Tip-toe Through the Tulips …

Off to Rotorua yesterday to attend Michael van de Elzen’s cooking demonstration, one of the inaugural events of the week-long Tulip Festival (see the Events page for garden-related happenings still to come).

A young visitor is all concentration as she gets a great shot of Rotorua’s tulips. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The words “celebrity chef” send a chill down my spine but Michael turned out to be charming, funny, inventive, down-to-earth, and generous with his food and time.

The son of Dutch migrants, he grew up on a poultry farm in west Auckland and while his parents wanted him to take over the business, he followed his sisters into weekend work at Tony’s, a steak restaurant and Auckland institution but – unlike his sisters – wanted to work in the kitchen.

“We were doing 500 covers a night and I was the dishwasher,” he recalls. “I looked at the line of chefs all working in harmony to put the plates up. It was addictive and I wanted it.”

He worked his way up to head chef at Tony’s by the tender age of 23 and then headed to London where he got a job as a commis chef (“the bottom of the bottom”) at Bluebird, one of Sir Terence Conran’s “gastrodomes” that seats 500 – and at that time had 140 chefs to make the food! He reckons he went home in tears every night.

His mother urged him to stick at it and 2 years later he was running the kitchen – minus the 70 or so French chefs who, it turned out, didn’t want to listen to a “little Kiwi”. Within 2 months all the French chefs had gone and Michael had 140 chefs from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa working for him.

Michael van de Elzen. Photo: Sandra Simpson

One of the highlights of his time in London was cooking for Queen Elizabeth II (and 6000 other people) for the opening of the Tate Modern gallery on May 11, 2000. Each of the six floors had a different cuisine theme – the stress went up a notch when Michael and his catering team, arriving at 5am, discovered the lift wasn’t working and wouldn’t be for the rest of the event!

He came home to open his own restaurant, Molten, in Auckland in 2004, selling it in 2011 – along the way becoming a “celebrity chef” thanks to The Food Truck programmes (he believes he barely survived Episode 1 after being stranded amid a starving, drunk crowd) and now Kiwi Living.

Floral art for the evening was courtesy of Sally Ah Chan. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Coincidentally, we sat next to the charming Sally Ah Chan. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Michael, his wife Belinda and two daughters, aged 5 and 3, have recently moved to a lifestyle block in Muriwai where he is building a cookschool that will focus on “old-fashioned” methods such as curing, smoking and preserving – with the animals coming from his own farm.

He’s also got a project nearing fruition, 2 years in the making so far. “Mike’s Mission” will be a national trailer-tour teaching schoolchildren to cook (including, he says, how to use left-overs).

Besides a quick and easy demonstration for creating a healthy dip, Michael also talked us through curing a side of salmon and then every table received two platters crammed with goodies from local producers – many of whom were among the stalls at Rotorua’s inaugural Farmers’ Market this morning (October 2). The market will be held every Sunday, from 9am-1pm at the corner of Hinemoa and Tutanekai streets.

A scrumptious platter of food from, mainly, Rotorua-area artisans and including Michael’s superb cured salmon, as well as his roasted carrot, macadamia and honey dip. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The food was delicious and Michael was keen to acknowledge his two assistants from Waiariki Polytechnic who quietly worked in the Bowling Club kitchen throughout the show.

Although this morning was as wet as could be, the warmth and enthusiasm of everyone we got chatting to (last night as well) really helped brighten our day. The tulips looked fantastic, even in this weather, with more ready to burst into bloom as the week progresses – the plantings in Government Gardens are gorgeous, but there are also median strips, hanging baskets, roundabouts and so on, plus “plantings” of wooden tulips, knitted tulips …

A tub of Tulip Lily Schreyer in the foreground with the mock Tudor Bath House Museum at rear and Art Deco Blue Baths to the right. Photo: Sandra Simpson

We heard today that after it’s all over Rotorua Lakes Council sells bulbs for 10c each, thereby ensuring private gardens are starting to fill with tulips too. What a great idea!

In fact, the council really got behind the festival this year planting 100,000 bulbs in public spaces, so good on them. Unfortunately, a large proportion of the bulbs planted on Hospital Hill rotted (that’s gardening for you) but hopefully next year will be a success. What a welcoming sight the tulip-filled hillsides would be.

A glorious bed in Government Gardens. Photo: Sandra Simpson