Pushing the Boundaries of New Zealand Cuisine: Chef Michael Meredith

by Amanda McDougall
Antoinette Bruno
May 2010

Traditional Samoan tattoos down his left arm and The Last Supper down his right, Michael Meredith walks a fine line between culinary innovation and staying close to his roots. Raised in the small South Pacific island-nation of Samoa, half way between Hawai’i and New Zealand, Meredith learned from his mother the value of food and not to waste anything. Though his mother was an excellent cook, he didn’t know the kitchen would be his ultimate calling when he left Samoa for New Zealand when he was a teenager.

Samoan penikekes and taro root may not be the stars of his coolly groundbreaking cuisine these days, but Meredith has certainly learned to work magic with the New Zealand products he’s adopted and made his own. Ostrich, Northland eel, and paua (AKA abalone) find new, elegant forms and plate companions in the hands of Meredith: he cures ostrich and pairs it with smoked foie gras and beets for a composed salad of sorts; the eel, from the very northern most tip of the country, is smoked and blended into a saltcod brandade and served sauteed with scallops and pickled cauliflower; paua is cooked sous-vide and paired with quail and coconut mousse.

Meredith’s technique is precise and always pushing the boundaries of tradition, but his flavor combinations and plating aesthetic are what really set him apart from his peers. It takes a certain kind of culinary bravado to combine white chocolate with tomatoes, but Meredith pulls it off with uncanny success. What’s more, he layers the rich sweetness of the white chocolate and acid-sweetness of the tomatoes with tart gooseberries and unctuous dehydrated black olive crumbs. It’s a riot of flavor and color, and anything but expected.

Each presentation is a marvel of colors, textures, and forms, as well. That smoked eel brandade doesn’t know a ramekin for a container; rather an edible pipe of brik pastry as its vessel; vibrant brush strokes of red beet puree are painted across a plate. Meredith’s plates are intricate but not overly wrought or handled and are evocative of New Zealand’s otherworldly landscapes.

The chef’s dual identity as a New Zealander with island boy blood feeds his culinary philosophy that food should always be exciting and an exploration of new flavor combinations. He describes the country’s cuisine as “young” and malleable—fertile ground to “marry Asian and European flavors” with local product. Meredith’s cuisine highlights the best of New Zealand’s growing repertoire of high-end products, from seafood to lamb to produce. And, as Meredith explains, it’s only getting better as the wine and food culture within the country matures and native chefs demand better quality product.

Meredith’s constant evolution—his desire to “always refine and make better”—is making its mark on New Zealand cuisine, while showcasing just how exciting a still developing culinary identity can be. The chef’s tremendous success in New Zealand is unquestionable, but he feels the pull to return to his native land, with dreams of opening a boutique resort in the lush countryside. No doubt, wherever Meredith lands, inspired flavor combinations and beautiful plates will follow.