His Chinese Christian name's Jing, the English equivalent's Michael but it's as Oppie our town's fish and chip supremo's best known.

Just to confuse the issue the Oppie name's inherited, it came with the then 45sq m Fenton St takeaway this national and local multi-award winner purchased 20 years ago; the buy came at a time he'd never cooked a chip in his life.

In the two decades since, Oppie's has expanded to 400sq m and staff numbers have quadrupled.

But Michael (which is what he suggests we call him for simplicity's sake) isn't the least bit inclined to sit back and leave the hard slog to others.

Advertisement

"I still work seven days a week, well sometimes I do take a day off but it makes me feel naughty . . I am a Chinese person, we like to work hard."

Should we be in any doubt of his ethnicity he meets us wearing a fabulous Mandarin jacket, it's deep red and richly embroidered in that intricate way only the Chinese can embroider.

Who can't be flattered when he says he wears it for special occasions? For him, a chance to talk about his life is one of those moments in time.

He insists no one's previously shown much interest in his background. What a glaring omission; if any of our Rotorua people has a story that must be told it's Michael Huang, whose latest achievement's winning the recent hospitality awards' best takeout category - for the second time.

So let's take it from the top.

As Michael tells it he's from humble stock, growing up in China's Zhaoqiny, a place of mountains and lakes, bigger but not geographically unlike his adopted home territory.

It was his photographer father's death from lung cancer that prompted the then 21-year-old hotel office worker to leave China, then New Zealand wasn't on his radar, Australia was; his best friend had settled there.

"The only thing I knew about New Zealand was that Wellington had a lot of wind, I learnt that at school . . . I thought it was the same country as Australia."

When Aussie turned down his application to study there Michael discovered New Zealand was a separate geographic entity and one that would welcome him.

He'd barely begun a course at a Wellington English language school when it folded.

"I found work in a Chinese restaurant washing dishes, when my hands were free I'd ask for extra jobs to learn something new."

Flatting with fellow students from the failed English course he met "this lovely girl called Winnie".

She was 17 and her parents didn't approve of her choice of boyfriend "they wanted someone with a stable job for her". Undaunted they ran off to Auckland.

More precisely they took the express and within minutes of stepping off the train an attempt was made to steal their meagre luggage; Michael's English was so limited it was left to Winnie to call for help. "We were terrified."

Although work eluded them they married.

"It was at the courthouse . . . I borrowed $6000 from an uncle in Hong Kong, that's how we survived."

Six months on they headed for Rotorua.

"Chopsticks [restaurant] was across the road from the bus depot, we went in, asked for work, the owner said 'yes'."

Michael was directed to food preparation, Winnie to waitressing.

"I just wanted to survive and pay the rent on the cheapest flat we could find. When we arrived all we had was a rice cooker and a second-hand mattress we'd rolled up to carry with us; for two years we slept on the floor."

Waitressing wasn't for Winnie, she became a translator at Rainbow Springs while Michael remained at Chopsticks; its head chef within two years.

"It was a very busy place, every day we were cooking for 500, sometimes it could be 800."

He moved to the Ho Wah, staying until he felt experienced enough to buy his own business.

"We still didn't have much money, could only afford a takeaway."

Oppies was on the market - not that he knew a thing about the menu or could read it.

"I'd never cooked fish and chips, hot dogs or burgers, I only had one day's training."

The shop opened on Christmas Eve, 1997. Michael's brother in-law and his wife helped out.

"We didn't know what we were doing but it was the only place open, that first day we made lots of mistakes but our turnover was nearly $1000, we were so excited, then after the holidays it dropped back to not much more than that a week."

To get a grip on how the opposition operated Michael indulged in a spot of industrial espionage.

"I was wondering what flour they were using in their batter, what potatoes for their chips, so late at night I'd go and look in their rubbish bins. One night the police caught me. I said 'I'll tell you but don't tell the owners', they laughed and let me go."

The Huang family expanded. "We got a baby at the same time as the shop, we were very surprised, it wasn't in our plan."

Baby Cindy was tucked away in a store room until she was old enough to push a walker around the shop.

"The customers were very wonderful, ladies made her clothes, we couldn't afford to have Winnie working in the business too [by then she was at the Agrodome] so the lovely lady next door became Cindy's carer."

As the family expanded so did the menu, Chinese food joined the fish and fries, ironically it's this Kiwi staple Michael's reputation's built around.

His success story's no secret.

"I'm always keen to learn more, I check out UK chippies on YouTube, I train other operators around the country and always learn something from them.

"We have four NZQA-qualified chefs, that's better than most restaurants, we buy the best ingredients, offer variety, serve healthy food, Oppies was the first to use rice bran oil, but in the end it's the customers who decide how good you are."

MICHAEL HUANG (AKA OPPIE)
Born: Zhaoqiny, China.
Education: Locally.
Family: Wife Winnie, daughters Cindy, 21, Sophie, 15, son Alec 17.
Interests: Family, photography, sea fishing "Not for the shop, I'm very bad, I only catch the small ones." Collecting antique Chinese furniture.
Awards won: Top Rotorua and Bay of Plenty fish and chip shop (several times), national champion 2011, named "Chip Champion" 2013, Best Retail Business Rotorua Business Awards, best takeout Rotorua Hospitality awards (twice).
On Rotorua: "It's wonderful, I love the Maori culture, we've been made very welcome here, everyone seems to know each other."
On New Zealand: "The best place in the world."
Personal philosophy: "Work hard for my wife and family, I don't want my kids to experience the hard times I did."