“As a chef, it’s nice to have somewhere tangible, where people can see and feel what you do,” Michael Van de Elzen says as he welcomes guests onto his Muriwai property on Auckland’s beautifully wild west coast.
“There can be a perception that you’re not a chef if you don’t have a restaurant, but that is just not true.”
While there’s no doubt the chef and restaurateur turned television celebrity isn’t short of industry experience and highly regarded credentials, he hasn’t operated from a physical establishment since selling his Auckland restaurants including Molten and, more recently, The Food Truck Garage.
So Michael’s latest venture, Good From Scratch Cookery School, is all the more special as it provides a concrete base – and a spectacular, architecturally-designed one at that.
The venture, shared with his wife Belinda (known as Bee), allows Mike to connect with people and to share his ethos of creating nutritious and seasonal meals with a farm-to-table, or seed-to-plate approach.
Set on the 4ha site are gardens and orchards scattered with beehives and more than 190 trees. The grounds provide everything served at the cookery school; what’s in season dictates the menu.
Orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, cider apple, plum, peach, macadamia and apricot trees provide fruits for students to learn new recipes, cooking techniques, flavour combinations and the best ways to grow seasonal food at home – all under Mike and Bee’s guidance.
Laden with woven baskets and secateurs, Bee guides us to a greenhouse framed with lilac-hued lavender hedges, where the gardener imparts secrets on keeping the soil and produce nutrient-dense. The more biodiversity in a garden, she says, the less likelihood of pests; crop rotation after every harvest is also good for eliminating pests and diseases.
“We need chilli, coriander, microgreens, silver beet, rocket…” Bee says, pausing to ensure she’s remembered everything that needs harvesting for today’s menu.
Wrapped in the warmth expelled from the fireplace in the school’s dining area and an open pizza oven in the kitchen, we lace up our aprons and rinse the produce in a polished concrete sink.
“Today is your day; you can be as involved as much or as little as you like,” Mike says. Students split into small groups; some knead the dough for yoghurt flat breads to be baked in the pizza oven, while others crack fresh eggs for the crème brûlée. We busy ourselves making lime dressing and caramelised onion jam for fresh salads, learn how to carve chicken and get tips and hints on plating-up dishes.
What’s special about the cookery school is that the techniques shared by Mike aren’t intimidating. They can be easily replicated at home, which is perhaps why we all opt for a hands-on approach.
When we come together at the banquet-style table to devour the day’s creations, Mike and Bee share the motivation behind establishing the cookery school. It’s inspired from time spent at a small luxury hotel in Ireland, where they worked before returning to New Zealand in 2003.
It took five years to find the perfect piece of land. But the minute they laid eyes on the Muriwai property – the pair laugh about not even setting foot inside the house they now share with their two school-aged daughters, Hazel and Ivy, and dog, Hector, prior to signing the deal – they knew they’d found ‘the one’. “The place almost chose us in a way,” Mike says.
They spent a further five years building the school and transforming the grounds (converting an old equestrian arena into the vegetable patch) and opened the doors early in 2020.
Hospitality seems to be in Mike and Bee’s blood; they have a way of making those who step inside their school welcome. As we’re all leaving, swapping handshakes for hugs, a student turns to Bee and Mike, exclaiming: “It feels as if I’ve known you forever.”
See Good From Scratch for more details.
Reported by Monica Tischler for our AA Directions Autumn 2021 issue