The man making a U-turn on fast food

By Nici Wickes

With the opening of a new restaurant, TV chef Mike Van de Elzen continues his mission to make our favourite takeaways healthy, tasty and affordable

Michael Van de Elzen's latest restaurant The Food Truck Garage in The City Depot. Photo / Babiche Martens
Michael Van de Elzen's latest restaurant The Food Truck Garage in The City Depot. Photo / Babiche Martens

If you have yet to discover The Food Truck, the TV One show that's been a runaway success, you're missing out. It's funny and quirky and jollies you along for the ride in a classic 1970s Bedford truck that has been set up with a kitchen in the back.

Its message is that we need to be making better choices when it comes to fast food. The affable host, and driver of said truck, is the extraordinary chef Mike Van de Elzen and he's a man on a mission. He wants to have a positive impact on what and how people are eating, and the TV show, he says, is just the start. "It's not just another food show for the sake of it, we're doing something important with The Food Truck," he says.

Van de Elzen takes on some of our most popular fast foods - burgers, sushi, fish and chips and more - and turns them on their head. He deconstructs and reinvents them using his own innovative approach, to create new versions that are healthier, price-competitive and able to be delivered in the short time-frame we've come to expect when ordering fast food. His presenting style may be off-beat and fun but he's deadly serious about his vision of creating fast food that is tastier and better for us and, with his background, he's well-qualified to drive the message home.

He's a qualified chef and restaurateur, successful cookbook author and this month will launch perhaps his most ambitious project yet - the Food Truck Garage. The concept for a sustainable, healthier dine-in and takeaway eatery was born out of the popularity of the TV show and the desire to bring the recipes he created for healthy versions of classic fast food, from the TV screens to the dining table. It is a collaborative partnership between the producers of the show and Van de Elzen.

"We've just finished filming our third series of The Food Truck and I'm more convinced than ever that it's possible to bring better fast food to people. So now we've set up our own fast food restaurant to prove it," he says.

Since qualifying as a chef in his mid-20s, Van de Elzen worked in some of the best kitchens in London and Ireland, before returning to New Zealand. He then opened Molten in Mt Eden Village, which he ran with his wife Belinda until they sold it in 2011 so that he could focus his attention on The Food Truck and other endeavours.

"It's been an amazing ride so far. When I headed overseas to work in London, I started by doing a year with renowned restaurateur Terence Conran at his Bluebird restaurant on King's Rd, followed by a stint at Bank, a 500-seater restaurant where we would do 1000 covers, in two sittings, every night. It broke me as a human being. I was a senior chef in charge of 33 chefs and I turned into a 'Gordon'." It's hard to imagine yelling and screaming from the cheery chef we're used to seeing poking his head out of the food truck window, but he assures me it was true "I had to, or they would have walked all over me. I worked there for a year and came out a monster but it did teach me there are two ways to deal with staff, hard and good, and there's an art to finding a balance between the two."

It was about this time Van de Elzen also figured out that health, eating well and maintaining personal fitness were going to be important if he was to succeed in an industry not necessarily known for its clean living. "I noticed that the chefs I admired the most, those who ran successful operations and managed their kitchens effectively, were physically fit and subsequently more mentally switched on. A chef's life is not necessarily a healthy one - you work long and late, eat at odd hours, there's the drinking involved - and this isn't conducive to balance. Despite the fact that we've got more technology and equipment to help us these days, it is still a very physically demanding job and the pressure to financially succeed in the face of so much competition is huge. Unless you're on top of your health, you're making it harder for yourself, in any job."

Combine his habit for sensible self-management with an overall shift in the trend for diners demanding healthier options and you might say the stars were aligned when he got the call up to audition for The Food Truck. Except that he didn't realise he was auditioning. "I thought the job was mine."

The producers phoned B (his affectionate name for his wife Belinda) and said they were looking for a host for a new food show and could he meet them. A time and day were set up. Then he was out playing pool with some other chefs and one said he was booked in to meet them too.

"I then discovered heaps of other chefs, all of them superstars, which I am not, had been asked. I didn't want to go but B convinced me to."

So he turned up, acted naturally because he didn't really think he stood a chance and was asked back for a second audition. This time it was for real. "With the film crew, we went to a McDonald's and people stared. I realised if I got the job it would be a case of educating the public through a TV series about fast food. It dawned on me that I was embarking on something that was serious and that I cared about. I was tasked with producing a healthy burger, from scratch, in under six minutes, then approaching strangers to try it and give me feedback.

"So there I was, in front of a camera, asking the public what they thought of my food. How scary was that for me? Very, because hey, I'm a chef and used to hiding in the kitchen. Not only that, I had to be open to getting straight-up feedback about my food and as a chef, believe it or not, you rarely get feedback directly about your food."

It was a rigorous auditioning process but what helped him was that if it hadn't worked out, it wasn't going to be the end of the world. "I have never set out to be on TV for the sake of it, so it wouldn't have mattered. I just kept thinking that I still had my restaurant." But he did secure the role and it changed his world significantly.

For a while he was juggling it all - long days filled with filming the The Food Truck, cooking full time at Molten at night, writing a cookbook at the weekend and being a dad for the first time. He admits working like that couldn't go on; "I was working in excess of 80 hours per week and home is lost to you. I'd just come home complaining about things because I was tired. I'm the type of guy who likes to stay busy, sure, but that was too much. So we started to think for the first time about not having the restaurant. I had never intended to end up in a stainless steel box but after seven years of running my own restaurant, I was beginning to feel like a sardine in a can in there, I had to jump out."

The business was sold so Van de Elzen could focus on filming, working on his cookbooks and spending more time with his young family. But inevitably he began to miss the buzz that goes with owning and working in your own restaurant. "I missed the business, it was my office, the staff were my family, I missed that sense of belonging that I had always enjoyed so much."

Having had a break he now felt he had a fresh perspective and the freedom to bring all of his convictions into the one venture. "I want to do fast food really well.

I also like being inside a season and I've never been molecular. I'm not one to go hunting and fishing or to get into the outdoors a whole lot in fact. Al Brown can do that, he's good at it, I'm not.

With the Food Truck Garage we're being innovative and breaking new ground - we're a fast food joint without a deep-fryer. It has to be fast because that's what people want when eating out these days - my goal is food cooked to order in under 10 minutes - and it has to be healthier than what's already out there. Of course the actual Food Truck will be permanently parked up serving hot dogs, but these won't be ordinary hot dogs, they'll be paua and watercress, pork and dried apple, chicken and green vegetables, all cooked to order ..."

As he starts rattling off how he has sourced wholemeal and spelt bread rolls from specialist bakery Elske and how his famous chips will be triple-cooked - steamed, then coated in special seasoning, then roasted at high heat for five minutes, then blasted at an even higher temperature of 300C for another five minutes - you see the passionate TV persona in full force - or rather it is just Mike Van de Elzen talking about what excites him most - the business and challenge of bringing great food to the public. He pats his large state of the art combination oven and points to the gleaming non-stick chrome grill plate that requires no oil to be used. The Garage opens this week and an indication of his growing influence on the food scene comes from the approaches he has had in advertising for staff to join the Food Truck Garage team; "One guy applied for a chef position because he had lost 60kg and was committed to being involved with a role where there was a healthy eating environment. He'll be the new chef for our hot dogs. It tells me we're attracting the right kind of people with our concept."

Van de Elzen shakes his head when I ask how different life is from when he was the owner-chef at his first restaurant.

"Most amazing is the reaction I get from people who recognise me or the truck. People love the truck. We were filming in Christchurch recently and I was driving through the Red Zone at the end of a day of filming and people would see the truck and drive through red lights just to follow us. People out walking would stop in the middle of pedestrian crossings. Kids, especially boys, are really interested and it's gotten boys cooking more and that has got to be a good thing.

"I'm more public now, I can't just walk down the road and be hidden. People look in my shopping trolley and ask me questions all the time about how they should be eating and cooking. I'm a late bloomer I guess and this is just the start."

Food Truck Garage opens on May 1, dine-in or takeaway. Shed One, City Works Depot, 90 Wellesley St, City.


- NZ Herald

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