Chef returns with dream
Against the odds, chef Michael McMeeken plans to open a restaurant in Nelson.
Back from working 10 years in top overseas restaurants, including for Gordon Ramsey and Marcus Wareing in London and Thomas Keller in New York, Mr McMeeken wants to share his love affair with good cooking with Nelsonians.
He acknowledges his plan to open a restaurant in a recession is "crazy, of course".
However, it is not a rash one and he is not in a hurry.
First, he is doing his market research.
He has set up a Facebook page and delivered a leaflet to homes asking Nelsonians what style of eatery they would want to visit and come back to.
From there he will work out his menus, he has got his eye on a few premises, and he hopes to open within a year.
The 33-year-old with a head as clean shaven as Heston Blumenthal's and an accent that blurs his Southland burr with his more recently acquired London and Americanisms, now has plenty of experience to draw on.
Fresh out of his chef training at Southland polytech he first worked in Dunedin then at O'Connell Street Bistro in Auckland.
There, an older chef told him stories of his travels and lent him his cookbooks.
It was when he read Thomas Keller's French Laundry, a cookbook written by the American chef for chefs, that he caught the bug, falling in love with his food and style.
And so the young McMeeken set off with a dream of working for his hero, Keller, arriving at the Napa Valley restaurant with his backpack.
"I turned up on the doorstep with a very poor-looking resume, which I gave to a maitre d', expecting great things. I got an email back telling me to go get some experience."
He began by working at Daniel Boulud's Florida restaurant for two years, then decided he should work for Gordon Ramsey.
He got that job and worked under Marcus Wareing, starting at the bottom at Petrus restaurant, working his way up to be senior sous chef.
He confirms Ramsey's notoriously volatile reputation.
"It's what you see on TV minus the cameras."
Experiences he relates include a head chef breaking a commis chef's ankle by slamming it with a fridge door and telling him to harden up.
When Wareing and Ramsey fell out, and Wareing bought the restaurant, renamed Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, Mr McMeeken stuck with Wareing.
It was just as the world fell into recession, the kitchen was streamlined, and food normally wasted had to be used.
After four years he ventured off to New York, and this time he was accepted at Keller's Per Se restaurant, where the budget was limitless.
"The chefs did not know what they were spending because they did not want them to worry."
After two years he went with the head chef to open a fine dining Italian restaurant at the Lincon Centre, Lincoln Restaurante.
"I used to live in Brooklyn which is steeped in old Italian tradition, with the men making the pastas and sauces. It was so inspiring, that's what sparked the whole idea of opening a high standard small restaurant in Nelson."
He also fell in love, and so his wife, Tami, and their nearly 2-year-old son, Ryder, have also made the move to Nelson.
They had tossed up between her hometown in Oregon and Nelson but the drawcard of his parents and sister for family support in Nelson won out.
Since arriving last August and working in a Nelson restaurant, Mr McMeeken said Nelson had exceeded his expectations, from its diversity of people to its "incredible" food produce.
His wife describes his passion for food as obsessive. They are still unpacking his hundreds of cook books.
But he can see through the passion that Nelson is a seasonal town, with a drastic change from summer to winter demand.
Still, he believes there is room for another restaurant in Nelson, and that the key to success is in quality and keeping the locals happy so they keep coming back, giving their support during the quiet months.
That is why he wants to find out their preference, then he will come up with his business plan to put to potential investors in his dream, and of course, the bank.
To give feedback on what style of restaurant or cafe you prefer go to facebook.com/nelsonchef
- © Fairfax NZ News
What do you think Nelson's motto should be?Related story: (See story)