The Cuisine magazine chef of the year and My Kitchen Rules judge, Ben Bayly, said: "Are we not going to have a photo together, Michele?" He was taking the mickey out of me for having taken the mickey out of him about now being a celebrity chef. As he insists he is not a celebrity chef and has never wanted to be a celebrity chef, no, we weren't going to have a photo together. I'd wait, I said, until he was properly famous. "I'm just semi-famous at the moment," he said. He does poker-faced very well, as you will know if you've seen him on the telly in MKR. And, "just so you know, I'm still the same person".
He was recognised at an airport, in Greymouth, for the first time this week. "By some kids." Did they want his autograph? "No. They were just kind of ... pointing at me." He found this pretty awkward. I found it pretty funny. There's the definition of fame in New Zealand for you: being recognised by some pointing kids at Greymouth airport.
You could be the most famous chef in the world and never be recognised at Greymouth airport unless you were on the telly. And he's not one of those flamboyant chefs who comes out of the kitchen and flutters about the restaurant, soaking up the applause. So he seems an unlikely chef to now have an agent, for example, which sounds like the sort of thing a celebrity chef would have. He finds this fairly awkward too - at least he finds being asked about having an agent a bit squirmy.
"I thought I didn't need one, to be honest. I thought why would you have someone take 10 per cent of your income?'" Good question. Why would you? "When you get into this game, everyone wants a slice of the action and there's a lot of mean people out there. So it's about protecting yourself and protecting the integrity of what you do." He's a chef. "It's about getting good advice because you're in a world you don't know about, the whole media world."
He has a nice, friendly face and cool, blue eyes and he can be rather steely on MKR, as is sometimes required. He is, strictly speaking, the executive chef at The Grove and Baduzzi, although he rejects such titles as "pompous". What it means is that he has discovered his skills are "better utilised" running teams and designing menus than chopping herbs and boning chickens.
As a young chef he spent two years cooking in Las Vegas and had a good time and a cool convertible and there were good opportunities which he, in the end, spurned. He had a horror of turning into the guy "walking around with a tall hat and and a clipboard and telling people what to do. It's like my worst-case scenario". Yes, because he'd be very good at it. He knows himself very well, and he is cautious and considered and dissects his motives for doing things as skilfully as he can no doubt fillet a fish.
He doesn't mind a good shouting match in a kitchen - it's an excellent and time-honoured way to let off steam - and staff are allowed to shout at him, he says. I wouldn't try it. He is, like most executive chefs, even ones who reject such titles, firm in his opinions, shall we say. This is another way of saying he's quite bossy and as I am too, we had a couple of ridiculous wrangles over things of no importance whatsoever.
I said he shouldn't have caramelised onions with his roast beef (this counts as a flash tea at home; he's perfectly happy with mince which his wife, Cara, is a whiz at). I said you should have onions cooked in cream, with parmesan, with roast beef. He said: "Listen. Who's the chef here?" He said I had to admire Jamie Oliver. I said I did not and why did I? Because he said so. I said the doorbells on MKR, which go ding dong in doomy tones to announce guests and so introduce tension, weren't real, having read this somewhere, maybe a gossip column. He said this was quite wrong and they most certainly were real. They are not, though, the actual doorbells of the contestants. Often they are, he said. "You've been reading too much gossip. It's a real door bell. Trust me." I might send him a clipboard.
He can be quite stern and deadpan on the telly, I said. But this was wrong too. "It's not my intention to be like that. That's just how I normally look." Also, "sometimes it's important to have a little bit of tension and you have to be able to control the contestants because you're trying to make a TV show". I wondered whether they ever played up and he said: "Well, it's a dinner party. I don't know what sort of dinner parties you have but the ones I like to go to are about having fun and shouting across the table." Actually, I wish there was a bit more of that but it's all very po-faced and competitive and it seems to go on forever. He said the New Zealand version was shorter and, yes, he'd read a review I once wrote (and had forgotten about) of the Australian version and how it went on for so long it gave me sofa sores. He always does his research. He supposed I was there to have a good look at him and judge him on how he tied his tie or scratched his ear. I might have, had he been wearing a tie. He does on the show and all I'll say about his tie-wearing is that it doesn't look as though it comes naturally. He wears his ties about as comfortably as he does his raised profile. It is painful, he said, to watch himself on the show. "I think you'd have to be a weirdo to enjoy watching yourself on TV. It's a very surreal thing." He said he needs to get a thicker skin. "It needs a bit more salt rubbed into it and a bit more time in the sun."
I still wasn't sure why he wanted to be on the telly in the first place but he said it was an opportunity and so why not take it? "You know, just remember that cooking is a very physical job and I'm 34 and at some point I won't physically be able to cook in front of the stove every night of the week. So, what's your pathway in life? I don't have a crystal ball. I can't see what the future holds."
I said, just to rub a bit of salt in, I wasn't sure what MKR was for. He said it was useful in terms of educating people about cooking, but really? "I guess it's entertainment," he said. "With a bit of cooking thrown in."
He says he's not at all snobbish about food because how could he be when he grew up in Te Awamutu? He must have been an interesting boy. He became obsessed with making banana cakes and so his mum sent him off to learn from a friend who was a good baker. He doesn't know why it was banana cakes and not taking lawn mowers apart, but he got hooked. It was, I'd guess, about aiming for perfection. If he had got obsessed with taking lawn mowers apart instead, his mower would have been taken apart perfectly and all the parts laid out, just so.
He likes order but he copes admirably with chaos, which is what kitchens can descend into. His family life might have been good training. When he was 15 his parents split up - his father has worked at what was the Te Awamutu dairy factory and is now Fonterra, since he left school; his mother works with intellectually disabled people in Greymouth. He has a younger brother and a half-sister, who his mother had with a "scoundrel" and who was raised by his father as his own child. "Because he's a good man." His parents got back together but it didn't last and they divorced. He is very close to them both and loved having a half-sister, which many teenage boys might have resented, and "at 16 you're changing nappies and feeding a child, and it gives you great life skills". It sounds a bit of a chaotic adolescence but he's good at what he calls "buckling down".
He's a sticker. He and Cara have been together since they were 16 and have two young girls and another child, a boy, due in January. He'd like one more but his wife would kill him for saying so, so I should put that in. He's very practical and likes building things and his cooking includes the "number eight wire" approach with, obviously, a touch of magic.
He was just about to put on the menu at The Grove his take on eggs benedict. He is very grumpy about eggs benedict as served in hotels. "You know, it's always got under my skin [that] it's so blimming expensive. It's one of the cheapest dishes to make and it's really annoying and is often terrible." His eggs benedict is a quail's egg and white bait and he makes it into a perfect ball by putting cling film into a shot glass, pouring the mix in, tying it up with string and then poaching it. This is very clever. I asked if you could be a great chef and be a bit thick. He gave me a look that could have curdled hollandaise. "Absolutely not. I mean you have to show some sort of intelligence with food and how an ingredient works."
Is he a great chef? "That's not for me to decide, but I don't think so." Did he mean not yet? "I guess I haven't worked it out yet. It's a work in progress. I'm only young and I don't want to be some washed-up, bitter chef wondering why life passed me by when I'm 50. I definitely don't want to be that guy. That's why I took the opportunity on My Kitchen Rules."
He's about as far from the stereotype of the celebrity chef as you can imagine and this was only slightly disappointing - if you were hoping to meet the guy with the tall hat and the clipboard.
• My Kitchen Rules, Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, TV One