Two years ago, top Kiwi chef Michael Meredith couldn’t shake the feeling that something major was about to happen in his life.
His restaurant Meredith’s is widely regarded as one of New Zealand’s finest, but the 42-year-old, who immigrated from Samoa as a teenager with his brother and solo mum, had a growing sense that it was time to give back to people less fortunate.
“As human beings, we have a responsibility to help and to try to make a difference if you can,” he asserts. “I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but I knew that’s the direction I had to go in. It was intuition.”
At the same time, high-flying marketing executive Lisa King – whose favourite restaurant happened to be Meredith’s – was working on an idea to address child poverty.
She and her then-partner Iaan Buchanan came up with Eat My Lunch, a food delivery service that worked on a buy one, give one model. For every lunch ordered, a meal would go to a child at a low-decile school who would otherwise go hungry.
“I had no idea if it would take off, but I knew I had to give it a go,” says Lisa. “I’d grown up in a very privileged home and lived in this bubble of thinking everyone was as fortunate as us. But obviously that’s not the case and I wanted to do something to help.”
Starting off in the Auckland kitchen at her Mt Eden home, she decided she needed a chef to lend his name and knew exactly who to call.
Fast-forward two years and the dedicated pair – helped by 27 paid staff and a team of dedicated volunteers based out of their central Auckland headquarters – feed more than 1500 children at low-decile schools each day in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington.
Now, after recently branching into dinner deliveries, the caring duo are launching a cookbook, Food for Good. Filled with more than 200 delicious family-friendly recipes, it’s the culmination of six months’ hard work, with Michael meticulously testing every recipe. Despite being one of Aotearoa’s best chefs, he admits that writing his first cookbook was no walk in the park.
“I don’t work like that,” says the dad-of-three.
“I’m not used to writing things down or using recipes. But I’m really happy with it, especially as each copy sold also buys another lunch for a child. That was the really important part for us.”
His favourite recipe is a coconut panna cotta, one of the first-ever Eat My Lunch desserts, while Lisa, who’s mum to Ella, 10, and Toby, eight, can’t go past Michael’s egg and anchovy sandwich.
“It’s delicious. Everything Michael does with food just tastes that much better.”
But they can’t help but laugh when remembering a disastrous attempt at making 600 egg sandwiches during Eat My Lunch’s early days.
“I obviously didn’t think it through because cooking and peeling more than 1000 eggs in my kitchen at home at 5.30am was not fun,” tells Lisa. “We had a few steep learning curves like that.”
While the money-making side of their enterprise has been questioned, Lisa, 40, and Michael insist they’re in it for the right reasons.
And judging by the number of thank-you cards from grateful children on display at their inner-city headquarters, and a two-month waiting list for the opportunity to volunteer, it’s clear that the people closest to the action are firm fans.
In fact, Eat My Lunch has been such a success that Michael has decided to shut the doors on Meredith’s for good at Christmas. It might seem a huge move, but the softly spoken chef insists
it’s the right time.
“Ten years is a long time to do anything,” he says. “I’m actually feeling very good about it. It feels right.”
It’s not the only exciting step, with Michael and his partner Claire expecting a baby girl in February. With his girls Sophia, 13, Tahlia, 11, and Ella, nine, living in Australia with their mother, Michael says he’s looking forward to doing things differently this time around.
“I’m really excited about being able to be there for it all,” he explains. “When I told the girls we were having a baby, they were a bit like, ‘But why didn’t you take time off for us?’ There were lots of questions. But it was a different situation back then. We were in debt. I had to work. And the girls are pretty happy about it now – they keep suggesting baby names. It’s sweet.”
When asked what’s next for Michael and Lisa, they coyly reveal that they’re cooking up another major project. The details are closely under wraps, but there’s no doubt it’ll be aimed at making a difference.
“That’s the main driver for us now,” says Michael. “There’s so much more to be done.”