La Vita magazine interviews Michael Van de Elzen
It’s not a big surprise that the place that Michael Van de Elzen, well known TV Chef, extracts himself from to talk to me, is his beloved kitchen. Cooking is, well, pretty much his life.
His voice is rusty, courtesy of the amount of talking he did at the Hamilton Food Show.
Michael grew up in West Auckland on a poultry farm and their staple dinner was chicken, with curried egg sandwiches for lunch!
Michael began his career washing dishes at Tony's Restaurant in Henderson. Working in a commercial kitchen was pretty hard work, Michael says, but what drew him back every day was the energy in the kitchen, the togetherness of the chefs under pressure. “It was a beautiful thing to see.”
Chef qualification completed, Michael went off to work in London. He worked in some amazing restaurants, with some very talented chefs, and his experiences cemented his passion for food. “A Trade Certificate qualification was only the start - London was my training.”
The restaurants where Michael worked were very big and very intense. At Bank he was 2nd chef in charge, managing 140 chefs under multiple situations. “It was like boot camp, but I loved the pressure. I would recommend London to any budding chef. Working there is a priceless experience.”
A change of pace
After some years in London, the manic environment in the kitchen started to take its toll and his wife, Bee, and he made the decision to move to Ireland.
At Dunbrody Country House, in County Wexford, Ireland, they experienced a vastly different kitchen environment. They were able to slow down and focus more on creating. They had carte blanche to be as innovative as they wanted. And they earned a Michelin star!
Michael says that London gave him the ability to cook, but Ireland gave him the passion to cook. They cooked every night for 22 people and changed the menu every day according to what ingredients were available. The gardener would bring in seasonal vegetables, they got asparagus from a garden 'down the road', there was Waterford salmon from the river and wild deer from the local woods. And, of course, there were potatoes!
Michael learned a lot at Dunbrody. "We might find a 5kg salmon left out back - it would need to be gutted, scaled, skin, filleted and portioned; or a whole deer with just the head removed might be dumped at the back door, so I had to learn some butchering skills too!'
Ireland was the perfect denouement to Michael and Bee's European adventure. They had a year to calm down, recharge, and ease back into the NZ lifestyle.
Back to New Zealand
Back in NZ, they opened their own restaurant, Molten, in Mount Eden. It wasn't, however, until they bought their West Coast farm, three years ago, that Michael fully embraced farm-to-plate cooking, and, now able to grow and raise his own produce, Michael is currently planning a new venture (watch this space).
The farm is a life-style choice for Michael and Bee. Michael can now work from home and has plenty of quality time with his children. It is the ultimate dream-come-true.
Taking pride of place near their house, is a behemoth cooking 'device’, the acquisition of which came by fortuitous happenstance, and is the basis for another venture that Michael has undertaken.
Michael was speaking on the radio about his love of cooking over open flames. He mentioned that there was nothing available of the size that he needed - something that would, for instance, allow him to cook a whole lamb on a spit. The day after the radio talk. Michael got an email from a Whakatane local saying “I'm going to prove you wrong!”
The local was Carl Engel, who, along with his wife Jude, owns Engel Fires. He told Michael that he was going to build him something that would accommodate a lamb on a spit and do much more besides. A couple of months later, an Engel Fire turned up at Michael's property. "I needed a tractor to lift it!”
“The enthusiasm that Michael has for the Engel Fire is tangible. It’s an amazing piece of machinery. The engineering is so precise, so perfect. Carl is a perfectionist!"
"There is nothing on the market like it - nothing! You get this amazing smoked, crispy, crunchy..." (at this point Michael stops talking because he is salivating.)
“You can shut the doors and turn The Engel into a woodfired oven. There is a fire box on brass rollers which you can push back to cook pizzas on the bottom stone, the grill lowers down so that you can cook among the embers, you can achieve a flavour similar to the low-and-slow style by shutting the dampener in the flue down so that the smoke in contained within the firebox. It's a wood grill and a rotisserie. And when you've finished cooking, it's a fireplace to sit by while you dine. It's all there. It's not a barbecue, it's a multi-functional work of art!"
So impressed is Michael by the Engel Fire (which, because of its 100% stainless steel construction, he says will be a family heirloom), that he's started to develop some recipes for it as part of his Good From Scratch philosophy; quick, healthy dishes that you can create yourself with fresh ingredients.
Both Michael and Carl will be at Field Days, and Michael will be cooking up some mouth-watering delights on an Engel Fire - Michael is thinking skirt steaks. I am salivating too...
This article is originally by Lisa Badger for La Vita magazine.