In the corner of a converted parking lot in Auckland, the most recognisable vehicle in New Zealand is parked up, working at top speed. Michael Van de Elzen and his team of chefs are producing hundreds of mouthwatering burgers, crumbed chicken dishes and a host of other delicacies from the first two series of the TV One show, The Food Truck, out of the iconic 1970s Bedford truck to serve as part of Michael’s latest venture – the Food Truck Garage restaurant.
“At the end of the previous seasons, the truck got covered over and put in my parents’ barn in Kumeu – no-one ever saw it when we weren’t on air,” says Michael (40), who happily chats with customers, staff and fans in the bustling restaurant. “So many people love this truck, so by using it in this way, it’s open to the public – it’s still being used.”
Taking on a new restaurant as well as his other commitments – which from next week includes his role as food contributor for the Weekly – is a massive decision for the TV chef, who has two children, Hazel (2½) and six-month-old Ivy, with wife Bee.
“I believe really passionately that it’s possible for everyone to eat food which is fast, healthy, innovative and can be made at home,” says Mike, who sold fine dining Auckland restaurant Molten two years ago. But making that passion a reality has had an impact on the dad of two’s personal life.
“The work-life balance is pretty terrible at the moment!” he admits. “As soon as people see you on TV, everything changes. I’m still getting used to being a ‘public’ person.”
Michael says his new-found status as the “Pied Piper of food” is one of the hardest aspects for the naturally shy chef. The latest season of The Food Truck (Sundays, 8pm)
sees him travelling the country for the first time (previous series were all filmed in Auckland). Although the trusty truck was taken by transporter to the different towns –
“I don’t think it would have made it across the South Island on its own!” he laughs – as soon as the eye-catching van hit the road, it was followed everywhere. “We were filming in Christchurch and I managed to get myself completely lost – Google maps was telling me to go one way, but the red zone meant I couldn’t use their route.“I was trying to find my way around and realised there were a whole bunch of cars following me. I got so flustered, I started running red lights!” he laughs.Being so recognised has been a double-edged sword for Mike.
“I’ve had to learn when to make time for myself and my family, and I love going mountain biking – it gives me time out and nobody recognises me,” he explains. “I do need to manage that aspect of my life – a year or so ago, before Ivy was born, Hazel was having a sleep and I knew Bee and I had a half-hour opportunity to eat. “We ordered this beautiful Japanese food – but so many people wanted to talk to me, Bee ended up eating alone. “I love meeting new people, but I’ve learned to say I’ll come and see them after I’ve eaten.”
Despite the pitfalls of creating a successful enterprise, Michael has hit on a winning formula – not only is the restaurant heaving, but The Food Truck is one of the highest rating on TV.
“Making healthy food that people want to eat is a lot harder now than just making it in the truck during the show’s filming, because the quantities are so huge,” Michael says. “All our food is handmade in-house, and not everything works as well in bulk as it does when I’m making 20 portions.“For instance, we use 250kg of beef for just one type of burger at the restaurant. Someone has to physically mix that. Emulsions and mayonnaises, too – it’s easy to mix the fatty versions in huge vats or mixers, but we have to make ours in batches of 1L – and we do 17L of each sauce every other day. “
His theory clearly works – just ask chef Jesse, who has lost a whopping 40kg by opting for Michael’s healthier meals.
“It’s the reason I do this kind of thing – seeing it affect people is very rewarding,”he says. And it’s not just the eaters who are benefiting. “I get emails and questions all the time from people who have been so motivated by the Food Truck movement, they have started their own truck and do I have any advice.” And does he? “Don’t do it!” he jokes.
“It’s a tough way to make a living. Even if you make great food, you can never be sure how many people will turn up to buy your food when you park at the side of the road.” But as Michael embarks on his third series, he’s clearly proud of the legacy he’s creating – and is determined to continue to rise to the task. “This season, I’ve got a whole new set of challenges to any I’ve had previously,” he explains. “Trying to make healthy food from different countries is quite hard. I had to pick three dishes for the American challenge, for instance. Can you imagine how hard it was to pick just three?” It’s tricky, for sure. But with Michael, you just know he’ll do it. To use his own word, it’ll be “Beeeeautiful.”
PHOTOS: CAREN DAVIS.