It's easy to forget that, before they graced our TV screens and became entertainers, many of the so-called "celebrity chefs", were actually real chefs. Some still are. Take Matt Moran.
He and other high-profile international and local chefs are about to converge on our city for a series of events where they team up with local chef counterparts at an inner-city restaurant as part of Auckland Restaurant Month.
Sure, this Australian superstar chef has appeared on a multitude of cooking shows including hosting The Chopping Block and being a judge on Australia's highest rating show, MasterChef Australia, and featured prominently in the documentaries Heat in the Kitchen and My Restaurant Rules, but talking to Moran you soon realise that he is a chef who still regularly "works the pass". Whether it's at his restaurant Aria in Sydney which was awarded two coveted Chef's Hats (by the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide), or the Brisbane restaurant of the same name, when Viva caught up with him ahead of his NZ visit he was emphatic that it was working in his restaurants that came first, and TV second.
Instead of hearing the standard line "I try to get into the kitchen as often as I can but juggling travel and filming schedules makes it harder to still spend time in the restaurant", it was quite the opposite.
So you still actually work in the restaurant?
Absolutely. I still like a busy service, walking around the different sections sticking my spoon into things and tasting everything. I love the adrenalin and the buzz, there's nothing like it. You will definitely still find me working in my kitchens.
How has TV changed you?
I've been doing TV a long time but I wouldn't say it's changed me. I am myself on the shows, always, I'm not produced into being or saying certain things and I've always said I will do it for as long as I can bear myself. My restaurants are my babies.
I wouldn't be sorry if my TV career was over, I'd just think, oh well I'll carry on with my other career. But if someone came and told me the restaurants were closing, I would be devastated. I can't imagine that.
Do you think the proliferation of food shows on TV has changed or influenced our cooking?
Most definitely and also the way people are dining. They appreciate it more. By watching cooking shows, people are being educated about food and cooking, so their appreciation rises.
More people are eating out, not through laziness or not wanting to cook, but through wanting to indulge their interest. Food TV is great for restaurants, not bad for them.
Are there any downsides to becoming a "TV chef"?
People think it's glamorous and sure, there might be spoils from being on TV, but not the ones you'd think. There's not much fun in being recognised when you're out with your 6-year-old just trying to have some quality family time and people are interrupting, wanting to talk to you. But it's double-edged because it's also nice to get first-hand feedback from viewers.
I always keep it in perspective because I've chosen this and I never forget that. I'm immensely grateful for the opportunity to encourage others to eat or cook better food, whatever medium I use and let's face it, TV has a huge reach.
What's your take on the trend for cooking seasonally and why do you think it took us, in this part of the world, so long to catch on when they've always done that in Europe and Asia?
Since Peter [Moran's business partner Peter Sullivan] and I opened the first Aria in 1999, I've seen huge changes in the way we view our cuisine. Trends are now much more produce- or local area-based. I think what began happening in the mid-90s was that we travelled a lot and came back with ideas for ingredients that we wanted to try here. Diners and chefs got more adventurous and when we couldn't find an ingredient we either worked out how to get it or started using what was local. It was just about exposing ourselves to new stuff. It has always seemed obvious to me that we should look to our surroundings for our ingredients and inspiration.
People ask me if the Brisbane and Sydney Arias have the same menu but of course they don't, because they're in different geographic locations which dictates what ends up on the menu.
Tell us about why you're teaming up with Simon Gault at Euro for Auckland's Restaurant Month?
I came to the Taste Auckland festival a few years back and loved it and on that visit I dined at Euro and I liked what they were doing there.
Auckland has a vibrant restaurant scene so I'm happy to be coming back and I'm looking forward to creating a spectacular evening of food and wine with Simon Gault and even though the evening is called A Taste Of Aria, you can be sure I'll be using some local produce.
Menus in some top restaurants have become increasingly complex. What advice would you give those who feel intimidated to try new restaurants where the food is perhaps less familiar?
After 27 years in the restaurant industry and travelling all over the world, I will still read a menu and not know what something is. But I will not be embarrassed, I'll just ask the wait staff. So people who are shy about going to a restaurant, whether it's one of the top restaurants or just one that's slightly more upmarket to what you usually go to or maybe it's even your first visit to a "formal restaurant", needn't feel uncomfortable.
Don't be shy or ashamed about your level of knowledge. Engage with the wait staff and enjoy yourself. I always say no matter who you are, you're always welcome in a restaurant.
Is there anything you eat or do that might surprise people if they knew?
I don't have any nasty fast food addictions but I do still eat Cadbury's hazelnut chocolate and love it!
I verge on ADD too so nothing is too much for me - I keep super-busy and I like fast things. I have a garage full of racing motorbikes so that's what I do for fun.
What's most important to you now as a chef?
Fame or TV is not important to me which is not saying that I don't care about it, or don't enjoy it, but I came from one of the worst suburbs in Australia so I am truly grateful for it all, all of the time and I never take it for granted. I'm just so lucky that I get to work with food and cook for a living.
Through August the BIG little City is serving up special offers and events from more than 100 central city restaurants for Auckland Restaurant Month, so you can enjoy the flavours of our city no matter what your budget.
Look out for great deals like these:
* The Grill, $45 three-course set menu with a complimentary glass of selected wine to match
* Torchon French Creperie, Elliott Stables, $19.50 for a 2-course set menu
* Dida's Food Store & Wine Lounge, $25 for 2 glasses of wine and 3 tapas from their selected menu
* The Grove, $80 five-course set menu
Don't miss events
* Auckland Restaurant Month Official Launch Party at Imperial Lane & Everybody's (August 1, 6.30pm-late)
* A taste of Aria at Euro, with Matt Moran & Simon Gault (August 8, 6.30pm-10pm)
* A taste of Rata at District Dining, with Josh Emett & Warren Turnbull (August 15, 6.30pm-10pm)
* A taste of Le Gavroche at the Grove, with Monica Galetti & Ben Bayly (August 22, 6.30pm-10pm)
* A taste of Federal Street, at dine by Peter Gordon with Peter Gordon, Al Brown and Sean Connolly (August 29, 6.30pm-10pm)
Check out all the events happening during August, with ticket prices and details, at biglittlecity.co.nz/arm
* Matt Moran will team up with Simon Gault for A Taste of Aria at Euro Bar & Restaurant on Princes Wharf on August 8 for one night only. Tickets strictly limited. Matt's menu will be matched to a selection of NZ wines, $250 per person. Tickets available from here.