Twelve Questions: Michael Meredith

Internationally acclaimed chef and restaurant owner Michael Meredith dropped out of school at 15 and worked as a supermarket trolley boy before finding his calling.

Michael Meredith wants to overcome an Island stigma. Photo / Richard Robinson
Michael Meredith wants to overcome an Island stigma. Photo / Richard Robinson

1. What is your earliest food memory?

It's my mum's pancakes. She was a single mum and raised my brother and me. My dad was married so we hardly saw him. I remember looking forward to him coming to visit but he was never a fatherly figure. He'd see mum and then go again. Mum ran her own pancake stall in the Apia market. There was a pot of oil over a kerosene burner, she'd make the dough with banana or vanilla in it then drop them in. She'd never make any money out of it because when she asked the neighbours to look after the stall while she went to get ingredients, she'd come back and the pancakes would all be gone and there'd be no money.

2. Was it tough for her raising two boys?

In some ways. I didn't really understand it until I was older. I felt a bit pissed off about my father never being there but his own father died when he was 14 and he started drinking and had to look after his mother when he was still a kid himself. My mum worked for the Australian High Commissioner as a housekeeper and we lived there.

That's where we learned our English. We went to church every morning before school. When I was 6 my mother went to New Zealand to look after her mum in Manurewa. It was supposed to be for three months but it was six years.

3. Where did you live?

My brother and I wanted to live with our Dad but she sent us to our uncle. We knew of him and didn't like him - he was tough. Of course we got hidings, and we had to do everything. We became like little slaves - ironing and cooking. That was just the way life unfolded for us. My mum had no money in New Zealand - she was an overstayer and had to check in every day. She spent years trying to get her papers. There was a time when I was really unforgiving of her for leaving us but it was part of her growth and my growth. We've talked about it many times now which is unusual for Island families. Normally you don't talk about anything uncomfortable like that. You don't question your parents.

4. How did that experience change you?

It's given me a greater understanding of why people are the way they are. It gives me compassion, I think. Everything shapes you. When we finally came to New Zealand I'd distanced myself from my mum. That happens when you fend for yourself from 6 to 13. Mum then was living at the presbytery at St Mary's in Mt Albert, working for the priest. We lived there too and every weekend we'd do gardening and lawns.

5. Was New Zealand a big culture shock?

I remember I was just happy to see my mother. There was a bit of difference in a lot of things - seeing people taking their dogs for walks, the weather, the food. I'd never heard the terms like "freshie" or "fob" (fresh off the boat). You had to pick your friends carefully. At church on Sunday, Father Kevin would ask the parish for help for "Metita's boys" which was so embarrassing. They'd give us clothes and things. But he was amazing for us. He went to Wellington and demanded to see Immigration so we could all stay.

6. Did you fit in at school?

I made some good friends but I didn't like school and started hanging with a different crowd. I got into a bit of trouble and the worst thing was when the police showed up at the Presbytery. Mum was very hurt by that. I left school when I was 15. I worked at Pak 'n Slave as a trolley boy. Got fired from a couple of jobs. It's unreal that I own my own restaurant here now, in this area I grew up in. But I always had a belief in myself, even then.

7. How did you end up in restaurants?

I went to the Tagata Pasifika trust on K Rd where they ran courses for Island kids who weren't doing anything. They had a cooking segment and I realised I had a knack for it, for creating things. I excelled in the practicality of it. My tutor sent me to work experience at Vinnies restaurant for two weeks and when I walked into that place everything changed. I said then that one day I was going to have a restaurant like that.

8. How did you know you could do it?

I had massive self-belief right from the beginning. I'm a doer. If people tell me I can't, I want to prove I can. That's a big driver for me.

9. Are there many Polynesian restaurant owners?

There are plenty of Polynesian chefs around but the hardest thing for us is we are so family-oriented and chefing is anti-social and anti-family. Yeah, that was a factor in the breakup with my partner. She and my three girls live in Australia now and that has been one of the biggest things in my life that I've reflected on. I didn't have a father and I said to myself early on that I would never do that. But the pressure got too much for my partner. She was running the business side of the restaurant and looking after three children. I didn't see that she needed support. I'd come from an environment where I didn't see my dad supporting my mum.

10. Do you see much of your daughters?

I Skype them all the time and send good morning messages every day. We're close. [The split] was hard on them. Especially the eldest. I've gone through a lot of self-reflection over the past three years. My partner had said to me "in five years' time, we should stop [the restaurant] and do something different" and I just couldn't see that.

11. What do you want for your children?

I want my girls to be brave, to fully trust their instincts, to be kind. I want them to have a good work ethic, to work to achieve their goals and dreams. Most importantly, I want them to be great spirits.

12. Is Samoan food misunderstood?

There is a stigma about Island food full stop, that it's unhealthy and heavy but that came through the introduction of fatty and sugary ingredients sent to the Islands. Traditionally people grew their own food and lived off the sea, which was a sustainable and organic way of life, but with lifestyles and evolution come changes. It's up to us now to change how Samoan food is viewed.

*Meredith's restaurant runs Dine By Donation every Tuesday night, with a four-course degustation menu paid for by a donation of diners' choice. All proceeds go to Cure Kids.

- NZ Herald

Michael Meredith wants to overcome an Island stigma. Picture / Richard Robinson

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf01 at 22 Oct 2014 01:06:59 Processing Time: 343ms