New Zealand’s most loved chef, Michael Van de Elzen, together with his wife Belinda, who is also a qualified chef, have opened a farm-to-fork experience, The Good From Scratch Cookery School, on their life-style property near Muriwai, less than 40 minutes from Auckland. The school is an embodiment of the Van de Elzens’ combined philosophy: food is best when it’s prepared from scratch.
Please can you tell Verve readers all about your philosophy behind the cooking school?
Our focus is very simple, to share in the simplicity of creating flavoursome dishes created from scratch, including the gathering and picking of seasonal produce right at the doorstep of the cookery school. We want to tap into all that the farm offers as well as local in-season ingredients from neighbouring farms. It all comes back to the philosophy we’ve lived by for years – food is better when it’s made from scratch.
You obviously work well together – can you tell us about your roles?
We both trained chefs so we both take the classes, sometimes together, or sometimes separately, depending on what is in store for that day. We’re lucky to work with an incredibly knowledgeable gardener, Adrianne, who takes the garden tour while we do the prep work in the kitchen!
Has your cooking school been a dream for a long time?
Very much so. The farm is a labour of love and we want to share this unique piece of paradise. We have wanted to create an experience like this ever since we worked together in Ireland, about 20 years ago, at a small luxury hotel.
Dundrody hotel was in a little village called Athurstown in the southwest of Ireland. One thing that made it so special were huge gardens. Being so remote required us to grow our own produce and really focus on sourcing local ingredients. We had huge berry cages, white asparagus and huge horse mushrooms that would grow on the front lawn. Wild salmon from Waterford Harbour just down the road was also a regular find at the back door in the mornings.
So you take us from arriving at your cooking school to going out and collecting all the vegetables/food from your garden?
That’s right, the gardens play a huge part in the cookery school. The menu each day will be tweaked to what’s in season, what’s in the garden, and what the weather is doing. The first step, after coffee, of course, is heading out to the gardens for a tour and a chance for all the green thumbs to ask any questions about what grows best where, when and why. We’ll harvest the produce for that day’s dishes and then head back inside to get cooking.
Life is definitely too short to eat processed foods when all we need is so very little to start a vegetable garden, do you teach your class all about growing fresh?
Definitely – it’s a big part of the experience. We want people to leave not only with some new kitchen skills, but some tidbits tucked away about how to grow their own veggie garden, or if that’s not possible, the best herbs they should be planting in pots on the windowsill!
Do you have a pizza oven?
Yes, we’re very lucky to have a pizza oven indoors as well as an Engel Fire in the outdoor area. I’m a real sucker for slow-cooked meats and I love the way flames add a depth of flavour to food.
Who cooks at home?
We share, but if we’re lucky, we can rope our daughters into it!
Did you feel like we did that lockdown was a perfect time to work on your business? to Make changes and Reflect?
It was certainly really tough opening in January only to be forced to close for lockdown, but we did spend the time really refining the cookery school offering and developing new recipes to share with guests now that we’re able to open our doors again. We also started a meal kit and meal delivery service for locals, which was a great way to test the recipes!
Would love to know more about philosophies such as Seasonality.
We really believe that food just tastes better when it’s made from scratch – you know what’s in it, you’ve put the effort in and get to enjoy the result. On top of this, you can make some absolutely delicious dishes that are healthier and easier on the pocket, without spending the whole day in the kitchen or attempting fancy tricks.
We also really believe in sustainability and that’s why each day the menu for the school reflects what is in season and what’s coming out of the garden, so we can minimise waste.
Plus, the school enables us to support local businesses for items we can’t grow, such as meats, wine, beer and dairy products. We do have our own eggs though!
How do you set about creating that all-important work-life balance?
It’s not something I’ve mastered quite yet, because I get so passionate about the jobs I’m doing and I love sharing knowledge of food with people. I do like getting out on the mountain bike for some exercise, and we’re lucky to live so close to the beautiful Muriwai so we can head down with the girls for an early evening work.
Do you detect a definite shift in the way people are eating these days?
I definitely think people are becoming more aware of the foods they’re eating, but it can be really overwhelming with so many sources of information. That’s why going back to basics can not only be really calming but help to build confidence in the kitchen too – you know exactly what you’re eating if you’ve seen what has gone into the dish!
How would you describe your cooking?
Good from scratch! Tasty meals with a healthy twist.
Favourite cooking music?
I don’t really listen to music whilst cooking, maybe it’s from many years in a commercial kitchen listening to the kitchen banter!
All time favourite three dishes to prepare and eat.
Wood-roasted chicken cooked on my Engel fire; mushroom risotto made with mushrooms collected from the farm; and Bee’s chicken pie, it’s the best!
Your foodie muse?
I was hugely inspired by Anthony Bourdain. His dark memoir about life in a New York City restaurant, Kitchen Confidential, helped me to understand the pressure of working in basement kitchens in London and put a little humour into the environment I was working in. I had the pleasure of cooking for him at one of our restaurants a number of years ago.