Rooney is owner of three restaurants in Northland: The Quay in Whangarei, The Cove in Waipu, and The Dune in Mangawhai. And together with author Lindy Davis he has produced a book that features tantalising recipes championing local produce from both his Waikato farm Highgate Hill and other premium Northland producers.
Between the recipes devised with two of the restaurants' talented chefs, it weaves the fascinating story, written by Davis, of how this British-born lawyer turned restauranteur gave up the highlife in London for the country life in New Zealand.
YOU WERE BROUGHT UP IN ENGLAND. TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD.
I was brought up in a very middle class family. We owned our own house which my parents had worked very hard for and we had a very strong education ethic, but that is where normality ended!
We were slightly hippy-ish and definitely the oddballs in the local community.
Mum and Dad adopted a black child which was not the done thing in middle class 1960s suburbia. We would often disappear for weeks on end and would all pile into our car (eight of us - I'm the youngest of six) and drive down to Spain or into what was then Yugoslavia, behaving more like desert nomads.
We would pitch a tent on the side of the road and live off the land! We couldn't afford to get the bus, so we would walk the 5 miles into town and treat everyday as an adventure. We would have competitions as to who could pick the most blackberries, the most cherries, the most mushrooms or potatoes, without which we probably would have starved.
YOU HAVE HAD VARIOUS JOBS, OTHER THAN HOSPITALITY ...
My first job was working on the checkout in our local supermarket, Sainsburys. I actually quite enjoyed it. I liked talking with the customers and I enjoyed time with my work colleagues. I then got promoted to work in the wines, beers and spirits department.
I didn't drink and I had to advise people on wines to buy! Now I really enjoy wine and I like to create an interesting wine list for the restaurants, but back then my wine knowledge spread as far Blue Nun and Lambrisco.
Let's just say they wouldn't appear on my wine list today. I left Sainsburys and went to London University and I was lucky enough to get a part-time job in the royal retiring rooms for Stoll Moss theatres.
My duties included looking after members of the royal family and celebrities whenever they attended. I left the theatre to work in restaurants and eventually owned my own. Other notable jobs included training as a criminal lawyer in central London (the legal life was not for me) and a 12-year stint as an interior designer in central London.
WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO NEW ZEALAND?
Michael brought me to New Zealand. I met him in London and we developed a very strong relationship. I knew that he couldn't live in London long term, but I can live anywhere so we both made the change.
It was hard at first for me leaving central London and being thrown head first into farming life in a very remote part of rural New Zealand, but I eventually embraced it.
WHO OR WHAT FIRST INSPIRED YOU TO GET INVOLVED IN FOOD AND HOSPITALITY?
I had to leave working in the theatres as I needed a job that was more flexible and with a better income to help pay for my education. I got a job working as a waiter in one of London's coolest restaurants in Camden Town.
Clifford taught me to carry plates and if you could carry four or more you could get a job. Within three months I was voted waiter of the year. I then went on to manage gastro pub The Engineer, for Tamsin Olivier. This job more than any other is what shaped my future in restaurants.
WHAT IS THE FIRST THING YOU REMEMBER COOKING?
A chocolate cake. It became legendary in the family. I began to experiment with different fillings, icings and flavours. I learnt very quickly that you can have too much rum essence and flavours balance for a reason.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE STYLE OF CUISINE IN YOUR RESTAURANTS?
Smart Casual is the phrase that sums up perfectly our service and our cuisine. It's non pretentious with an emphasis on home-grown NZ produce with a true paddock to plate ethos.
WHAT ACHIEVEMENT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?
Getting a commendation in my law finals while working fulltime managing The Engineer and struggling with my dyslexia, would be my greatest achievement. I had to learn time management skills extremely quickly and I was invited back the next year to explain to new students how you can work and study fulltime. I couldn't get a student loan and it was the only way I could have passed.
HOW DID YOU AND AUTHOR LINDY DAVIS COME TO COLLABORATE ON THE QUAY TO THE COVE?
Lindy and I met at The Cove. We hit it off instantly and became good friends. Through the course of our friendship, I opened up about my life and hospitality experiences and Lindy thought it would make a good background story to the restaurant. Having a good friendship definitely helped create the cookbook, as we laughed our way through the various stages. The combination of Lindy's writing and styling skills, and Grant's photographic flair worked really well.
WHAT ARE FIVE FOODS YOU CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT?
If I had to be picky I would start with olive oil as I use it every day. Coriander would be high on the list. It's one herb I use all the time for cooking and in salads. Fish is my choice of protein as it is so versatile. Salt, as I use it all the time much to my heart's discontent, and finally coconut milk. Crikey it is almost an Ika Mata.
YOUR GO-TO COMFORT MEAL?
My go to comfort meal would have to be sausages and mash. Dan from the meat shop in Mangawhai makes the sausages for us from our own Highgate Hill meat.
WHAT CAR DID YOU LEARN TO DRIVE IN?
A 1970s Austin Allegro which I bought for £50. It was dark blue and it lasted a year until it eventually failed the MOT. Our favourite moment together was a manual three point turn on a cold frosty morning, so I could push it to bump start it. There is definitely an art to pushing a car and then jumping in as it careers out of control down the suburban streets of Patcham.
WHAT ARE THREE THINGS ABOUT YOU THAT WOULD SURPRISE?
I love people and I love to talk, but I hate parties, or nightclubs, or concerts for that matter. Growing up frugally we got by with buying out-of-date food from the supermarket, so even now I can't pass a bargain. I believe in extra terrestrials, a bit spooky I know.