy is just in the final stages of building a smoker of cedar wood for Regnar’s kitchen. “Andy’s enthusiasm is catching – and he knows how to turn an idea into a reality,” Regnar remarks with reverence.

A welcome letter from Regnar comes with the menu. His message conveys the underlying wish to give recognition to what is being grown, picked, harvested and produced within the region. Those ingredients also provide a measure of the flavours and textures driving the menu. Listing those who are contributing to the menu is a gesture of generosity. A generosity which infuses the entire Black Barn enterprise. 


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1 Comment

  1. Building work done by Local Hawkes Bay Building Company , Jay Jay Builders, also with the help from:

    Simmons Electrical (R.I.P. Campbell Simmons).
    CN Decorating.
    Park Hill Joinery.
    Tip Top Roofing.
    True North Design and Build.
    Red Steel.
    Napier Flooring.
    Small’ Plumbing.
    Advanced Plumbing.
    Super Chill.
    HB Doors.

    and so many others.

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