Michael Meredith is one of Auckland’s most celebrated master chefs. He’s also one of our most generous. Greg Dixon talks to him about helping feed hungry kids, what motivates him and why the end of his marriage almost saw him sell his award-winning restaurant.

THE GOOD CHEF

is where you expect to find him.

Michael Meredith is in the kitchen - of course he is - kitted out in blue and white striped apron, a knife in hand, the quiet centre of a room in a murmuring flurry of activity.

The kitchen is Meredith's home, the place he learned to be himself, the arena were he learned how to succeed. But this particular kitchen isn't Meredith's and he certainly won't be winning any flash awards for what he's making. The good chef is busy slicing dozens of tomatoes for hundreds of sandwiches at 6.30 on a Wednesday morning in the kitchen of a suburban home.

Advertisement

In fact, Meredith is just one of 14 people, mostly volunteers, in this stylish, modern Mt Eden house, the make-do centre of a new business with a laudable aim: to feed as many hungry, underprivileged, Auckland kids a lunch each day as it can. Established by corporate escapees and partners Lisa King and Iaan Buchanan - with Meredith as a minor shareholder and a major culinary adviser - Eat My Lunch is just three months old but is already growing like topsy. Its formula is simple: it sells and delivers lunches to those who can afford them so that it can make and deliver lunches to some of the poorest kids in Auckland.

In its first 12 weeks Eat My Lunch (EML) delivered more than 25,000 lunches to 16 schools, was praised by Lorde on social media (she bought a 1000 lunches for others, spurring EML to launch its "Give Two" option), and the business has quickly outgrown King and Buchanan's uber cool kitchen and living area. They are now trying to crowdfund over $200,000 for a move to commercial premises through the pledgeme.co.nz website.

As we butter rolls, King tells me that she and Buchanan conceived EML after a minor crisis of conscience last Labour weekend. "Iaan and I are marketers, and over a couple of glasses of wine we were just talking about our careers. We have both worked on really massive food brands like Cadbury, V energy drinks, Bluebird chips - all this stuff that we don't give our own kids. We were just talking about how we'd been selling fat, salt and sugar to the public. I think it was a reflection on our careers, the corporate world and that we were kind of wanting to do something good, to give back a bit.

The Eat My Lunch initiative which delivers free lunch for a child for every lunch it sells online for $10. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The Eat My Lunch initiative which delivers free lunch for a child for every lunch it sells online for $10. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"We wanted to make it really easy for people to be able to help others and this seemed like a really simple concept."

The good chef was easily converted. He'd already been a public supporter of the Green Party's "feed the kids" bill and is running dine-by-donation nights at his Mt Eden restaurant, Merediths. So when King and Buchanan approached him with the idea about a month after the Government voted no to the feed the kids' bill, Meredith immediately said yes to EML. His instincts on it were sharp; he has kids himself, he understands that being hungry at school is bad for learning.

"It's not the sort of food I do," Meredith tells me later as we sit waiting for the lunch bell in the staff room of Mangere Central School. "But you put your ego aside. If they'd said to me it was just making lunches to sell lunches, I would have said [no]. But the 'giving' part was the big drawcard for me. That's why I wanted to do it because ... I don't know ... it touched me. So there was no other convincing. It's all about knowing that those faces" - he nods towards the kids now appearing at the staff room window - "will be satisfied."

If they'd said to me it was just making lunches to sell lunches, I would have said [no]. But the 'giving' part was the big drawcard for me. That's why I wanted to do it because ... I don't know ... it touched me.

SHARE THIS QUOTE:

IT WILL BE

eight years next month since the doors first opened on Meredith's dream, his eponymous restaurant that sits between a second-hand CD store and a hairdresser on an unremarkable bit of Dominion Rd.

Indeed, Canvas was there as the then 33-year-old transformed a small suburban cafe, one once used to train the deaf in hospitality, into a flash, world-class and soon-to-be-awarding restaurant. It wasn't big, and nor was the menu; the place seated just 28 on opening night. There were five entrees, five mains, four vegetarian options and four desserts. But it was instantly a huge success.

"When Canvas did that story, when the doors were opened, we were, like, rammed [by diners]. It was just continuous. We had just the two rooms and were doing 33-38 covers a night."

Bruce Begg, left, and Michael Meredith busy themselves making hundreds of school lunches at Eat My Lunch in Mt Eden. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Bruce Begg, left, and Michael Meredith busy themselves making hundreds of school lunches at Eat My Lunch in Mt Eden. Photo / Jason Oxenham

In the years since, the restaurant has grown in stature and become one of those fixed points in the Auckland dining scene. Both he and his place have since garnered a gravyboat load of awards, including the Metro supreme winner gong in 2009 and Cuisine's restaurant of the year in 2011. In June this year, the Auckland hospitality industry named him, for the second time, outstanding chef at its annual Lewisham Awards.

This is the dream come true. It was also a remarkable achievement for someone who, when he first stepped into a restaurant kitchen as a high school drop out, wasn't much different from those kids queuing for a free lunch outside the staff room at Mangere Central.

Meredith is truly a poor-boy-made-good. Born in Samoa 41 years ago, his first 15 years were, well, full of uncertainty. His father was never around, and his mother, who worked as a housekeeper for the Australian high commissioner in Apia, at first raised Meredith and his brother by herself. Then she left. When Meredith was just 6, his mother moved to New Zealand and the young brothers were sent not to their father but to an uncle. Meredith would not live with his mother again until the brothers came to New Zealand seven years later, when Meredith was 13.

When the family were finally reunited in Auckland they lived at the presbytery at St Mary's, a Catholic church on Kitenui St in Mt Albert. It says something, I'm not quite sure what, that Meredith lives in the same rather posh street today in a house just metres from the place where, two and a bit decades ago, he and his brother were among the poor of the parish.

"As a kid you don't want to be called out in front of the church and [be seen to have] needed helped. I look back now and I laugh about it. But back then it was quite embarrassing, as a 13-year-old. And like any ethnic kid that comes into a European society, you're not immediately accepted."

His kiwi life was initially one of trouble and failure; he left school at 15, worked as a trolley boy at a supermarket, got fired a couple of times. Then he discovered he had a knack for cooking while doing a course through the Tangata Pasifika Trust. After fortnight he was sent along for work experience at Vinnies restaurant and the rest of his life began.

"Stuff you completely take for granted, like a basic chicken sandwich, a lot of them had never had that."

SHARE THIS QUOTE:

His cooking took him through the kitchen of Tony Astle - a long-time mentor - at Antoine's before Meredith became, in 2004, the founder chef at The Grove, a much-loved, award-winning restaurant where the up-and-comer fulfilled his potential and became recognised as one Auckland's best chefs.

However, it was many years before all that, on a day back in 1993 at Simon Gault's restaurant, Gaults on Quay, that he said out loud what he really wanted. After he and a workmate had their salads thrown back at them by Gault as unacceptable, he gave them a burst before asking what they wanted out of working for him.

"And I immediately said, 'I want my own restaurant.' Even back then it was something in me, always in the back of me, and I had no money, there's no money in my family."

What there was, though, was self-belief. "I get a lot Polynesians approaching me and I talk to a few schools with troubled kids. As a role model, you have to be positive. You just want to tell them that it is possible. You've just got to believe. That's how I've got this far: self belief. You have to believe in yourself ... "

Lisa King, left, Chef Michael Meredith, centre, and Bruce Begg, right from Eat My Lunch, busy making hundreds of lunches from a house in Mt Eden. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Lisa King, left, Chef Michael Meredith, centre, and Bruce Begg, right from Eat My Lunch, busy making hundreds of lunches from a house in Mt Eden. Photo / Jason Oxenham

WHAT HE DOESN'T

tell those school kids, is that dreams, well, they can come at a cost. Three and a half years ago Meredith and his partner, Yosipa Prusac, split. They have three girls, Sophia who is 12, Tahlia, 9, and 7-year-old Ella. The children now live with Prusac in Australia; she moved there after the break-up to be closer to her family, who live in a small country town in northern New South Wales.

"We opened this together," Meredith says as we sit in the empty restaurant with the afternoon's sun forcing its way through the frosted windows. "And she pretty much handled the other parts [of the business], the other stuff that I didn't want to handle. So it was a partnership. It was my dream, but we both worked together."

However, it was the dream, the restaurant they both worked so hard to bring into being, that forced them apart.

"It was hard. You know, you're this person cooking all the time. I think I can probably talk about chefs in general, especially if you're committed, you're cooking all the time, you put all of your efforts into the food. And if you have kids, young kids, obviously the other part of your life, they need support, they need you, but you've put all this time into the restaurant. So obviously things start going in different directions. For me, the restaurant was the big dream.

I tried [to do both]. I don't know if I tried enough. I did the best I could at that time, but it just didn't work, you know."

The break-up was "a little bit" bitter, he admits. But he still thought seriously about selling up and moving to Australia. "I was at that point of 'what am I doing here?' Sometimes you soul-search and wonder what it's all about, those are the moments where you miss your kids and you wonder whether it is all worth what you're doing."

And what did he conclude?

"Well the reality is whatever I do after this I'm still going to have to pay the bills," he says, then laughs. "I could move to Mexico and work there for a couple of years to enjoy that. But then I'm too far from my kids. If I went to Australia, I'd have to re-start myself there. So whatever I do, if I start again ... I don't know if I have the energy to re-start. It would be the same headaches.

"My kids are the right reason to move, but is my heart going to be ... I love Australia, but I always enjoy New Zealand."

Chef Michael Meredith delivers lunches to Mangere Central School. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Chef Michael Meredith delivers lunches to Mangere Central School. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Besides, he had no encouragement from ex-partner to move there; "she doesn't really care what I do. I'm going to keep going at this stage. I don't know what my long-term future is. I know I will always be involved with food, so I don't know what will happen."

What this all means is that fatherhood has been reduced to skyping and four visits a year to see the girls. There is guilt, not least because he knows what it's like to grow up without having a father around.

"I said to myself 'I will never do that', but it happened. It was kind of funny because I thought about that, I thought I was never going to do that to my kids. But it happened that way. The thing is you never ... look, if you didn't have a dad, you wouldn't know how to act as a husband because there was no role model. You sort of just grew up with your mum and that was the way it was. I didn't know how to be a husband or a partner or anything or a father in that sense.

"It's just the way my life has turned out. You make choices, you have to ... there was a choice made and I have to live with it."

IN THE PLAYGROUND of Mangere Central, the concentration on the kids' faces as they eat is something to see. This day's Eat My Lunch offering is a ham sandwich, carrot and celery pieces and a fancy yoghurt. The veg, it seems, is vastly improved by dipping it in the yoghurt.

King and Meredith, who've delivered boxes of lunches to four Mangere schools this morning, have been coming to Mangere Central since beginning of Eat My Lunch in June.

"When we first started the kids had no idea what celery was, or cherry tomatoes, they'd never tried them before," says King. "Stuff you completely take for granted, like a basic chicken sandwich, a lot of them had never had that."

She and Meredith have seen that situation change, which is one the major satisfactions of their venture.

"This is what makes the 5 o'clock start possible, you know," Meredith says, "because you think about them [the kids] and the satisfaction that they get from the lunches. This why we're doing it.

"I think that's why people love the idea as well because they can see the impact it can have."

However, you can't help feeling that there's more at play here for Meredith. Particularly when you learn how his dine-by-donation nights, which happen every Tuesday and have donated money to the likes of Starship and Kidney Kids, got their name. He calls these nights "Stem Nights" - the "Stem" being his daughters' initials (Sophia, Tahlia, Ella Meredith).

And now he is giving further of his time and money to help disadvantaged kids. He admits that part of his motivation for signing on for EML was his own background, and perhaps the situation with his family has played a part too.

"I don't know. I would have done it anyway. I'm a strong believer in that sometimes you instinctively know ...

"I guess maybe the ambition has changed. I think for me there are a lot of positive things like this that I feel are important as a human being, not necessarily the business side of things, but more making people aware of where we are and the space we're in ... I think that's where my life can lead in some ways.

"I admire Tony Astle for what he does, but I wouldn't want to be doing that after 40 years. He's been there 43 years. I wouldn't want to be [in the kitchen in 30 years' time]. If I'm involved with this [the restaurant business] it would be with my daughters or someone else who is doing it, it won't be me!"

To take part in crowdfunding EML's new premises, visit pledgeme.co.nz