Chef Michel Louws' mission is to fulfil his diners' every request, finds Diana Balham.
If today's top cooks are rock stars and bad boys - think Anthony Bourdain, Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay - Michel Louws should fit right in. He's a big guy who looks like he'd be handy in a fight. But looks can deceive: Louws is an affable bloke with an overdeveloped sense of adventure who likes to swear.
His path to the refined air of Taupo's Huka Lodge has taken him from his Dutch homeland via multiple Michelin-star restaurants, the Caribbean, Queensland islands, small cruise ships, private yachts in the Med and now here. He nearly became a diving instructor in Australia but, he says, "in the end I decided against it. Just diving and a little bit of instructing, but I decided, nah, cooking's it."
In fact, cooking has always been it for Louws, whose family ran a small cafe on an island off the Zeeland coast, although it was an awful dish that piqued his interest. "My dad once made a cabbage stew and I really gagged. I couldn't eat it!" Was it a traditional Dutch dish? "No. He just made it up, the bastard!"
Louws thought he could do much better. "On the rare occasion that my parents did take me out for dinner I would never, ever settle for chips. I wanted to try the snails. I've always been involved with and around food. I never decided to become a chef. I just never felt I had another option."
They say you get what you deserve. Louws has been Huka Lodge's executive chef since 2009 and there's much to keep a restless man here. He can satisfy his love of the outdoors and indulge his rule of never saying no at the same time. Whatever you bring, Louws will cook for you. Whatever you want, he will do his damnedest to get. But this willingness to step up to the plate, as it were, sometimes gets him into trouble.
"Some guests brought in a turkey and they wanted to eat it two hours later. I said, 'Technically it's possible. I can physically take the feathers off, take the skin off and cook it but it's not going to be edible. It's too tough. There's nothing you can do with it."' So, did he cook it? "Of course we did. We never say no. I had a turkey in the fridge that I'd shot myself. It had been hung and it was beautiful but he didn't want it. He wanted that turkey whole roasted."
One guy presented him with a hare just before dinner and said he wanted it cooked in a stew. He said he couldn't do that either - and then did. He's choppered in special mushrooms and wagyu beef from Auckland just to keep his customers satisfied. And then there was the goat's yoghurt, which a guest requested ahead of time. Because it's hard to source, Louws spent a month learning how to make it. "And when they arrived, the woman said, 'I never eat goat's yoghurt. Just goat's milk and normal yoghurt!' But now I know how to do it."
Well, who wouldn't want their chef to be a perfectionist? Louws isn't a fan of Kiwi sausages - he reckons the meat is minced too fine - so when he shot a wild boar he took some offcuts to his butcher and asked him to make salami. "I've just got it back now. It's edible, quite good, not fatty or artificial. I'm going to try to make a better salami. I can't do better yet. But I will. I just don't know when."