Words Denise Irvine, Images Ashlee DeCaires
Barb Cook loves to cook; she does slow braises, soups and roasted meats in winter, and loads up the barbecue grill with great ingredients in summer.
When Cambridge’s well-known Simply Divine Kitchen store came on the market three-and-a-half years ago, Barb was tempted by the opportunity to work with cookware and culinary products that she used and loved. She thought, “I can see myself in a shop like this.”
Barb and husband Neville were previously dairy farmers in Taranaki, and Barb is also an artist specialising in mixed media contemporary landscapes. In Taranaki, she was involved in the local art scene, working in galleries as well as milking cows. When she and Neville sold the farm, and Neville’s work brought them to the Waikato, Barb kept on painting … until she reinvented herself as a kitchenware retailer.
“I was nervous,” she says, “because I hadn’t done retail before. And we bought the business just before the first Covid lockdown, which was also nerve-wracking. But I have four great part-time staff members and many people rediscovered their kitchens during the lockdowns, so we came through that okay.”
Nowadays, Barb is the confident owner of the colourful store on Empire Street, tucked into the former dining room of the heritage Central Hotel building. She brings her artist’s lens to the beautifully curated displays, and her cook’s knowledge to the products she recommends.
You’ll find everything here that you could possibly need to slice, stir, mix, grate, sauté, roast and serve, including the timeless kitchen labels of Le Creuset, Lodge, Denby, Bialetti, Mason Cash, Victorinox, and the collectible china of William Morris, Burleigh and the singular designs of Emma Bridgewater. There are also lovely linen tea-towels, tablecloths and platters, and you could maybe raise a glass to it all with a purchase from the Schott Zwiesel crystal range out of Germany.
Barb says she aims to have fun and for the store to be quirky and bright. “We like people to feel welcome in a place that is not too huge and overwhelming, where there is personal service and where we make connections with our customers.”
She wants people to find a “best friend” in the form of a quality product that they will enjoy every day and pass on to another generation. “Like Lodge cookware,” she says, as she takes me on a tour, and picks out a cast-iron Lodge frying pan: “Lodge is made in the US, it’s one hundred years old, their products are durable, you can use Lodge on any cook-top, including induction tops. You can’t damage it and you’ve got it forever. It is an inheritance.”
Barb also points out the possibly less well-known Dreamfarm utensils. Dreamfarm is an award-winning Australian design company that started making kitchen tools and gadgets in a garden shed and now produces multiple items with clever functions and funky names such as Chopula, Flisk, Clongs, Supoon and Lestrain. (Mixing business with pleasure, I depart the store with several Dreamfarm purchases.)
Barb’s own culinary best friends include her Italian Bialetti stove-top moka pot which she uses each morning to make coffee. She’s never bothered with a fancier espresso machine; she simply fires up her beloved Bialetti: “It is efficient; it makes great coffee.”
Taking the moka pot ritual to the next level, Bialetti and luxury fashion house Dolce & Gabbana have collaborated to produce a gorgeous contemporary selection of pots that only these two Italian legends could do. Their red-patterned wares now sit alongside the standard Bialetti models in Barb’s store.
Barb says her French Le Creuset sauté pan (with a non-stick surface) is another essential tool. “I use it most days for sautéing onions and garlic, browning meats, and doing stir-fries and curries.” A covered Le Creuset oven dish, classical Mason Cash baking bowls, and the Dreamfarm utensils, are also on high rotation in her kitchen.
Barb is enjoying retail so much that she recently added another store, Simply Divine Cloth & Clay, to her Cambridge stable, just a few steps away from Simply Divine Kitchen. It is a small but perfectly formed space and, as the name suggests, it is devoted to textiles and ceramics.
There is bed linen, towels, sleepwear, and other soft furnishings, including locally made cushions. Pottery by Cambridge’s Jo Beckett sits alongside imported ceramics from Portugal and Sweden.
Some of Barb’s own art is on the walls, and she also sells her Lavender Belle sideline of lavender soaps and essential oils, made from lavender grown in her backyard.
While the lavender oil is distilled for her by another business, Barb makes the soaps herself. “I started from scratch. I taught myself. You bake soap like you bake cakes, and I know exactly what goes into them. I use natural ingredients.”
Barb Cook has clearly found a new niche in retail, happily at the helm of Cambridge’s 12-year-old Simply Divine Kitchen, and enjoying its sassy little sister store around the corner.
Simply Divine Kitchen, 5 Empire Street, Cambridge