Mat McLean shares his favourite things about the Waikato
A nudge from his mum and a burning desire to get out of Hamilton and head overseas pushed Mat McLean into the hospitality industry.
Looking at him now in his classy Hamilton restaurant Palate, a successful chef and polished professional, you would suspect a passion for food was fostered from an early age.
He left school with no particular direction in mind, took on various jobs, then did an electrical pre-apprenticeship. An accident put paid to taking it further.
"I was off work for a long time until mum gave me a bit of a prod and I started looking at courses at Waikato Polytechnic. I chose hospitality mainly because I wanted to travel."
Front of house sounded ideal, beverage credentials would guarantee bar work overseas. "But I really enjoyed cheffing and got more and more into it. I liked the strategies and the teamwork, and I've always been a real night person – you need a lot of energy for that."
The course was well structured, and he took inspiration from outstanding tutors from all over the world.
"I couldn't boil water when I went to polytech. I remember cooking a roast when I was flatting in the early days and calling Mum and getting her to talk me through it.
"I wasn't a natural. To me, cooking is really confidence based."
His life changed from then. He stayed in Hamilton until he had completed his formal chef's training, then he was on a plane to the UK, where he was to meet his partner Naomi.
Mat was away seven years, polishing his skills, gaining experience, revelling in it. Then came a visit to Hamilton from Melbourne. He spotted an available site on Victoria St, perfect for setting up his own restaurant. And in 2005, Palate opened for the first time.
"We were always going to come back to New Zealand when we were ready. It's a wonderful place and you really appreciate it when you've been away."
Palate's menu focuses on natural food and superb produce. "And I'm very mindful of offering wine and food as one. Wine and food matching. We already have two sommeliers, and I hope to do my qualifications this year or next. It's really important to me"
Mat buys locally as much as possible.
"I have good suppliers now. The small food producers in New Zealand are so focused on production that they are not very visible. That's where the New Zealand Food Producers Award will be helpful; it will get them out there.
"There's some really cool stuff out there but it's a crying shame more of our naturally produced produce is not made into more artisan stuff.
"There are great vegetables, great seafood is coming in from the west coast, people are making honey and cheeses. And that's not even touching the beef and lamb and duck producers.
"It's different in Europe. Each place in France has its own produce, they keep it really tight there. In a town in Burgundy I had ham hock and parsley terrine, they don't produce that anywhere else. I had Quiche Lorraine in Lorraine and it was incredible – I've never tasted anything like it. They don't change things, don't muck around with them, and that's what I think would be really great here."
On a personal level, life's changing for Mat and his family. Naomi, who took on the role of full-time mother when the kids were younger, is now at law school.
"She likes learning and extending her brain. She does 60-hours-a-week minimum, and it's dry reading. I find it as boring as hell," he says with a laugh... then starts covering his tracks.
"I like to live in the real world but I'm getting more interested – you have to do that in a solid relationship. I'm a pretty simple person really. If I can go fishing a couple of dozen times a year and spend time with the kids, I'm happy."
The couple has three children – Ruby, 10, Gemma, 9, and Will, 4. Mat will bring them down to Palate on a Sunday to "give Mum a bit of time out". The kids poke about, try new foods. "I'm convinced that willingness to try different things comes from the parents exposing them to it."
Mat's own enthusiasm came from his nan. "Her food was something to behold, and she encouraged me to try different things."
Environmental awareness is another passion, and food waste. Those principles are hard pressed in clan McLean, and Mat's pleased to see schools and kindergartens are reinforcing them.
"People buy off the shelf so they don't have to acknowledge it's an animal they're eating. Natural respect for animals is gone. If you are going to kill an animal it has to be for food, not fun."
BEST OF THE WAIKATO
Favourite coffee shop? How do you take your coffee?
White Picnic. A flat white. Love their pies.
Favourite brunch spot? What would you order?
Luke's Kitchen. The mussels with chilli and garlic.
Day's Park with Lola, our dog.
Best watering hole? What's your poison?
Staff drinks at Palate. A wine for all occasions.
Best date spot?
Hamilton Gardens for a picnic, I think.
The view from the top of the hill at the far end of Opito Bay overlooking the Mercury Islands.
Where would you take a tourist?
To Raglan or Coromandel.
A fond food memory from the region?
Cleaning and cooking fish my children and I have caught.
Favourite weekend/holiday getaway in the Waikato?
Matarangi Beach is a family favourite for relaxing, swimming and exploring.
What are you drinking?
Local craft beers from Shunters Yard. They are fantastic and made with passion.
What Waikato product/produce can you not do without this season?
Meyer Smoked Gouda cheese. Love it.
Favourite day trip with the kids?
To Raglan for fish and chips, exploring on the beach and icecreams.
What is Waikato's best-kept secret?
Can't say, sorry.