Simplify, focus on what matters and do the best with what you have — these are the life lessons that food loving family the Van de Elzen's share with former OHbaby! Editor Ellie Gwilliam.
Passionate people are easy to spot. They exude charisma and positivity. They think about the future and what they can do today to improve tomorrow. I had Michael Van de Elzen pegged as a passionate type of guy after watching hours of Food Truck, a favourite with all three of my kids, and as I sat at the Van de Elzen dining table I quickly realised my impression was spot on. The whole Van de Elzen family is passionate. Mike and his wife Belinda (Bee) are passionate about family and food and good, clean living. Their delightful daughters, four-year-old Hazel and two-year-old Ivy, are passionate about their Mum and Dad, the treasures in their bedrooms, and Queen Elsa and Princess Anna on the day I visited. Probably most days, actually.
Mike grew up on a chicken farm in Auckland's Henderson. While his friends thought he was spoilt to acquire a motorbike and later a car as a teenager, it was Mike’s hard-earned wages from shovelling chicken poo in the family business that paid for his new wheels, not his parents.
Mike puts his culinary success down to hard work as well. And if he wasn’t cooking, he’d love to be building. “Cooking is a bit like carpentry, you take raw materials and make something out of them. They’re both crafts where you use tools to carve raw products in to things of beauty,” says Mike. However, Mike found the camaraderie and energy of a professional kitchen addictive and from humble beginnings as a 14-year-old dishwasher at a local restaurant his cooking career began.
He met fellow chef Bee while working at Antiks, a brasserie in Mt Eden. “All the other ladies in the kitchen loved Mike, but I found him a bit irritating at first,” laughs Bee. She soon came round though and the couple have been married since 2006.
Early in their careers they both spent time working in the UK, the highlight of which was catering for the opening of the Tate Modern – a 24-hour marathon effort where Mike headed a team of 140 chefs catering to 5000 guests, including Her Majesty the Queen.
In 2003 they returned to Auckland with the dream of owning their own restaurant and in mid-2004 they opened Molten in Mt Eden. Mike was in the kitchen and Bee front of house, a role she worked right up to a week before having Hazel.
Multiplying the recipe
Mike and Bee say it was great to have their own restaurant and that they thrive when working together as a team, but oven timers were ticking in more ways than one and the couple felt it was time to start a family. Several years later and still no pregnancy, advice ranged from the well-meaning-but-not-so-helpful “just relax” through to “go and see Richard Fisher.”
So, in the middle of their relentless hospitality schedules, the couple found themselves in the office of Fertility Associates’ Dr Richard Fisher. Tests revealed that a baby was not going to happen the straightforward way. Bee’s fallopian tubes were irreparably blocked and IVF was recommended.
Facing at least a year's wait on the publicly funded list the Van de Elzens decided to pay for their first round of IVF. Ten eggs were collected and three were fertilised. Devastatingly, of the three resulting embryos, the first one implanted but Bee later suffered a miscarriage, the second didn’t survive the thawing process and the third embryo didn’t implant.
The couple braced themselves and entered a publicly funded round two, only to suffer yet another disastrous outcome: not one of the 10 retrieved eggs fertilized, an outcome only 2% of IVF patients will face.
Bee admits, “It felt so unfair. I found it especially difficult when pregnant women came in to the restaurant where I was still working front of house.” There were many tears and the day Mike was found crying in the kitchen the couple were sent home by the sous chef.
Another round of IVF was recommended but Mike and Bee called a Time Out and focussed on making lifestyle changes. Bee joined a support group, had acupuncture treatment, took Chinese herbal medicines and Mike took vitamins. They changed their diet, increased their exercise and cut out alcohol and caffeine. They removed all chemicals from their home, replacing all cleaning products with those from ecostore.
They also addressed their work-load, promoting Molten’s sous chef to head chef in order to reduce their hours at work. “This meant less profit, but having a family became a priority,” explains Mike.
The emotional strain had taken a toll. “It was so hard, the miscarriage was devastating. IVF was the biggest test in our life so far. You want something so badly, you want to reach out and grab it but you can’t,” says Bee.
Bee realised that finding ways to assert some control helped. There was a particular embryologist Bee wanted for her next round so she spoke up, something that may not have come naturally. She would tell herself, “I’m in charge of IVF, it’s not in charge of me.”
Consolidated and refreshed, Mike and Bee embarked on round three of IVF. This time there was cause for celebration. Bee remembers getting the news that they had five viable embryos. “I couldn’t take the phone call though, I made Mike answer it.”
One embryo was initially put back and successfully implanted. While things were touch and go at the start of the pregnancy, with lower than normal hCG readings, nine months later their precious and delightful Hazel arrived.
"When Hazel was born I felt like my dream had come true and quite honestly it had! I had longed to become a mum and create a family for Mike and I for so long, and when she did arrive, bonnie and healthy, I felt like the luckiest woman in the world," Bee shares.
When Hazel was just over a year old Mike and Bee decided to try for a baby again, using the remaining embryos. Their second embryo didn’t implant and their third didn’t thaw, but their fourth resulted in the charming Ivy. “I said to Mike, ‘I know I’m pregnant’. Sometimes you just know," says Bee.
"Hazel was a bonus but having Ivy was definitely just the icing on the cake. I feel so lucky as I think about them growing up together, being the best of friends and knowing they are MY girls! It was worth the pain and heartache that had tested me time and again.
"My fertility nurse told me that having two babies off one round of IVF is very, very lucky. I definitely feel someone was looking out for me," says Bee.
Leave to rise
Bee and Mike share their fertility story to encourage others on a similar journey.
“We need to talk about our feelings and encourage each other,” says Bee, who credits the amazing nurses at Fertility Associates for always helping her find something to giggle about.
Bee also recommends The Infertility Handbook: A Guide to Making Babies, by Jacqueline Tomlins, as she found the positivity of the real life stories hugely encouraging.
Mike's advice for those facing infertility and IVF is to "declutter yourself." He says life is so busy you have to "make time for IVF, put your life and career on hold if you need to.”
Bee is now at home with the girls, while also helping Mike with behind the scenes work of restaurants present and future, and there is never a dull moment for the Van de Elzen family.
Before the couple sold Molten, Mike was phoned for an interview to front the TV show Food Truck. He thought he was the only one but it turned out most of his ‘hospo’ industry friends had been asked to audition, too. The job was Mike’s though and he quickly became one of New Zealand’s most recognised chefs. Kids especially love him and still have no qualms about coming over to say "Hi" when they see him in the street or catch a glimpse of him in the kitchen of their latest restaurant, Boy and Bird, which opened on Ponsonby Rd in August last year.
Food Truck marked the start of a new season for Mike and Bee with a focus on making healthier food more accessible. Mike may have moved on from the truck but the ethos remains. It is at the core of his latest book, Fast: Good Home Cooking (we feature an extract on page 130) and the recipes have busy families in mind. “Bee and I are busy people. We understand busy. 4:00pm is a challenging time at our house, too. But we always cook dinner for our kids and eat together when we can," says Mike.
The Van de Elzens are passionate that future generations will think more carefully about nutrition. Bee points out, “We need to teach our kids to question ‘where does food come from?’ Anyone can have a vegetable garden, even if it is just in a pot. It’s about educating kids, but parents need to be educated too, as they do the buying and cooking.”
The couple are also adamant that it is time the government intervened. “Coke should not be cheaper than water in the supermarket. Things have got to change or more young people will die of preventable diseases,” Bee says.
However, the Van de Elzens are keeping it real and accept everything in moderation. “We buy fish and chips sometimes and eat pizza. But we make pizza from scratch. And anyone can cook their own fish and chips, too," says Mike.
And how about Hazel and Ivy’s dining preferences? Mike has been surprised by all the different flavours their kids will eat and has noticed that it’s only recently Hazel is getting a bit fussy, probably due to peer influence. Admittedly Mum and Dad find kids’ birthday parties troublesome for the presence of the dreaded ‘s’ word – sugar.
“You can’t change what they like, kids will always like sweet stuff, but we can make it better,” says Mike, which explains why they go to the extra effort of making homemade ice blocks and fruit cordials to add to soda water.
Life in the country holds strong appeal for the couple, but as idyllic and ‘River Cottagey’ as that may sound, their rural dream involves more hard work – another restaurant and a cooking school are on the drawing board. Most importantly though, a rural address offers a greater sense of the togetherness that comes from combining home and income. “School holidays and weekends – Mum and Dad were always there. I would be beside Dad, working in the sheds, riding on the tractor,” Mike reminisces.
And my last question, just because I am very nosey – what’s always in the Van de Elzen fridge? The answer, a universally achievable “cold water”. The other fridge staples were reportedly fruit and butter, which I also found very encouraging.
How about the pantry then? Crackers, not biscuits. And of course, Mike reminds me, you can make your own crackers.
Mike and Bee’s good food tips:
• Make food fun – get kids in the kitchen and involved in the preparation and cooking of food.
• Have them help plant vegetables or a herb garden. “Hazel pulls a potato out of the ground and her face just lights up,” Bee says.
• Avoid waste by making sure to use up any leftovers.
• Learn about different methods of cooking different things. “Mike and I are big on one pot wonders.”
• Try to eat fresh produce in season, it's cheaper and better for the planet.
Photography: Sam Mothersole