What's left on the menu for the former My Kitchen Rules judge and top Auckland chef? He talks to Kim Knight
The most misunderstood saveloys in Auckland were home-made and stuffed with chicken mousse. A classic French chicken mousseline, to be precise.
"Went down like a bloody lead balloon," says Ben Bayly. "At The Grove, they'd be like 'oh my God, those saveloys are amazing'. Here, the parents are like 'WE WANT REAL SAVELOYS'."
The chef pounds the table and the cutlery jumps. "You'd feel their eyes burning into you . . ."
Learning, learning, learning.
Read more: Why have Sir Michael Hill and top chef Ben Bayly teamed up?
"You think you know something, and you actually don't. It's humbling."
Bayly is the teenager from Te Awamutu who made salads at Taylors Restaurant and met his future wife in a high school biology class. He and Cara have three kids now. You'd think, when he opened a family friendly restaurant in West Auckland, he'd have known the score.
"I was like, 'I'm not having fries on the menu'. About three months in, we had to put them on. And I charge them for it too. Everything else beside the fries is great value here. Seven bucks! They cost 50c a go."
Later, he concedes, "we do change the oil every day - so that's $60."
Bayly is the teenger from Te Awamutu who won a national competition and a scholarship to an American culinary university. He's cooked at the highest levels in London, Melbourne, Paris and Las Vegas, was a judge on My Kitchen Rules NZ and has twice been named New Zealand Chef of the Year. He spent nine years at The Grove, the fine dining darling of Auckland's moneyed and hungry, and still keeps his hand in at the Italian bistro Baduzzi. He owns The Grounds at Whoa! Studios in Henderson, where he's sitting now talking about saveloys and life. Next weeked, he opens Aosta in Arrowtown, in partnership with Michael Hill (jeweller). Next year, he'll take up a prime corner residence in the $1 billion Commercial Bay development in downtown Auckland.
The weekend before this interview, Bayly was a guest at Feast Marlborough, cooking a menu that included oaked ice cream served on twigs. There's talk of a third new eatery somewhere, sometime, maybe soon - but he's not ready to name names. Oh, and he's also filming a television series, working title: The New Zealand Food Story.
Bayly is a very busy man. But right now, it's lunchtime. Tomatoes, stracciatella, smile for the camera and where the f*** is the fresh basil?
According to his dad Graeme, who picks up the phone in Cambridge a few days after this interview, his eldest son makes a very good scone. That was the family's first indication Bayly could cook. He came home with a recipe from an Intermediate School home economics class, "and they were really tasty". The thing about Ben, says Graeme, "is that he is prepared to forgo the money to learn the job. He's always wanted to do the best job he could. When he came back from England, he was spreading concrete with his brother. He wanted to be the best concreter." When he comes home now: "He's just my son. I don't think of him as a celebrity chef."
At 18, Bayly went from cooking at a brasserie in Hamilton to living in a dormitory in Providence, Rhode Island, with 15 other young international chefs who had won a scholarship to the Johnson and Wales University of Culinary Arts. Classmates included George Calombaris (before he was a MasterChef Australia judge) and Chantel Dartnall (before she was named the world's best female chef). It was 2000: Anthony Bourdain was about to release Kitchen Confidential and Gordon Ramsay's Boiling Point had just screened. Chefs were hot and kitchens were getting hotter. A year later, Bayly would be based in Las Vegas.
"There were 10,000 people working at Bellagio at the time. That's more people than in my home town. They had 80 chefs just cooking for the staff. It was sick. It was amazing."
As a member of the banqueting team, "I was the guy receiving the caviar. This ridiculous amount of caviar would arrive and I had to go around all the restaurants and deliver it. I'd put a 500g tin of Iranian caviar on the buffet and people would just help themselves. The amount of lobster and crabs . . . Bellagio had its own warehouse that was insanely big and they held like 2000 lobsters, live."
Amazing, yes. "But what it is, is nothing more than a young chef getting really exposed to a whole lot of senses and ideas and cultures."
In Vegas, everyone had a swimming pool. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the governor of California. Bayly ate quesadilla for breakfast. "Cool s*** was happening, man."
But he feared where it was all going. He didn't want to become the chef that "everyone takes the piss out of - the one with the tall hat and the clipboard". So he went to London, because Cara was there and, even though they were, by now, doing their own things, "we always knew".
The couple really did meet in a Te Awamutu College science lab. "Biology. Yep. We studied it hard!" Cara kept studying - winemaking and viticulture, because the science appealed.
"When you've been with a partner a long time, you can find a lot of reasons not to be with them," says Bayly, 39. "But there's also a billion reasons why you complement each other, and why it has worked. There's that old chestnut about hospo break-ups, but I met Cara before I was in the business. Also, Cara is not a needy person. She just gets on with stuff. She's a fantastic mum, and not only that, she's a friend to our kids."
She also experiences periods of depression. She's not sure this story is the right forum to talk in-depth, but says "Ben does some work for the Mental Health Foundation, it gives him more empathy".
Cara Bayly describes her husband as "very genuine", "really high energy" - and "he has a lot of integrity - he means what he says".
In 2014, Bayly became a reality television judge, starring alongside Gareth Stewart on My Kitchen Rules NZ.
"People make assumptions about you, based on what they see on TV," says Cara. "I remember some guy writing 'I could never trust a man who can't tie his own tie' … you know, he doesn't tie a tie every day! So his tie might have been a bit crooked . . . ?!"
At home, says Cara, Bayly is always asking why there is no food in the fridge. It is a matter of previous public record that one of his favourite dishes is his dad's schnitzel (flour, eggs, breadcrumbs and plenty of oil in the pan, confirms Graeme, down the line from Cambridge, who thinks this is best served with cheese sauce on the carrots and broccoli).
Cara says Bayly's granny "always said he was the nurturer . . . he wants to look after everyone, he's into making sure everyone is well and good".
Sometimes, that means weeks away from home. Bayly started his nine-year stint at The Grove the week his first child was born. Wasn't she furious?
"We've been together so long, we grew up with those hours . . . The thing is, I'd never had a baby before either. I didn't know what it was going to mean. And I don't need him to be home at 5pm on the dot to bath the kids."
Bayly took the whole family on that trip to Marlborough. The kids ran round barefoot at the $250-a-head degustation at Seresin Estate's Waterfall Bay restaurant. The diners ate paua, kina, butterfish and blue cod and Bayly, who has a fresh burn on his arm from the cooking fire, says, "I was looking around thinking 'this is what New Zealand food is'."
We're a small country, says Bayly, and we can only produce so much - so let's do it well.
"A netted fish or a line-caught fish is the same quality when it's swimming around under the boat. You can catch it in a net, chuck it on a boat and sell it for bugger all. Or you can catch just what you need with a longline and then you sell it for four or five times the price. I mean what's better? It's the same with farming. People are moving away from 'we're going to have this many cows per square acre'."
At the Commercial Bay restaurant, diners will literally eat these words. It was supposed to open this year, but is at the mercy of construction delays. Nine cubic metres of native timber is sitting, waiting, for the final fit-out. Swamp kauri, mātai pocked with pūriri moth feeding burrows, tōtara, tawa and more.
"This is Tasmanian oak," says Bayly, rapping his knuckles on a table at The Grounds. "It makes perfect sense for a family restaurant. It's real hard-wearing and no-one's going to knock it over. It makes no sense if you're opening a New Zealand restaurant. When you sit down, you want to feel like you're in New Zealand."
It will feel, he hopes, like a bach. Not the nostalgic old-school feel of Al Brown's Depot and not one of those modern waterfront monstrosities. Somewhere in between.
"We're going to have a beautiful view out to the Hauraki Gulf. Near Auckland, we've got the Firth of Thames, Waitematā, Kaipara, the Manukau. You've got the wild west coast, you've got five oyster farms, three wine-growing regions . . . and this is just our little part, let alone the rest of New Zealand. I want people, when they sit down, to have that sense of place.
"Once you create that environment, then you want the manaakitanga, the New Zealand or Antipodean hospitality. 'How's it going mate? Sit down, I've got you'."
When Bayly says Manukau, he pronounces the final syllable as "co" not "cow". The long vowels of manaakitanga roll easily off his tongue.
"You spend 10 years overseas and you start to wonder who you are . . . I'm working in one of the best restaurants and I'm learning so much and I'm doing this food and you kind of start to question, you start to want a reason to be you. You want to know your whakapapa, your genealogy. And even though I'm European-Pākehā, Māori is such an important part of this country - the cuisine, the heritage. And I'm embarrassed that I can speak French and I can't speak Māori."
The new television show is being made by Mahi Tahi Media who, Bayly says "are helping me articulate what I want to achieve, without being offensive to Māori, but paying respect to the old people that walked here thousands of years before us. I'm not trying to be a Māori restaurant, but I am inspired by our country, and I'm inspired by the techniques of Māori cooking and Māori food and what the sea, most of all, and the land here provides."
Bayly is an eighth generation New Zealander. His family came from Devon, Plymouth to New Plymouth. How to put this delicately? Is he a little white for this mission?
"I'm very aware of my lineage and I don't need to be reminded by anyone . . . I'm seeking the knowledge because I'm interested in it and I find it inspiring. I'm not doing anything that doesn't pay respect to the people I learnt it from and to the old people that came before."
He is not formally learning te reo, but says "I'm picking bits up. Hanging out with people like Rewi Spraggon (who recently opened The Māori Kitchen on Queen's Wharf) - that guy's a god. He never makes me feel bad when I can't pronounce something, and he corrects me, and he's so generous with his knowledge and that inspires me."
His kids have changed him, he thinks. More relaxed. More of a "dad" at work.
"You can break people quite quickly, and you don't realise it. You work a long time in those SAS environments in London where it's cut-throat and dirty, man. It's like you sink or swim or f*** off and if you don't like it, there's the door buddy, there's 10 other guys who do.
"You've got to find the right balance, because you want to push people, but it's more about pushing people to find their limits. Quite often, if you're in an uncomfortable space, you're learning. You can't come to work and sip chamomile tea and chop some chives, there is a commercial reality to everything, but we don't have a one-size-fits-all approach. How you speak to someone is according to their personality, and you have to find out what makes them tick."
Dive in deep, says Bayly, "because 'how's it going' is a question, not a greeting".
In his downtime, he plants things (nine olive trees most recently) and hangs out with his kids. He collects sourdough bread starters ("I got three this weekend!") and the scar on his brow is from bouncing on his grandparents' bed when he was just 3.
"Me and my brother Nick, we'd just demo places. Drive mum crazy. And I fell off the bed and hit the corner of a cheap veneer dressing table. Dad had to hold me down and they had to stitch me up without any sort of local anaesthetic . . . "
Raised Catholic. Thinks he believes in God. Definitely believes the tomato salad he's just made needs more salt. Also, that it's way too late in the season for really good tomatoes. Three forks and a pile of napkins, but when we leave the restaurant, he'll slurp the tangy-salty-milky-oily leftovers straight from the Collis Studios ceramic plate.
"I enjoy making people happy," he says. "I'm a pleaser."
If Bayly wasn't a chef he would be a builder like the brother he worked with when he first came home from overseas and couldn't find a restaurant job. He was in the kitchen at Kermadec when Michael and Annette Dearth from The Grove (and, later, Baduzzi) came calling. Their star chef Sid Sahrawat was moving on to do his own thing and Bayly thought about the offer for "less than one second". Now, he too is doing his own thing. Or he will be when the Commercial Bay development finally opens.
"It has just taken so long. I understand why, but the kitchen's designed, I know exactly where every single plug is, where every single speaker is going."
On the first day of filming for the television show that won't go to air until next year, Bayly stands next to architect Jack McKinney in the middle of a construction zone. You can't think over the roar of a gas torch. It smells like paint and burning. One day, this will be a restaurant.
"It's scary," says Bayly.