“Cooking is the foundation of our culture and society,” says superchef Michael Van de Elzen. “It gives us energy and strength. It makes us happy. Cooking teaches you where your food comes from and what goes into it as well as providing a good start in life to continue to make good food decisions instead of relying on takeaways.”
With that in mind, Michael has launched The Good From Scratch Kids Cookbook, a culinary tome aimed at getting youngsters into the kitchen. “I’ve been on a mission with kids for a long time,” says the amiable chef. “It started with The Food Truck. The series ran for four years and for that whole time—and the four years since it finished—I’ve been popular with kids. Whether it was the truck or the food or my stupid humour, it really resonated with children and I’ve fielded so many calls and questions from them enquiring about cooking and recipes that they could tackle.”
Michael lets out a laugh when asked if he channelled his inner child when creating his kid-friendly concoctions. “I guess having kids helped,” he says. “My girls are five and seven and I’ve always actively encouraged them to get involved in the kitchen—with varying levels of success. You need a lot of patience when it comes to kids and cooking—which professional chefs don’t always have—as it takes five times longer to do things, with five times the amount of mess! But I do enjoy it.”
As a parent and as a chef Michael feels a responsibility to convince Kiwis and their kids to adopt healthier eating habits and lifestyles by imploring them to swap the PlayStation for a peeler. “Healthy food doesn’t have to be boring,” he continues. “There are heaps of tasty dishes that teach kids about making healthy swaps. Educating is the key.” The chef notes the fine line between “preaching” and “encouraging” kids to get cooking and knows that they’ll likely rebel against the idea if parents insist: “So let’s show them how to cook, let’s show them the art of making food.”
I ask if he was interested in cooking as a young lad.
“No, not really! I was brought up on chicken farm, so we had chicken about six nights a week. It was a Dutch household, and my mum was a great cook, but there were about 110,000 chickens that required a lot of work. Although food wasn’t high on the to-do list, we ate well. I didn’t really get in to food until I started working part-time as a dishwasher. But even then, it was the energy of the kitchen that drew me in, the love of food came later.”
What was your favourite dish as a boy?
“A Dutch dish that most people probably wouldn’t recognise. It’s a horseshoe-shaped smoked sausage that Mum would cook with potatoes and silverbeet and served with canned pears. My wife refuses to eat it! I also loved Dutch pea and ham soup—the spoon used to stand up in the pot it was so thick. I still have to make that actually, for the kids.”
The cookbook recipes were run past Michael’s wife, Belinda, and daughters, Hazel and Ivy, as well as their friends. “It was great to see their reaction when they first saw the book because they felt they were part of it, which they were,” says the chef. “All kids love pasta, especially ours. And rice. So, there’s a few of those types of dishes in there. They also like sushi, so we thought, ‘Why not make it a bit different and take the rice out and make it with cucumber? Have some fun.’”
The book boasts six sections: breakfast, lunch, dinner, Good From Scratch sweet treats, after-school snacks, and party food. Michael tells me he’s seen a much welcome shift in the children’s party scene in recent years: “It’s no longer just sausage rolls and Cheerios, though they are still there. But there is much more thought going into it, people are making their own lemonade and thinking up creative things with vegetables instead of deep fried chips.”
What’s the best age to get kids involved in the kitchen?
“I think certainly the earlier the better—though you can’t have a five-year-old wielding a sharp knife around! Get them to make their own breakfast to begin, a couple of Weet-Bix in a bowl with some milk and chopped banana, heated in the microwave for a minute. That’s a good start for them to educate themselves about food. Children can become competent as they approach their teens, but then other things take over, like going out with friends. So, there is a window of maybe aged 6-11.”
By then a good chunk of those children will hopefully have developed, at the very least, some basic culinary skills. I suggest that Michael may create a whole new generation of Kiwi chefs and he shoots back that he generally tries to talk kids out of that career, though “some will invariably slip through!”
The chef will be touring the book around the country from the middle of October, visiting schools and community groups. Money from the ticket sales will be injected back into those communities.
“We’ve priced the book as best as we can,” says Michael. “I know we won’t oust the Edmonds cookbook, that’s been the best-selling for 20-odd years, but if I can have mine sat next to those in lots of New Zealand houses, then I’ll be a happy man. And if it goes well, then we’ll do more. There is no better gift that giving the ability to cook.”