Michael Meredith is one of New Zealand's truly great chefs, a magician who first sets you at ease with the solicitous attention of the staff at his gently beautiful restaurant, then dazzles you with unexpected feats of flavour and texture. Mr Morris, which opened in the former Cafe Hanoi space at Britomart late last year, has already received a perfect score from Jesse Mulligan at Viva, and rave reviews from guests. Britomart's Melinda Williams caught up with Michael about how he creates his dishes, why giving back to the community through charity dinners is so important to him, and the special delivery that arrived in his home after Christmas. Scroll down for the interview.
Melinda Williams: Hi Michael. How has the year kicked off for you?
Michael Meredith: So, 2021 has had a good start so far. We opened quite late last year, around the time of Christmas, so it’s been busy. And we’ve just had a baby [Michael and partner in business and life Claire Baudinet], so that’s been busy too. It doesn’t give you much time to sit back and relax.
Congratulations! Things seem likely remain busy then.
Yeah, everything unfolds in its own time. You want to make sure you balance things out between work and having time for the family and things outside of work. It’s about trying to get that balance right.
I’m trying to do better at that but I’m not quite living up to it yet.
I think last year was hard and everyone’s trying to catch up again. In the back of your mind, there’s always the feeling that something could change. I think people are optimistic but at the same time, there’s a reality that things can change. We all have to make sure we’re doing our bit to make it a good time on both sides, work and home.
So you opened in late November –
Yeah, I think late November. I can’t even really remember now!
It gets fuzzy fast, huh? The reviews so far have been incredibly positive. What feedback has been most rewarding for you?
The whole experience has been rewarding. We’ve had a lot of great feedback, some positive reviews. I think, for us, there’s a lot that goes on behind the house. When all those things are working together and gelling, it makes the whole experience for the staff and the restaurant better. So internally I feel like if we’re operating well and everything’s in place, the experience is effortless in a way. You’re doing what you love to do.
The room, itself – Nat and the team did a really great job with the fit out and the direction that we talked about. The colour scheme, the building itself – it’s hard to go wrong when you have a space like that. The character is already there. So it was easier to see the direction the restaurant would go. We’ve very happy with the outcome and I think that’s reflected in the experience that people have when they come in. It’s very warm, very inviting; the space creates that sense. And the food and service add to the atmosphere and the experience. There’s been a lot of openings around Auckland lately and people are looking to try new things. I’m just glad we’re on that radar at the moment.
You’ve recently held the third of your monthly charity dinners. How have they been?
It’s something that quietly goes on. We’ve been working with Starship, it’s a good charity to start with, and we’ve worked with them before. For me and Claire, we wanted to do that through the business on our own terms. Being able to do it through your business is quite rewarding, for ourselves and for the staff. It’s going well and I feel it’s something we’ll get better at. We have other social things we want to do as well. It all works when the community gets behind it. With Starship, a lot of people have had experiences with them in things that they’ve gone through in their lives, so there are a lot of personal relationships from that. When people come to the restaurant [for the dinners] you can see they’re really happy to donate because they’ve been there and they know what Starship stands for and what they’ve done for their kids and the community. When you see those connections happening, you feel quite contented. Long-term, for us, it’s something that we want to build on and do a lot more of.
Are the menus at the dinners based off your regular menu, or something special?
The menu changes all the time. We have a few suppliers who come on board to supply all the ingredients, so when it’s coming up, we format the menu and contact them, and they’re happy to donate the ingredients. It’s a good way for the kitchen guys to come up with ideas. It’s a three-course menu, so it’s quite easy to put together, and it changes for every dinner. We’re aided by a lot of support from our suppliers, who give us a lot of freedom to change the menu.
On the topic of experimentation in the kitchen, you’re known for combining unexpected flavours. Is that an intuitive ability, or the result of methodical experimentation? How does that happen?
I guess it’s experience, in a sense. Everyone has a different food experience, and a different way of seeing food – textures, flavours – combined together. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s always a reflection of the way we do things. I feel like what it comes down to is what your own personal food experience has been. When you look at New Zealand and the diversity of the food we eat and the influences of what we eat, all of those things that combine in chefs and people who love to come up with things you want to try. Often, you’re playing texture off each other and putting in flavours that will work. The produce, what’s in season, gives you inspiration for what you put in and techniques and flavours that will work with that.
Behind all of the madness there’s a kind of feel for how things should eat. Sometimes it’s just trial and error. You can do a dish in your head and plate it up but somehow it doesn’t work, it needs something else. So the most important part of the development of any menu is that you have to eat the dish. That completely changes how you see it. In your head, you think things are going to work, flavours are going to work, but when you eat it, it tells you. “It’s going to need this, and a bit more of this. A bit of acid, a bit of texture.” And sometimes dishes are just - you just have a good idea and you know it’s going to work. If you have a good team around you, everyone has an influence in certain dishes. That makes it easier for things to come to fruition.
You mentioned all the diverse influences we have here, and a lot of chefs love to travel to develop influence. Is that something you like to do, and if so, how’s it been being stuck in New Zealand for the last year?
The last three years I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of time off from the industry, so we did a lot of travelling. We went everywhere. So it was a big input. You’re always downloading things when you’re eating out. It’s like any good memory, it sort of stays with you and then when you have a good meal you think about those flavours a lot and you understand those flavours very well, and in the future you can always use it as an inspiration. For all chefs, or most chefs I know, we love travelling. It’s a way of getting outside yourself, experiencing a different culture, different ingredients, because the world is like – you’ve seen it yourself – there’s a lot out there. You think you know food but you don’t really know food. You go into some corner of the world and discover a spice or a way of cooking. Those things are exciting if you’re into food.
So I guess, yeah, with the non-travelling… [laughs ruefully]. We’ve been missing it. We were lucky to have those three years travelling. New Zealand, we’re getting our own culture and our own cuisine, we’ve got amazing produce here and a lot of good suppliers. I think we’re creating something quite nice and special here, and it’s great to be part of that story. It’s an exciting time to be here.
What have been the big changes you’ve seen in your part of the industry – it's not exactly fine dining, I guess, but elevated hospitality – since you closed your last restaurant, Merediths, in 2017?
Yeah, fine dining, it’s always going to be there. There are some great restaurants in Auckland and New Zealand that do that. But what I’ve noticed is the casual restaurant. There are a lot of precincts in Auckland that are opening up to the younger operators, who have their focus on beverage as well as food, for younger people who are going out more and wanting accessibility, interesting food, tasty food. So I think, going forward, there’s a lot of casualness in how we approach food, with people eating out more. But there’s also like… the chefs out there who are very technically driven quite purist in what they want to achieve and want to create that atmosphere, that whole experience, a different level of service and engagement from the customer. So I feel there’s a good balance and I don’t think one will outdo the other.
I guess with Mr Morris, we’re trying to have both. We don’t want to have that fine dining experience – there’s elements of our service and how we do things that have that format, but that comes within hospitality. If you’re in hospitality for a long time, that’s why you stay in hospitality. When people come out, they’re looking for an experience, and you’re creating it for them. Food and service has to go hand in hand. It’s not just about the food, or the drinks, it’s about the whole experience. When you have that, it creates something quite memorable, and people will come back for it.
Mr Morris, Cnr Galway &, Commerce Street, Britomart