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Looking out from the deck of Michael and Belinda Van de Elzen’s Muriwai home over astonishing views of undulating hills, it’s not difficult to understand why about five years ago, the celebrity chef and his wife chose to make this magical spot their home — and the site on which to fulfil their long-held dream of opening a cooking school.
It was a ‘‘shocker of a year’’, Belinda said.
Despite the curveballs life has thrown at them, Michael and Belinda — or Mike and Bee as they are known — have somehow managed to stay positive, and thankfully the cancer has been eradicated following an intensive course of radiation.
“There’s always someone worse off than you,” Bee said.
“And I’m lucky — I’ve got a roof over my head; I can walk out to the garden and prepare a meal from what we’ve grown — but sometimes it feels like everything’s coming at you and it’s OK to have a bad day.”
The light at the end of a very dark tunnel has been the stunning 6ha Muriwai property, which has provided them with not just a private place to mourn and recover, but a crop of delicious produce from which to draw and educate.
The school is the culmination of a dream inspired 20 years ago when Mike and Bee worked at Dunbrody Country House, a small luxury hotel in Ireland which had a cookery school.
They made their way to Dunbrody after five intense years at London’s Bank and Quaglinos restaurants, which were incredibly fast-paced, thousand-covers-a-night establishments.
At Dunbrody they became inspired by the intimate connection with guests and students, and the farm-to-table education they were able to pass on.
“[It] planted the seed for our school. People discovering, collecting, cooking, learning and then sitting down and enjoying what they’ve just created,” Mike said.
Two types of classes will be on offer. There will be a full-day experience with a maximum of 14 guests who will prepare dishes under Mike’s guidance and then enjoy the fruits of their labour collectively over a glass of local wine. A larger-format experience will allow up to 90 guests to watch and interact with Mike as he conducts demonstrations, after which the guests will enjoy food prepared by a team in a “scullery” kitchen behind the demonstration kitchen.
The classes would suit all levels of cookery abilities and were designed to be a “fun, fabulous day out”. Long-term plans included holding workshops with visiting chefs, classes for children, vegetarian classes and more.
Until now Good From Scratch, which he launched in 2015, had been ‘‘a brand — now we have a home”, Mike said.
It began after the enormous success of his The Food Truck television series, where he essentially reinvented Kiwi classics such as fish and chips with a healthy twist — the fish was pan-fried not deep-fried, pies were made “from scratch” using better-quality ingredients and so forth.
Because of the show, people often asked him how to cook more healthily for their families, which inspired him to launch Good From Scratch.
“I had so many people coming up to me asking ‘What food in the supermarket is good for my kids?’,” he recalled. “[They would ask] ‘What does that health food stamp mean? What’s the double heart tick?’. It came to a point where I was like ‘I think we need to create our own stamp’.”
The brand — which makes food literally from “scratch” with quality ingredients — could be found in your local supermarket, he said.
“We learned how to take fats and sugars away and replace them with better things but not affect the flavour,” Mike said.
As its name suggests, the Good From Scratch Cookery School will teach students to make all the components in each dish, avoiding pre-made supermarket sauces and seasonings.
“We’re not buying food in jars or convenience packets. We’re not saying ‘add this heavily salted packet to that rice and you will have a paella’. The gardens will dictate what we cook on the day — what’s seasonal.”
The school’s seed-to-table ethos is what most excites Bee.
“Growing the food is just as important as the actual class,” she said.
“People want to know where their food comes from now, don’t they?
‘‘There’s something very satisfying about taking that seed, nurturing it, watching it grow. And then when it’s ready to harvest, taking it back to the kitchen, preparing it and ultimately enjoying eating it.”
For the school’s location the couple had considered Waiheke, Kumeu, Matakana and Waimauku.
After years of looking — “Bee was harassing every single real estate agent out there,” Mike said with a laugh, but they found the Muriwai property in 2015 through a contact of Mike’s father. They went to see it on a Saturday morning, which happened to be Bee’s birthday, and made an offer that night.
“The couple who sold it were just about to list it. We were lucky. We came at the right time.”
The school is housed in a modern, barn-like structure with vaulted ceilings, perched on a ridge with the same beautiful views as their home, which sits further west on the property. They enlisted the help of local architect Gemma Muir to realise their vision.
“We created mood boards — Pinterest became our best friend,’’ Mike said.
The barn featured cedar cladding that ‘‘as it ages will silver up and will start to look pretty cool’’, he said.
The barn is a large yet intimate space that feels warm and inviting. Chic emerald-green tiles are juxtaposed against industrial-style pendant lights and a large, communal ‘‘trough’’ sink with classical brass taps and exposed pipes adds a cool, modern accent. Large windows that frame the sweeping valley views add a sense of drama. Outside on the wind-protected deck a custom-made Engel fire doubles as a rotisserie and fireplace.
The couple have been very hands-on throughout the project. Mike found the trough sink on Trade Me, and Bee spent hours sanding it down. They eschewed full commercial ovens and cooktops in favour of more residential models — including revered Viking ovens — because they wanted students to be able to relate to appliances in their own homes.
Mike and Bee love their Muriwai life, especially the effect it has had on daughters Hazel (8) and Ivy (7), who go to the local school and attend surf life-saving classes on weekends.
‘‘They’re part of the reason we did this. I was brought up on a farm,” Mike said.
‘‘It was just cool. In the holidays you didn’t have to plan anything. You could just hang out with Dad or hang out with Mum. [Hazel and Ivy] can actually just be with us.’’
Apart from launching the school, Mike has been busy back in front of the camera, filming Eat Well For Less, a New Zealand adaptation of the international hit TV series. The show, to be aired this year on TVNZ 1, is about helping families cook and eat better, while also watching their pennies.
‘‘Some families were spending horrendous amounts of money on nothing. And at the end of the week they were bagging all this rubbish up and throwing it all away. We could come in and genuinely help [them] save some money and eat better,’’ Mike said.
‘‘At the end of the week the families were so thankful for what we had done. I’m still getting letters from [the families]. It’s very rewarding.’’
Despite Mike’s impressive pedigree as a restaurateur he has no plans for another restaurant, citing the difficulties the industry faces today, particularly in finding staff and astronomical rents.
“Even doing [the school] is going to have its challenges but at least we are the landlords at the end of the day.”
-Classes at the Good From Scratch Cookery School can be booked online at Goodfromscratch.co.nz.