Interview with Michael Van de Elzen
How has the whole Food Truck experience been for you?
It's been great. The Food Truck itself really does have its own personality and you really get an understanding of it when you have to drive it somewhere long distance.
So did you actually have to do the driving yourself?
A lot of it. We had a production manager who would do the driving but a lot of the time it was me driving. I actually really enjoyed driving it. It does require a little bit of patience.
When we went up to Mangawhai Heads, where we filmed the fish and chip episode, people that saw [The Food Truck] weren't quite sure what it was. "Can I get ice cream off you? Or can I buy a hot dog? Or hot chips, hot pies? I dunno?"
The graphics and colour on it really attracted people. It was just perfect. To the point where you'd be driving down the road and people would just stop and stare at you driving past.
What was the most surprising thing you learnt about fast food while filming the show?
We didn't go out with the intention of making current fast food look bad. We didn't go out going "You guys are bad, you're making bad food and we're going to address that." We went out there to say, "Hey, there are options." When I started looking into fish and chips, we went up to Mangawhai Heads and went to three or four fish and chip shops. You could walk into nearly every fish and chip shop in Auckland or New Zealand and the exact same things would be on the menu.
Why can't we get our fish pan fried? Why can't we have our fish oven baked, steamed or cooked under the grill? There are a million things I can do with fish. Yes, putting it through batter and into the deep fry is a fantastic thing and it's so crispy on the outside. But there are options.
Some things were easier and some things were harder. I found the Chinese episode quite difficult for me to actually come up with my take on Chinese food, whereas fish and chips was very easy.
In every episode I set out with the four points - it's got to be healthy, it's got to be fast, it's got to be tasty and it's got to be cheaper. As long I could address every single one of those then I was doing the best I possibly could.
Is there a big difference between cooking for customers at your restaurant and customers out on the road with Food Truck?
Yes. Cooking in the restaurant, the food is a lot more complex and it takes a little bit longer to make things. But I wouldn't say there's any less care that goes into because that's not true. We put in so much care into the food that we put into The Food Truck. But the thing about The Food Truck is that people are ordering off you and then standing there waiting for you and you're taking their money, so it's got to be fast. In a restaurant if you're running 10 minutes behind it's quite easy to send them out a glass of champagne or a little fast course just to keep them happy. People come in and they don't want their meal in four and a half mins, they're happy to stay there all night.
Whereas in the Food Truck it's, "I want my meal and I want it now." If you watch some of the episodes, particularly on pizzas, people were waiting an hour and a half then they got to the end of the queue and I'd sold out. If that had happened in a mainstay pizza place, the management would have been fired. So it had to be fast and you really had to move in a small confined space, extremely quickly, so you had to be so organised.
Has being part of The Food Truck changed your approach to cooking in your restaurant at all?
Not really. It certainly changed my approach to the way I see fast food. I really do hope that The Food Truck will make a few people stand up and look at what they're doing in their own operation. But in regards to what I'm doing in the restaurant, probably not. We are featuring a few of the dishes I've done in The Food Truck on the restaurant's menu. At the moment we've got one of the Chinese dishes on the menu. So I might just go through and preview some of the meals on the menu.
We made all the food very accessible to the average Joe Blow at home in their own kitchen. I didn't use anything molecular or anything that was over and above your average kitchen equipment. Everybody can make this at home. But if I offer it on the menu, some people might be intrigued into it.
How difficult is it to get people to change their attitudes to fast food? To make it healthier, I mean.
It changed a lot on the different types of food we had or the different type of fast food we were doing. Some things were quite easy to change, like hot pies were really easy. People were really open to trying something new and trying something tasty. Whereas on the other side, with hot dogs, I struggled with making a hot dog that people would recognise and want to eat as opposed to the good old classic American hot dog that everyone knows. The adults would be more willing to change than the kids when it came to hot dogs. The kids just wanted American hot dogs. That's what they had in their mind and that's want they wanted. I specifically made a hot dog for the kids, a chicken and green vegetable sausage with 50 per cent chicken and 50 per cent vegetables that was curled around like a lollypop sausage. They kind of looked at and went "A lollypop sausage, that's a little bit too weird for me. I'm just going to go for the American hot dog." But then the adults were totally open to change.
But then for the fish and chips, we made a goujon on a skewer and wrapped it with potatoes, so it was like fish and chips in a different sort of manner and the kids loved it. So they were open on some things and then on others, they were totally "No, I don't want that."
It changes a lot depending on where you are and location. Our Southern Fried Chicken was a hard sell. People didn't really care that the chicken was free range and organic. They just looked at "how much am I going to get for my money?" And that's going to take a long time to change.
Do you think that New Zealanders will take this to heart and start to change their approach?
I'd be stoked if I had a fish and chip shop ring me up to say "Your goddamned Food Truck! People are coming in wanting their fish steamed and I've had to do it now because that's what people want", then there's a little victory. By showing people that there are options - it doesn't necessarily have to take too much more effort and it doesn't have to cost anymore. It costs less to put a piece of fish inside some paper with a little bit of fennel than to put it through a batter with expensive oil. By giving people options and showing them, yes, I think people will go in and people will demand. Like pizzas, not everything has to be covered in cheese.
Which festival or venues was the most receptive to your project?
Probably the hot pies and also the pizzas. And a lot of it was down to location. Because, say Chinese in particular, we had over 350 portions of food, the most we had in one day. We had no choice where we had to park and we were food outlet number 61 so everyone had to walk through 60 food outlets before they got to The Food Truck. By the time people got to us they already had something in their hand. Also the Chinese people didn't understand what we were doing. They didn't understand the concept. There was something they didn't recognise so they just walked away. Out of 350 portions we sold 30. That was our low point.
Our high point was hot pies. We had over 100 pies and we sold out in 25-30 mins. So it worked and then sometimes it didn't.
What's your favourite fast food vice?
You kind of go through stages. Getting older now I really need to look at what I do. Being a chef, we finish at 1am in the morning, I used to go down to Wendys and get a burger but I just can't do that anymore.
Now fast food has gone back to a treat for me and that's where I think it should be. Favourite for me would probably dumplings - Chinese dumpling houses are exploding everywhere. If you get a good steamed dumpling, it's just fantastic. But then there's nothing like fish and chips; nothing like a really good Hawaiian burger with soft buns. Then there's nothing better than a beautiful wood fired pizza. It's really what you're in the mood for and we have so much choice and so many options; it's very difficult for me to put it down to one. I'll just go all of them, in moderation.
What are your thoughts on the Double Down controversy?
I haven't partaken in one. I think what it does prove is that you can do all the good work in the world and go, let's try and make everything healthier, lets try and make it all better but the Double Down has proved that some people just don't care. I just hope that for those people who are having them, it's a novelty. They're going to order it and go, "That was alright, but would you have it again? No, probably not."
It's one of those things that come along now and then. As far as food goes, it's a novelty that people just want to try it. There's so much media. It's probably got more media coverage than any fast food item I know. Like when Coca Cola first brought out Diet Coke or Pizza Hutt brought out the cheesy crust. I probably won't partake in one. Good on them and I just hope KFC will just keep it on as a limited thing and in two months' time they take it off. It's when things like that stay on the menu and become the triple down [that it becomes a worry]. So it's definitely a novelty.
Lastly, what's the secret to making good home-made fries?
Potatoes, number one. You've got to choose the right potatoes. Try and find a large Agria potato. The best thing I do is slice them just under 1cm thick. Lightly season with a little bit of salt and a little bit of white pepper and a little bit of olive oil onto a baking tray with silicon paper. Put them into an oven 180 degrees for 35 - 40 mins and turn halfway through. That's all you have to do. You are retraining all that flavour of the potato, you've used a little bit of oil, little bit of salt and white pepper and they're so crunchy. As long as your potatoes are good potatoes to begin with they'll be crunchy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside.
They don't need to go in the deep fryer. We brought a deep fryer for the Food Truck but before we even started, someone turned the deep fryer on without oil and broke it. I was like, just throw it away, we don't need it. It was little trigger in our heads that went, this is about making better food healthier. Not everything needs to go through a deep fryer.
We own a wine bar called Liquid Molten and unfortunately quite a few things do go through the deep fryer. So I can't be a hypocrite, I can't say don't use the deep fryer because it is a business. We have four or five things that go through the deep fryer so if I take them off the menu, people will sue me. I can't. They're our bricks and mortar, they're what pays the bills but I try and introduce as many other things as I can. But it doesn't mean a fish and chip shop needs to put their fish through fryer and that's it. There can be options and that's what we're trying to say.