It's fitting that Chris and Jenny Bluefields named their business Kookaburra Cafe.
As they reflect on why a couple from Queensland with almost no hospitality experience would set up an eatery in southern Ecuador, Jenny's cackle demonstrates the comedy of it all. "I waited tables at my parents' cafe in Brisbane in the late 1970s, but that's it." About a year ago, after four years in northern New South Wales renovating an eco-cottage and working part time in horticulture, the couple moved to the city of Cuenca with the dream of creating an informal space, like an extension of their kitchen, serving fresh, simple food.
"I visited Ecuador as a backpacker in 1985," Jenny tells me. "And I remembered it as a vibrant Andean country with a very strong indigenous, agrarian culture. I loved seeing the streets filled with people buying and selling food and the landscape dotted with crops and livestock."
Cuenca, one of South America's most picturesque UNESCO-listed towns, is full of 16th-century churches, busy indigenous market stalls, cobblestoned streets and tree-lined plazas. Kookaburra Cafe is in an old colonial house in the middle of town and its unlikely sign stops me in my tracks. I know strange animals can often be found on the menu in South America and now I fear Australia's emblematic bird could be among them.
"The name always gets a laugh from Ecuadorians because it loosely translates as 'lazy female donkey in the kitchen'," Jenny says. "They assume we've made a great joke about the slovenly woman in the kitchen, which wouldn't be far off the mark." But it's clear that Jenny is far from a lacklustre presence here. Despite toiling in the kitchen, she chats easily to customers and, as two depart, she bids them farewell by name. Chris, who has a winemaking background, is the coffee connoisseur and is like a kid in a candy shop in bean-rich Ecuador.
The interior of the 100-year-old house has remained true to its origins, with adobe walls, high ceilings and two tranquil courtyards. Its renovation into a cafe, using a local architect and work crew, was low-impact and sympathetic to the environment, says Chris, who describes the conversion as "very Zen meets Spanish colonial". A mixture of accents and languages fills the cafe; most prevalent are Americans. "A lot of people who have moved here from the US come in each day," Jenny says. "Last year Cuenca was named by an international magazine as the world's best retirement haven. A lot of people are attracted to the relaxed way of life, inexpensive property and good health care."
But while this couple is grateful for the expat clientele, they have been unhappy with the condominiums shooting up around town. Chris made a video time-line of the changing landscape from his bedroom window and helped put a stop to future building projects.
"Being a visual artist, I knew how powerful images can be and so I made the piece available to the right people and, as it turns out, at the right time," he says.
Efforts such as this, and respect for culture and customs, have won over many of the townspeople. "We just hoped the locals would embrace the cafe with the same curiosity and delight with which they embraced us," Chris says.
In a town dominated by fried chicken and beans, or tourist restaurants serving hamburgers and hot dogs, the Kookaburra is all about fair pricing, minimum processing and uncomplicated fare.
I order artisan wholegrain toast, sourced from a local bakery that Chris says specialises in chemical and additive-free food, and an all-too-familiar spread. "We put Vegemite on the menu as a sort of in joke for Australians," Chris says. "Only a few locals have tried it, but we say straight out that they probably won't like it."
Next I try atamale, a traditional South American corn-based dish steamed in an achira leaf and filled with a variety of ingredients, depending on where you are on the continent. Instead of the cornmeal tamales I am used to, this is potato based and has a delicious filling of diced chicken breast, carrots, hard-boiled egg and raisins. Homemade chutney is a nice, somewhat Australian, touch.
"The biggest indigenous market is just two streets away and we visit it almost on a daily basis, selecting the best fruit and vegetables," Jenny says as I sip an apple, celery, ginger, beetroot and carrot juice. The pair sources produce from friends and have added two guestrooms following the same restoration style ethos as the cafe. As I head for the door, Jenny lets rip with a kookaburra laugh as she hands me a sachet of Vegemite. After a year away from Australia, my homesickness suddenly doesn't seem so bad.
Credit: By Chris Canty for The Australian; www.theaustralian.com.au; photo caption: Chris and Jenny Bluefields in Kookaburra Cafe on Calle Larga