We sat there blinking back the tears. I'd asked Michael Dearth how it felt now that his first restaurant, The Grove, was turning 10. The enormity of what he and wife Annette had achieved, was suddenly palpable. In one short decade this fine-dining restaurant, which quietly opened in 2004, has won nearly every award there is to win in this country and has nurtured an unrivalled line-up of stellar chefs in Michael Meredith, Sid Sahrawat, Mikey Newlands and current chef, Ben Bayly.
It's magical, almost unbelievable, the talent that has been through its doors. Is Dearth some sort of star-maker? Absolutely not, he says. "I want to be clear that the chefs that have, and do, work here were all stars in their own right regardless of The Grove. I am merely the supplier of the canvas, they are the artists." I suggest he buys the paint and pays the rent, too, to which he replies, "Yes, I try to let them have everything they need to succeed. I want to see them be really good at whatever it is they're best at." This American is refreshingly humble to the core.
Dearth came to New Zealand with a dream to open his own restaurant. "I remember my parents, when I told them that Annette and I planned to move to New Zealand and open our own restaurant, asking me why we wanted to move to the other side of the world instead of doing it in Connecticut, where I was originally from. I told them, because people in Connecticut like to eat fried mozzarella so what I have planned won't work at all."
What he had planned was a place that would show off the vibrancy and freshness of seasonal produce, paired with exceptional wines from around the world (Dearth is a sommelier), all wrapped up in an experience where the diners felt important and cared for in that wonderful way that the American service industry does best. When he and Annette arrived in New Zealand, they took a careful look at the local dining scene and their first impressions proved pivotal in informing their decision to enter the industry at the fine dining end of the market.
Though they were relatively unknown here, between them they had racked up nearly 50 years of hospitality experience working at such legendary fine-dining establishments as Fleur de Lys (just closed after 40 years in business) in San Francisco and, as Michael puts it, "at that time, I found fine-dining restaurants in New Zealand to be pricey for what was being offered, both on the plate and in the standard of service.
San Francisco had taught me a lot about creating the ultimate, diner-centric experience and I wanted to recreate that here. Our mission was simply to bring outstanding food to the table, matching it with great wine, in an atmosphere that was casual and relaxed yet impeccably professional. San Francisco was my university and it felt like we might have something to offer here."
While they got the lay of the land and tried to work out where to pitch their own restaurant, Michael worked at One Tree Grill and O'Connell Street Bistro and the couple spent their time scouting for venues and eating out whenever they could find the time. One night they dined at Vinnies and fell in love with what they were eating. "I can still remember tasting the coconut and lime panna cotta and saying to Annette, I want this guy to be our chef. Something just spoke to us in the food. I wasn't looking for an already established 'name', I was much more interested in a rising talent. And I knew I'd found him." That chef was Michael Meredith.
When a restaurant lease came up in St Patrick's Square, they grabbed it - and with it the chef who was temping there, who just so happened to be Meredith. The Grove was born.
Talking to Meredith, you get a sense of the huge risk they were all taking at that time.
"The Dearths were relatively unknown as they'd come from United States, and so I was both nervous and excited when we started to seriously talk about opening the city site. I was probably ready to start my own place by then, but when I met Annette and Michael I knew they'd be very cool people to work for. And they were. They were incredibly generous to me and they let me have the freedom to do my style of food. We opened and the next thing The Grove was ON!"
Dearth remembers the first night and how nervous he and Annette were. "We had booked into a hotel nearby because we were working such long hours to get it ready. The night before we opened, I just kept endlessly tweaking things because I didn't want to leave the restaurant - I was so excited."
Within a month of opening word had spread that there was a new inner-city dining destination and as the reviews started rolling out with headlines like "The Americans and Michael Meredith", The Grove began to fill up fast. "I can remember on our first full night, there was a moment during service when I looked around and people were laughing, eating, enjoying themselves and I just felt so happy and grateful that we'd been able to do this thing," Dearth recalls.
A year in, and Meredith won an award for outstanding chef for his menu and The Grove was on its way. Then the following year Meredith decided to leave. "It was just time for me to do my own thing and Michael understood that. They were so gracious about it even though I think they were shocked. It is hard for a restaurateur when the chef leaves but they never showed any resentment at all."
Instead, Dearth didn't miss a beat appointing chef Sid Sahrawat, who had been receiving some attention for his work at The George in Parnell. It proved to be another winning decision. The Grove's reputation continued to soar and the accolades continued to roll in, though as is so often the way, it may have looked easier to an outsider than it actually was. Dearth looks back and realises how impatient he was for success.
"We Americans love to celebrate success so even though I am absolutely not doing this for the accolades - I do it for each and every diner in the house, to see them revelling in good food and wine - there were times in those first few years when others were winning awards for their wine list or their whatever and I'd think, hey what about us, when are we going to get noticed? I realise now what a baby I was in thinking that. We've since won awards and best ofs year after year and while that's great, it's also not the point."
Dearth also remembers when he was "in a cage, literally" referring to when the council and church decided to upgrade the neighbouring cathedral and square and his restaurant was effectively fenced off. "It got very quiet." Always the optimist, though, it was during this testing time that he decided to commit to plans for what is now his second restaurant, Baduzzi.
Dearth jokes, that when Sahrawat left to set up his own restaurant, he did begin to wonder if he was just a training school for first-time restaurant owners. But Sahrawat is eternally grateful for his time there: "Working with Michael was a dream come true. He gave me freedom and developed my confidence.
I learned so much from watching how both he and Annette have such effortless control over the front of house and how they focus on the guests so absolutely. There is so much work that goes into these types of restaurants, from the cutting of the vegetables all the way up, in every detail, so that it qualifies as top-level dining. Michael is his own worst critic and he keeps the standards incredibly high."
Chef Mikey Newlands (Bracu and Allechante pop-up dining) puts it more colourfully when he reflects on his tenure at The Grove as a sous chef to Ben Bayly; "My time at the Grove with Michael and Ben was a roller-coaster; in the best possible way ... the kind that surprised you, scared you sometimes but after you hopped off all you wanted to do was hop straight back on. I'd use the analogy of boxing, Michael being the perfect sparring partner. If you dropped your guard he was there quick-smart to pop it back in place, but his aim was never to knock you down, just to make you better. The track record of chefs that have led The Grove speaks volumes about his ability to get the best out of people."
With his ability to pick winners and his management style a mix of generosity and drive to encourage others to reach the top of their game, Dearth can surely take some credit for the subsequent successes of Meredith, Sahrawat and Newlands, but broach the topic with Dearth and he deflects the praise. "Everyone works hard here. Everyone. I try really hard for the team and I believe in them absolutely and they in me. When it gets tight we're all in this together."
He says one of his proudest moments over the decade was when his parents visited and dined at The Grove. "I was proud because it was my parents who had first showed me the joy of preparing but then sharing the meal. And I swear when my dad went back to the US he kept giving my business cards to people saying, 'this, this is my son's restaurant in New Zealand'."
With two young children, New Zealand is well and truly home now and Dearth jokes he can't have any more kids because the birth of each has coincided with their head chef leaving: he's not about to tempt fate again. Current chef Bayly is showing no signs of going anywhere when we catch up: "I've been here for five years now, after Sid recommended me and once you get to know Mr D - they're always Mr and Mrs D to us all - you don't work for him, you are just part of the family.
Michael has the knack of employing good people, he has blind trust in you and at first that can seem scary, there aren't any boundaries but the belief in you is absolute, unquestionable and it is glorious.
"Michael is more like a brother than a boss, he lets me get on with what I'm good at and he does his thing. He's very good at that. I have a spiritual ownership over what I do at The Grove."
It works both ways and to hear the way Dearth talks about The Grove's chefs with such genuine respect and fondness, is heart-warming. "The memories stay with you even after they've moved on. For example, after Michael Meredith had been gone from The Grove for a few years I was in his restaurant on Dominion Rd and he had his stock cooking on the stove and I breathed it in and it was such a powerful, evocative sensory memory, like the perfume of an old girlfriend. I'd forgotten but I hadn't - it was so distinguishably Michael Meredith's stock, no one else's, no question.
"Sid, who was cooking with us at that time, always laced his with star anise and a few other things that made his stock, his."
When I ask him what he'd be doing if not this, he doesn't even hesitate. "I'd be a gardener. My wife is forever calling out 'when are you coming into the house' because I get lost out there in the garden, I can play around forever, I like growing things."
I'd say he has a undeniable talent for growing great restaurants and great chefs too.
• On August 11, join Michael and Annette Dearth and their team, past and present, as they celebrate The Grove's first 10 years and look forward to the next 10. The Grove 10th Birthday; a celebration of The Grove chefs Michael Meredith, Sid Sahrawat, Mikey Newlands and Ben Bayly, with guest cocktail man Frankie Walker, $250. (Includes five courses with matching wines). To book, ph (09) 368 4129.