Michael Meredith is a master chef who’s garnered more than enough awards and applause for himself and his world-class restaurant Merediths in Mt Eden — the latest, just this year, from Auckland’s hospitality industry cementing his status as one of our best chefs.
He’s not resting on his laurels, though — in fact, he’s not resting much at all. He’s been lending his name and culinary skills to a number of good causes, including Eat My Lunch, which makes and delivers free lunches to kids in some of Auckland’s poorest schools.
We sat down with Michael, after a busy morning of sandwich-making, and asked him about his path from the village in Samoa to star chef and philanthropist.
So Michael, let’s start at the beginning. Tell us about your family and your early life.
I was born in Samoa. My mum (Metita Saleilua) worked for the High Commissioner of Australia in Apia. She was a live-in housekeeper, so we actually stayed there. And then on the weekend, we’d go to her village, which was Vaimoso.
My mother was very Catholic. We used to go to church every morning before school. So we would wake up early, go to mass, then go to school at Vaimoso Primary. She’d give us 50 cents each to spend.
And life was good, you know. But that changed when my mother had to come to New Zealand to look after her sick mother. She was coming for three months, and three months turned into six years.
I didn’t really enjoy that time. I was six when she left. My brother Milton was seven. When she left us, I felt quite … abandoned. It’s one of those things you never get over. She sent us money and stuff but obviously it was just not the same.
What about your father?
My father was the youngest of 12. He was from Vaiala and he was a Meredith — a half-caste. I didn’t really know him. My mum told me he used to go buy beer for his dad so he started drinking at the age of 14. And got married quite young — 18 or something. He had like 10 kids to his wife. He worked for the copra business where they go around Savai’i and they collect copra to bring to the city.
He was married but he would come to visit my mum. As a kid, you’re just excited to see your dad. He would bring lollies or something — and that’s all the connection we had with him.
I sort of hated him as I grew up. He was never there for us. Even when my mum came here he never tried to take us. But you know, he had many kids.
I saw him when he came here to have an operation on his throat. I actually went to his funeral.
So like many children whose parents came to New Zealand to work, you were left with relatives. And in your case it was your mother’s brother. You’ve talked about what an unhappy time that was for you and your brother — getting hidings and being treated like little servants.
Yeah. We begged our mum not to leave us with our uncle. We thought we could stay with our dad even though we didn’t see him much.
My uncle had other kids, and they were mostly older than us. You get treated differently. We went from one extreme where my mother did everything for us, to suddenly — nothing. We pretty much cooked the food, did the ironing, washing.
My brother to this day doesn’t think of it fondly. Looking back, there are moments I don’t like. But it’s made me who I am today. You learned to fend for yourself.
When did you see your mum again?
When we came here. At that time I was 12. And I was very distant from her. I guess I didn’t really forgive her then.
We’ve talked about it, which is not something you do in Samoan families. You’re not supposed to talk about anything emotional or something that bothers you. And I didn’t know it bothered me until I started analysing my life.
My mum’s pretty old now. The funny thing is she’s relying on me now. My brother’s living in Australia, so I am the one that now is here for her.
What happened? Why did it take six years for you to be reunited with your mother?
When she came here, her family only paid one way for her to come. There was no returning ticket. They didn’t tell her before she came — otherwise I guess she wouldn’t have come.
So she became an overstayer. When her mum died she was going to come back to Samoa but it didn’t happen. She had no money to come back. Her family were like: “You have to stay. Just bring the boys over.”
So how did she manage to get you over here?
The lucky break there was my mum worked for the priest, Father Kevin. She was the live-in housekeeper at the presbytery at St Mary’s in Mt Albert, just like in Samoa.
And he was one of those priests — very loud, very assertive.
She had been applying for her papers, and nothing was happening. So he went with her one day to the immigration office in the city, and he just demanded, very loudly, to see the manager. My mum said he caused a scene in the office. I guess to see a white person coming in with an islander, you know back then, it made an impression.
He was like: “Metita’s been coming here for three years. What’s going on?” And then they realised that nothing had been sent down to Wellington.
They went to Wellington the following week, and within three months, we were coming to New Zealand.
So it was like, God played a hand in that.
You went to Mt Albert Grammar. What was it like for you coming from Samoa and straight into high school here?
I remember you go to school and you get called “fresh”, “fob” (fresh off the boat) and all that. And you’re like, what is that? You have no idea. Until you realise. And being brought up that Samoan way, if someone called you that, you just fight.
I could understand English and read it. We were around it in Samoa, but speaking it every day was different. I used to hate it when the teacher would ask me to read out loud because you just know the kids would laugh at the way you pronounce words. I guess that’s why I didn’t really take to school.
MAGS was one of those schools, you would hang out with people that were wagging school, doing other things. Nothing serious — just fighting, stuff like that. The police came to the priest’s house once, and my mum was more embarrassed than anything.
I left MAGS in the fifth form, and pretty much moved out of home. I worked at Pak ‘n Save and a few other places, got fired a couple of times, stayed with girlfriends. I didn’t know what I was doing.
So how did you find your way into cooking?
My brother went into a cooking course in Newmarket. I pretty much followed him because I didn’t know what I was going to do. But I went to the Tagata Pasifika course on K-Rd because my friends were there.
And that sort of gave me the right direction.
I loved the creativity of it. I remember the theory work was okay, but I was pretty good on the decorating. I loved art at school so I was naturally good at that. I loved making things look pretty.
When you’re young, everything’s about looks. Looks and colour was the thing, not necessarily about the taste because I didn’t really understand about taste. All I knew was salt and sugar.
Was there a moment when you realised that this was what you wanted to do?
There was a moment. The moment was at Vinnies, actually.
One of my tutors had worked with David Griffin, the owner of Vinnies. They sent me there for two weeks to do a work placement and that was the first insight of what a restaurant was for me.
I was walking into that place and I knew I was going to do something like that. I didn’t know how. It was just the way everything was made on the premises. It was an intimate setting with a lot of passion, and a lot of flavour. And David Griffin was very creative. I guess he was a hard guy but it was definitely a genuine passion for him.
There were elements of it I didn’t like. Chefs are very angry people. And coming from a background in Samoa, I hated that. I always get funny with it. I don’t like being told off, or shouted at. Because in Samoa it means you’re going to get a hiding, and the only way you respond to something like that is you feel aggressive yourself.
When you’re in a kitchen long enough, you understand about discipline and respect. You know, chefs are always right.
I don’t shout but I definitely get my point across.
You went on to work in some pretty swanky restaurants, including in New York on a three-month scholarship. Were you never intimidated — you know, coming from a village in Samoa to cooking in top New York restaurants?
If you travel overseas, and you see there’s not many Polynesian chefs cooking, of course you feel kind of nervous. I’ve done food shows and stuff where you feel like: “Am I good enough to do this?”
But something just takes over. I’m a big believer in … there’s a bigger picture. There’s something above you or within you. There’s a knowing that, no matter what, you’re going to do it.
The biggest thing I tell people, especially young Polynesians, is self-belief. If you don’t have that, there’s not much you can do. Because, you know, we’re very shy people. We’re encouraged to do other things, especially sport. And we’re very family orientated and I guess when we’re out on our own we tend to get a bit isolated from that support.
But for me, I’ve always had to fend for myself. I guess it makes you a certain way.
So by 2005, you were starting to get a big reputation. There was acclaim and awards as head chef of The Grove, which you opened with the owners in 2004. In 2005, you won the Lewisham award for outstanding chef in Auckland, which you won again this year. But you weren’t satisfied?
I loved what I did at The Grove but it was just something in me was not fulfilled.
I had that dream of opening something for myself, and it was always in the back of my mind. When something’s bugging you, you just have to do it. I said it out loud to the universe: “If I don’t do my restaurant within the next year or so I’m going to give up cooking.”
But I had no money. I kept wondering, how am I going to do this? Most islanders don’t have the kind of cash flow to do anything.
Finally, I just had to give my notice at The Grove and, with giving my notice everything started unfolding. The money person was someone that backed the Grove, so I asked him and he was happy to invest in me.
And that was it. We opened Merediths in 2007.
I understand there’s been a personal cost though…
Yeah. In between all that, my ex-partner and I had three girls. They’re now in Australia. My ex used to work here in the restaurant. She did all the back of house stuff. But the pressure of young kids and the restaurant and many other things just didn’t work. We used to do six days here. That’s what I sacrificed most, family time.
Sophia’s 12, Tahlia’s nine and Ella’s just turned seven. They’ve been there over three years now. I go over on their birthdays and bring them here at the end of the year. They’ve got their ipads so we skype whenever they want.
But it’s just not the same, you know.
Merediths has been hugely successful: rave reviews and awards, including the Metro Supreme Award in 2009 and Cuisine Restaurant of the Year in 2011. Are you feeling more satisfied with that side of things?
I think we’ve achieved as much as is possible in the food world. But I see it as an example for mostly Polynesians, to say it’s achievable, and I guess there are things I do now out of it. It’s almost like it’s a vehicle to work with other things.
Let’s talk about those other things. You’ve been doing Dine By Donation nights every Tuesday, you backed the Green’s campaign for lunches in school, and now you’re doing Eat My Lunch. What drives all that?
I guess, you know, we’re all here to do something. And if you can do good, even if it’s just by associating yourself with something, why not? You never know what’s going to inspire the next person to do something.
I know when I was young, if I read something about someone that I looked up to, something positive that they’d done — it can inspire you to do something better. It’s like planting a seed in someone’s consciousness …
So Dine By Donation …?
Every Tuesday we do four courses and people donate whatever they think it’s worth, and we give that straight to the charity. We support different charities and every two months we change. We’ve done quite a few — Starship, Fred Hollows, Kidney Kids, Home and Family Counselling. At the moment we’re doing Upside Downs, for kids with Down Syndrome.
It works quite well. Throughout the year, we’ve probably raised over 50 grand for the different charities.
We call them “Stem nights” — after the girls (Sophia, Tahlia, Ella Meredith).
And Eat My Lunch? How did that get started?
Eat My Lunch was actually Lisa King and Iaan Buchanan. They came up with the idea, and then approached me. It’s Buy One, Give One. So for every lunch we sell and deliver, we make and deliver one to kids who can’t afford their own.
I’d supported the Green’s “feed the kids” bill, so it appealed to me.
This is the kind of issue people talk about it, talk about it, talk about it — but nobody does anything.
Eat My Lunch is something people relate to easily and that’s why it’s taken off. Each day we’re doing over 1700 lunches, and we’re going to 20 schools. It’s a lot.
Yes, especially seeing that you’re not just the face of Eat My Lunch. As well as being a minor shareholder, you’ve designed the lunches — and you’re in there from 6 till 10 every morning actually making sandwiches, so it’s very hands-on for you. No wonder you look tired.
Yeah, you get that … it’s all part of the job.
The biggest thing is, there are kids that have always been trouble because they don’t have food. And teachers have told us that with getting lunch they’re now more settled.
And you know as kids, if you don’t have food, you don’t learn.
The hardest thing is we’re in New Zealand, and it shouldn’t happen. But there is that gap. People can judge but life is hard sometimes and you never know someone else’s circumstances. And it’s just kids. They come into this world and they have to live within those circumstances — they don’t have a choice.
Where do you reckon your cooking talent comes from?
My mother was always a great cook. She had a pancake stall in the market in Apia — so it was always there in the background. I have vivid memories of my brother and me sitting there on the weekends, watching her. There was this kerosene pump stove and a pot for the oil, heating up.
But she never made any money because every time she goes to get the flour or the sugar, the neighbours would take over and give it away.
We’re talking Samoan pancakes — panikeke — like round donuts?
Polynesian influences don’t really feature in your food. Do you still eat Samoan food?
Yeah, when my mum cooks it. Chop suey, taro. I love it when she does the fa’alifu. That’s home. It’s the taste of childhood when I eat that food. It takes me back.
But most people wouldn’t understand our traditional food.
If you look at our real food, it was either boiled or baked. There wasn’t much cooking in it. It wasn’t until the Chinese came that we got chop suey, chow mein and all that sort of stuff. Our food was quite healthy, but it was quite bland. It was just coconut cream and taro. But that’s what people needed because they worked the land, they fished, and were active. If you go to the islands, people are so toned — because they’re still active.
What does your mum think of your food here at the restaurant?
“Too small — portions are too small!” She’s been here once. She doesn’t eat this — she doesn’t eat that — she doesn’t like this.
Half the time, my mum doesn’t know what I do. She knows I run the restaurant. But she doesn’t know what I actually do. She doesn’t even know I do Eat My Lunch or anything like that.
You’ve talked often about self-belief being critical in your success. Do you think we do enough to encourage that in our kids?
You know, we’re close family people but we never discuss what’s important. Maybe it’s happening now, but when I was growing up, you didn’t discuss these things.
There is so much potential but it’s just that lack of confidence or self-belief. There’s no encouragement.
I think there are many things that our kids can be encouraged to do, not just sport, and I think that comes with families. If you encourage your kids and give them that self-belief and confidence it can make a big difference.
I mean, the biggest thing is love. If people are loved, there’s a big difference in how they grow from that. Maybe the next generations will be better.
Those years in Samoa without your mother were probably a lesson in how not to bring up kids. Some of those old-school ways need to change.
Some people are never going to change because they’re not exposed to anything else. I think that’s where education comes in. There is another way — not just the sasa (smack). I mean, how do you love your kids and then beat the shit out of them? There’s no balance in that. I’ve seen cousins get a hiding with a machete, and they’d be cut doing it. It’s wrong – man, it’s wrong – but you see that in your everyday life and you think it’s normal.
That’s something we learn through giving the lunches, these kids that have been in refugee camps. They’re used to fighting for food, so when they come here that’s all they know — that’s what’s normal to them.
I guess that’s why I do what I do now, especially with the lunches and all these other things because I think it raises awareness, but then also it makes you realise that you have to give back as much as you can because you’ve received a lot.
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