What is Mike Van de Elzen's new obsession?

By Fiona Ralph

Man of the moment Mike Van de Elzen talks to Fiona Ralph about his latest moves: a new restaurant, a new book, and his next travelling roadshow.

Mike Van de Elzen is opening Boy & Bird, a chicken restaurant, at the end of the month. Pictures / Babiche Martens.
Mike Van de Elzen is opening Boy & Bird, a chicken restaurant, at the end of the month. Pictures / Babiche Martens.

He's calmer than I anticipated, sweeter almost, and less energetic. Although that could be his lingering flu. Either way, this quieter Mike has me internally cursing the loud music and kitchen clamour of the spot where he's asked to meet, a new favourite of his, Fred's on Franklin Rd.

It's just down from his current camp, where he's putting the finishing touches on Boy & Bird, a chicken focused diner opening at the end of the month. It's right along from KFC and Bird on a Wire, on "the chicken strip", or "the chicken province of Ponsonby Rd", he jokes.

There's that quick wit and cute smile, but just underneath I spot a dynamic businessman, who consults on a number of restaurants, locally and in Australia. Who is always looking to his next project, and who knows how to pick trends - and knows when they're over. As in, don't expect tacos or enamel plates at his latest offering.

As we enter, a woman turns and stares, and I'm sure I'd do the same, if I wasn't trailing behind him, wondering when would be the least awkward time to say hi, and introduce myself as his interviewer.

Normally on a "blind date", you don't know who to look for, but of course his cherubic face is all too familiar.

As we chat, it's clear that it's family, not fame, that motivates him, though. His latest work revolves around keeping kids healthy, both his own, and the nation's.

He tells me about his plans for next year, which include taking a travelling cooking show around schools and community halls, teaching kids to make healthy, easy food - "things that they'll actually take home and make," he says.

He trialled it this year in Gisborne, visiting two primary schools and one intermediate, demonstrating his version of an Up&Go, coined Mike's Wake up Shake.

"Showing kids how to do that is just gold," he says, his eyes lighting up, as they do whenever he talks of this passion. "That's my mission."

All this while putting together his fourth cookbook and opening a new restaurant. "I'm trying to figure out how to multiply myself," he quips.

His new book, Fast, released next Friday, aims for better family eating, featuring food he and wife Bee cook at home for their children, Hazel (three) and Ivy (one and a half). There's even a section on baby food, one of the things he says he gets the most questions about.

Man and Bird: TV personality and chef Mike Van de Elzen. Photo / Babiche Martens.
Man and Bird: TV personality and chef Mike Van de Elzen. Photo / Babiche Martens.

"It's just about bringing food alive at home again," he explains. "I've tried to make [the recipes] as fast as I can or as simple as I can. Chefs always seem to add more, I'm trying to take stuff away."

Originally he wanted to do a children's cook book, but the publishers didn't agree. Instead, he's included recipes which kids will enjoy and be able to cook themselves.

"I've had quite a nice break from restaurants for a while ... why am I doing it?!" he jokes about his other project on the go, his first restaurant since leaving the Food Truck Garage.

"It was a fantastic part of my life and I'm very, very proud of what I've achieved there," he explains of the move. "For me it's just time to, I guess, leave on a high and carry on, because there's other things I want to do."

So how did he go from fine dining, the founder of Mt. Eden's award-winning Molten, to the face of healthy fast food? It seems family drove him again. He explains in Fast's foreword that their children, conceived via IVF, surely came along because of the couple's switch to healthier eating and reduction in work hours.

Which explains why The Food Truck resonated so strongly with him, and why he's furthering this health crusade in his latest projects.

"Balance is everything," he says, but admits "it is extremely difficult" to achieve when working a chef's hours.

Having a wife who is a chef - the two opened Molten together - and the fact that she understands those demands, helps.

"My wife's a real stickler for making time for the family," he says. "When we're home, we're home." In other words, their computers and phones stay off.

He talks with excitement about a day earlier in the week when he and Bee were sick, and the kids ran rampant, before eventually joining them in bed.

"It was the first time ever that we stayed in bed - but it was pretty cool in a way."

This gets him talking of his ultimate goal - the dream lifestyle, which marries family with work. He muses about a property up north, with a restaurant or function centre on site, and the kids always know where he is. It's how he grew up, on a chicken farm in Henderson Valley. Sure his dad worked 15-hour days, "but on school holidays I stuck to him like glue. Everywhere he went I went. That's what I want for my kids."

This chicken farm, and his dad's obsession with chicken - it's all he'll order when eating out - was the starting point for Boy & Bird.

"The idea was always there," he says, even while at Molten. "I've always been one with birds. My first job was shovelling chicken manure. That chicken shit, that bought me my first motorbike, my first car, and it taught me the values of work."

Mike Van de Elzen and Butter Chicken Picture / Babiche Martens.
Mike Van de Elzen and Butter Chicken Picture / Babiche Martens.

Although chicken will be the focus, vegetarian and meat options will be available too.

"We know what we want to do well, so we don't want to vary too much from that, but there has to be other options. But there's no tacos, no burgers."

The highlight, and what Aucklanders will be queuing up for no doubt, will be the chickens. Quarter, half and whole birds, cooked via three steps - pickle brined, poached and cooked on the rotisserie. "It should make for a pretty delicious bird at the end." My mouth's watering.

They'll be using the whole chicken too, he says, with such offerings as livers, flame-grilled, the way they were done at Molten all those years ago, served alongside smoked mushrooms and brioche.

On more mouth-watering topics, I'm told there'll be a deep-fryer, something that was noticeably absent at the Food Truck Garage. "Just because there's some things a deep fryer makes bloody delicious."

But it'll only be for a few items, and they'll be marked with a deep fryer symbol, meaning customers can choose to forgo the indulgence. He also hopes to offer organic and non-organic choices in future - but for now he's starting with free-range chooks.

Split between dine-in and take-away, the restaurant will be casual, though thankfully "there's no jars or enamel plates" he jokes.

It'll be overseen by Marie Colosimo, who has worked with Van de Elzen since Molten days, also helping on The Food Truck and his latest book.

The front of house manager was "born hospo", Van de Elzen says. "I'm not going to be there all the time," he adds. "Every place needs a rock. She's the one that's going to be guiding it."

And of course there'll be house-made sodas and lemonades. "I'm a workaholic in that sense," he says. "I don't know, maybe it's the Dutch in me. I refuse to buy these things when you can make them yourself."

"Make them yourself" - it could be his new catchphrase. A fresh foodie take on the famous Kiwi "DIY". "MTY": Mike V style.


Fast by Michael Van de Elzen with photographs by Babiche Martens is released August 15. $49.99, published by Random House.


- VIVA

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