Michael Van de Elzen interview

by Fiona Rae / 10 June, 2011
Local telly’s newest chef talks about The Food Truck, which starts on Sunday, in which he cooks healthy fast food. No, really.

How did the Food Truck idea come about? The original idea came from James [Anderson] and Nick [Ward], the producers of Two Heads. They thought up the concept of making fast food better and they interviewed 30 or maybe 40 chefs, and I ended up getting the role through my wit and charisma and terribly good looks … I dunno. Part of the interview was make a burger as fast as you possibly can and then go out on the streets of Mt Eden and make them want your burger more than a McDonald’s cheeseburger. I made my burger from scratch in six minutes, it wasn’t my best effort, but damn, it was tasty and everyone went for my burger over the cheeseburger, so it was a little success.

The truck itself is almost like another character. It really is. We didn’t end up deciding whether it was a male or a female, and we didn’t even give it a name, but it is a great truck. It’s so noisy, we’d drive around Auckland and as soon as it even saw a hill, the noise from the engine just quadrupled. Going over the Harbour Bridge, we had to take a run up. There was quite a bit of filming out of Auckland – we went to Mangawhai and Whangamata – and we had to put the truck on to a transporter. But that truck drew so much attention. We spent a week up in Mangawhai Heads doing the fish and chips episode and people saw the truck and they were waving – they weren’t waving at me, they were waving at the truck. The only thing we didn’t have was a catchy horn. The truck’s in storage now waiting to be released again.

What year is it? 1970 Bedford. When I first saw it, it was over in the fitters and it was a bare shell and they were like, “how are we going get a cooker, a fridge and everything in the back?” and we had to do a little bit of jiggling. But we just kept it really simple, we put a 900mm wide cooker in there, we put a reasonable-sized commercial fridge in there. And that was pretty much it.

You could cook up anything in there? Completely. We initially bought a commercial flat plate and a commercial deep fryer and somebody turned the deep fryer on and there wasn’t any oil in it and it blew a fuse, and we were like, “well, why do we need this deep fryer?” The whole thing about it is to take stuff out of the fryer and make it better and make it healthier, so let’s just forget the deep fryer and go without it and I think that was turning point: let’s just have cooker, a fridge, and an oven. We put a steamer on top, and for the pizza episode we brought in bench-top pizza cookers, so that everything that is cooked in the Food Truck can be cooked in your own house. If I can show you how to make these things just as fast, why go to a takeaway shop?

You’re not the first chef to try to make healthier versions of dishes, but do you think people really want alternative versions of their favourite fast foods? Isn’t that the point, that they’re not good for you and full of fat? We didn’t set out to say, “don’t have fish and chips out of a fryer, don’t have burgers with cheese, don’t have pizzas.” That wasn’t our intention – our intention was to go out and say, there are alternatives, not all our fish and chips have to come out of a deep fryer, we can have it steamed, we can have it baked, we can have it pan-fried, there are alternatives. It’s funny, I’ve been asked to make the Double Down healthier – but the whole point of the Double Down is that it’s not healthy, and that’s the attraction of it.

TV cooks have never been more popular, and we have a lot of access to good food and people to tell us how to cook it, but we’re in an obesity epidemic. What’s going on? Fast food giants are just getting bigger and our lives are just getting busier. You know, I run two business, I’ve got 40 staff, I consult for four or five other restaurants, I do The Food Truck and I have a new baby girl, but I’ve still got time to go home and cook a quick dinner. I’m not going to labour over the stove for three or four hours, but I’m going to make a one-pot wonder. It’s showing people that you can make things quickly. We’re not going the Ready Steady Cook way either; it’s let’s make good food really fast, really simple, really tasty, let’s make it cheap if we can, because everything we made on The Food Truck we had to go out and sell. It wasn’t just about here’s an alternative but it’s going to cost you $72 for those fish and chips. It’s here’s an alternative and it’s going to cost you $6. Even if it is a little bit more expensive, you know what’s in it.

Which was the most difficult of the fast foods to make more healthy? The Mexican had its challenges, just because you don’t have to do too much to Mexican fast food to make it a lot better, you basically take the sour cream and the salt and the cheese away, and you’ve actually got a reasonably healthy cuisine, but in saying that, Mexico’s got the highest obesity rate in the world. How do you figure that? I went to Mexico City last year and everything you eat on the street is just loaded with cheese. So in one way it was the easiest, but in one way it was the hardest, because it is such a simple cuisine, all I had to do was take the cheese out and put lots of flavour back into it, put lots of coriander back into it, put lots of iceberg into it, and it made a real genuinely tasty fast food that was really healthy. We had the best result with Mexican and with fish and chips. I did find Chinese quite difficult, I struggled initially because I was trying to make Chinese for Chinese and then it dawned on me, why don’t I just make my take on Chinese? I’m not trying to make dumplings better than they are, or noodles better than they make, I’m just doing my take on what I think a great healthy fast Chinese takeout should be like.

You tend to think that Chinese is quite healthy because of all the veges. In the experimental faze of that show, we went to three or four different Chinese and we went to Noodle Boxes, and yes, there was a lot of vegetables in there, but there was also a lot of sugar and a lot of salt.

Sugar? Everyone loves their sweet and sour. We actually recreated sweet and sour, but we made it a lot healthier.

Which was the easiest? I think for me, probably the fish and chips and the pies. Fish and chips because it is so generic. Battered fish, fried chips, slice of lemon if you’re lucky. I love fish, I love to cook fish, my restaurant’s most popular dishes are fish. It was probably the easiest in regards to the experimental stage and the three or four options I gave away, everyone came back and said, “this is really cool”. Some didn’t like the steamed version; I did a steamed fish that was cooked in paper. I had fennel, I took a tartare sauce, but I took the mayonnaise component out of that tartare sauce, so it was like a dry gribiche, chopped eggs, parsley, capers, gherkins with a little bit of avocado oil and a little bit of salt and pepper. That’s your flavour enhancer, you sprinkle that over the top with a little bit of crème fraiche. Then I also had some finely-sliced jersey bennes in amongst it, so that’s your fish and chips, but it was very difficult to eat with your hand, so I had to put a fork in there.

Did you get any negative responses? Not all of them went to plan, the Chinese was a complete disaster. The burgers didn’t really go to plan, just because of where we were located – we set up next to the White Lady in downtown Auckland. We were serving to the public at 11 o’clock on a Friday night – they didn’t want anything healthy. “I want fat! I want cheese!” The Chinese had a little bit of a negative response, just because they didn’t understand what I was trying to do. They recognised a spring roll, they recognised a steamed dumpling, but they didn’t recognise my sweet and sour pork on chopsticks. They didn’t recognise my cold egg noodles with crispy squid. We had a lot of people coming up and saying, “that’s too expensive”, or “that’s not a hotdog”. Some days it sold in a flash, some days it didn’t. Southern fried chicken – it took us almost all day to sell what we had in the truck. Do you care if you’re eating free-range organic chicken? Not really. Will you pay $11 for two pieces of chicken, some citrus mash, a bit of coleslaw with almonds running through it and a homemade lemonade? No, I’m going to go next door and get a big bowl of deep fried chicken for $6.50. So we did get our criticism, but most of it was at night-time; people were not in the mood for anything healthy at 11 o’clock at night when they’d been out on the booze.

You’d just about need security wouldn’t you? Almost. If I’m going to open up a health food shop, it’s not going to be on Queen St or Fort St, I can tell you that

Would you happily serve some of these things in your own restaurant? At the moment we have one of the Chinese episode dishes on the menu at the moment – the chicken and tofu tortellinis, that was on a roasted miso eggplant puree and over the top we’ve got crispy leeks.

Is that a bit jazzed up from the TV show? No. The price is jazzed up. You have to pay for service. It is jazzed up a little bit, but not tremendously, only plating-wise, the ingredients and taste is exactly the same.

What’s your favourite thing to cook at home? I love cooking with the Webber [barbecue]. The combination of the smoke and the pressure when you’ve got it all closed up and the dripping of fat down onto those coals and transferring into smoke and coming back up and flavouring whatever you’re cooking is just awesome. My favourite meal at the moment would have to be beer-can chicken. You basically take a beer can and empty a little bit out and you put the can into the inside casing of the chicken and then you stand the chicken up on the can and you put the lid onto the barbecue and all that moisture inside that beer can helps to keep inside of the chicken moist as the outside of it cooks. It takes about an hour, and then you carve it and I serve that with a mushroom risotto and a fresh rocket salad with parmesan.

Does it taste like beer? No not at all. You get a little bit of that yeasty flavour coming through, but it’s mainly for the moisture. You don’t have to put beer in there, you could put ginger ale in there, you could put lemonade, you could put Coca-Cola. What the can does is twofold, it helps keep the centre of it moist, and it keeps the chicken standing up. It works better when you get the larger 440ml cans; the smaller ones, they tend to fall over. I saw a genius invention in Bunnings, it was a beer can holder, so you put the can inside the holder and then the chicken on top of that. Brilliant.

That is so blokey, who invented it? Probably someone in Australia, they do like their beer.

THE FOOD TRUCK, TV1, Sunday, 7.00pm.
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