It's the middle of the day in downtown Auckland and Ben Bayly is at the door of his restaurant, The Grove, saying goodbye to his agent, LA style. Welcome to the world of the celebrity chef. He watches her go and looks surprised for a moment, then says something about how he can't believe he's become this guy, then he grins and shakes his head at the madness of it all, then he's off. ''Right now, I'm in the trenches,'' he says, over and over. His working life is about as busy as you can get ''with a tsunami of awesome shit,'' and the wave just keeps getting bigger.
Ben Bayly is a rock-star executive chef at two of the country's finest restaurants. You can picture him back and forthing between the two (they are within running distance of each other in the CBD) with eyes on both kitchens. Eyes in the back of his head. Hustling. Juggling staff and plates.
Like most sleep-deprived chefs, he makes a good coffee. But his is cold by the time he gets to drink it, because he just quickly has to do this, this and this. He moves like he's on hot plates. ''Sorry,'' he says, ''be with you in a tick.'' Then through the door comes a potential customer and Bayly politely labours over a table plan to find room when there is none and takes down the guy's number and checks his availability and generally bends over backwards. The customer asks Bayly ''are you the guy who won chef of the year'' and Bayly mumbles ''yeah''. The awards mean something to him, but in front of you and me, he's just the good dude tryna get us a table.
This year, Ben Bayly won Cuisine Magazine chef of the year, and with awards come bums on seats. The Grove and Baduzzi get plenty of those. Soon the masses will know him as the guy on My Kitchen Rules New Zealand, alongside chef Gareth Stewart (the Viaduct's Soul Bar and Bistro). I want to know if he'll be good cop or bad cop.
''I get asked that all the time and... it's kind of a stupid question,'' he says.
He's right, it was lame. I say something about dramatic chefs being synonymous now with cooking shows, thanks to Mr Ramsay.
''No one wants to be the bad guy,'' he says, but he will be one if he has to.
"Both Gareth and I cut our teeth in those London restaurants - if something's not good, we say, and if something is great, we say.''
His kitchens, by the sound of things, are run in a similar way.
Ben Bayly grew up in Te Awamutu, his dad's side full of dairy farmers and his mum's full of Irish Catholics. He remembers baking cakes at 10 from the Edmonds Cookbook and being useless at it and his mum shipping him off to her friend Gail Bryant, who was known round town as a fantastic home baker - ''she taught me how to cream butter and sugar... you know what I mean?'' - where he learned the fundamentals and ''it just progressed from there.''
''We'd go to Valentines for birthdays, we didn't have any culinary highlights, we never had the money to.'' At Te Awamutu College, his economics teacher asked what he wanted to do and Bayly mentioned becoming a chef. ''Next thing ya know, he's rung up all the restaurants in Te Awamutu,'' and the teacher found Bayly an after-school job as a dish lackey at the since-departed Taylors Restaurant. He'd show up covered in dirt from rugby on the weekends to find stacks of dirty dishes from a full buffet lunch crowd and he'd work his arse off to get them done before the chefs came back to prep for the dinner lot.
The chefs at Taylors saw something in Bayly and gave him a crack at making desserts, ''and I went down like a sack of shit, I was useless, y'know? I was young, I didn't know anything.'' His culinary world amplifies at around 19. He'd studied cooking at Waikato Polytech, won a national competition for young chefs and was given a scholarship that sent him to Providence, Rhode Island - his first trip overseas - where he met George Calombaris of MasterChef Australia fame.
He goes to cook with Calombaris in Melbourne and spends the next decade cooking London. ''It's a brutal, brutal environment, it's like SAS cooking, it was highly aggressive mentally and physically, the service was like going to war.'' Then France, where all he could say to begin with was oui, bonjour, merci, non. ''You wouldn't know what people were saying, but you'd hear words and you'd know they were taking the piss outta you.''
Soon he learnt those words that belong in kitchens, but not outside them. ''If you said some of those words to a French woman it would be, careful! She'll throw the table at you - that sorta thing.'' And when he left France after three years he was fluent. ''I always have several French people working in both restaurants, I love it, I think it's great.''
In fact, he estimates that out of 25 chefs in both his kitchens, only 6 to 8 of them are Kiwis. ''In general, you want to target foreigners who come here and have that experience. The young ones that come in here have a heart attack, y'know? You kinda wanna bring them in slowly to this environment and look after them rather than chucking them in, y'know what I mean?''
It sounds hardcore. I want to know what Ben Bayly's staff thinks of him. ''D'y'wanna ask one of them?'' He's all over the idea. He hurries into the kitchen where a bunch of chefs are prepping away nicely and he drags a poor sod back with him - ''Be honest'' he says - and he hurries off to interview a new chef down the back of the restaurant.
Head chef Michael Shatura laughs and presses his fingertips into his eyes, shaking his head as if to say, why me? He's a big guy, half-Russian, half-Kiwi, with a heavily accented English that's good enough. I ask him what his boss Ben Bayly is like. He laughs and shakes his head in the why me way again.''He did say to be honest, right?'' He's mostly kidding - he says Bayly is ''awesome'' and that they have been mates for the last seven years - though he does admit there can be ''really, really ugly nights'' in the kitchen, nights when Bayly stops being Ben and becomes chef.
''He's an extremely hard worker and it motivates the whole kitchen,'' says Shatura. ''Sometimes it can be hard to handle, but without a doubt it's all about standards and when he's hard to handle, it means the standards are dropping.
''It can get quite loud as well.''
I ask if that means Bayly is a shouter.
''He is very good at it.''
Shatura says it's a testament to Bayly that staff come to Baduzzi and The Grove and they stay. ''After this place, where am I gonna go? I don't wanna go anywhere where the standard is lower than this.''
Later, Bayly says his staff embrace the work ethic in the kitchen because it makes them top of their game. He's the coach that gives his players a bollocking at half time so they'll go out there and give it all they've got.
''It's hard work that pays off,'' says Shatura. ''There is no room for laziness here and you get spotted really fast, but when you achieve something it's big .th.th. all of a sudden we're crazy busy now, like, craaazy.''
The tsunami of awesome shit has meant Bayly hasn't seen much of his family of late - his wife, sweethearts since 16, and two girls.
''I'm a crap dad at the moment. But I've got a plan.''
He says being a chef is like being a rugby player, in that there's a short life on the battleground and he's gotta find his way out. My Kitchen Rules will help. The world of the celebrity chef.
I ask if we will see his mug on a bottle of mayo in the coming years.
''No way. It will be something with integrity and honesty.''
Sounds about right.
See Denise Irvine's Stir It Up in for more on Ben Bayly.
My Kitchen Rules New Zealand starts on Sunday, August 24, TV One.
- Waikato Times