Celebrity News

Celebrity chef Ben Bayly’s recipe for a healthy life

Between restaurants and TV shows, he’s cooking up a way to celebrate family
Emily Chalk

Despite the immense pressure restaurateurs face and the huge hours he worked to get to the top, Ben Bayly is every bit a family man as he is a TV chef.

While running five restaurants, hosting two popular television series and spending time at home might not always blend together effortlessly, Ben hopes what he is showing his three kids is that their father took risks, was compassionate to others and fought for the industry he loves.

Whether Ella, 14, Mila, 12, and Bowie, nine, grow up to also choose hospitality as a career is something the Kiwi culinary star isn’t too fussed about.

“I think it’s a great career – it’s rewarding but it’s tough,” smiles Ben, who is back on our screens in the third season of A New Zealand Food Story, which sees him travel the country unearthing stories from our artisan food suppliers.

“But what I really want is for the kids to work in the restaurants, if nothing else but to teach them empathy.”

It’s important to Ben and Cara that they keep life simple for their kids (from far left) Ella, Mila and Bowie.

Eldest daughter Ella works after school at The Grounds (a restaurant Ben used to own and where The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes was previously filmed).

“She gets paid an hourly rate and pays taxes, and we’ve just seen her come so far, growing into this confident young lady who can look at people coming in and helping take care of what they need.

“When someone enters your venue, you need to be able to read their body language, make them feel comfortable, take their jacket, seat them and get them a drink. Some of those social skills are transferable to any aspect of life.

“Both Mila and Bowie are now asking when they can start working too… but he’s a bit too young.”

Bowie just adores his dad!

Ben, 43, and wife Cara, 44, are chatting to the Weekly from their Titirangi home, which borders the Waitākere Ranges and includes a test kitchen.

Raising their children on two hectares of rural countryside, their ethos has always been to try to keep their lives as simple – and as healthy – as possible.

It’s also important to them that they sit down together for meals each night around the table or kitchen bench. The three kids can all cook (“whether they want to is a different story!”) and while they don’t have to finish what’s on their plate, they do have to clear their plate away.

And their one non-negotiable around dinner-time? Not cooking separate meals. It’s a lesson Ben first learned years ago when, taking a break from Michelin-starred restaurants, he worked as a private chef for wealthy families who’d get him to cook for the kids first, then the adults.

“Everyone in our house eats the same thing!” asserts Cara, who is usually the one in the kitchen at home.

Adds Ben, “With kids, our meals can’t be too fancy. It’s just got to be nutritious, so we don’t have a lot of rubbish food in the house. Everything is home-made, really.

“We still have ice cream and treats like that, but we don’t have it often. Cara is an amazing baker…”

“Yeah, once upon a time I made sourdough bread every day for two years, but six months ago I got sick of doing that, so we buy it now!” she laughs.

“I get joy out of things like going strawberry picking with Mila, which we did the other day and then made strawberry jam together. Or I’ll make snacks for the kids, like sourdough crackers. It’s trying to find little ways to make things that the kids want to eat, that are a bit healthier than the processed versions from a supermarket.”

Ben was born and raised in the farming community of Te Awamutu in the Waikato, where he first fell in love with food – and not long after, Cara too.

As a teenager, he lived on his grandfather’s dairy farm in Te Kawa for a year. After school, he made salads at Taylors Restaurant in town and met his future wife in a high school biology class.

Cara grew up in nearby town Kihikihi – her parents were both nurses – and met Ben at Te Awamutu College.

“We had the same friend group and kind of knew each other, but I wouldn’t exactly say we were friends,” she recalls.

The pair dated for a bit, then “went off and did our own thing” before coming back together in their early twenties and marrying in mid-2004.

“He’s still the same person I met as a teenager, but to me, he’s changed so much as well,” says Cara. “He blows me away with his capacity for just getting on with it and managing his workload, but then balancing it with spending time with me and the kids.

“He’s truly the most compassionate person you’ll meet and probably the most fair-minded as well. I don’t know anyone else who works as hard as Ben works.”

He also points out how lucky he is to have Cara. They’ve never been able to go out for a Valentine’s Day meal because that’s one of the busiest times on the hospitality calendar and she’s never complained.

Ben and Cara met in high school, and are now about to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in Fiji.

But with their 20th wedding anniversary coming up in July, the celebrity chef was galvanised to schedule a romantic getaway before life got too hectic.

“Actually, it was my GP who planted the seed,” confesses Ben. “We have a great relationship with him and about a week ago, he came for dinner with his wife and mentioned it was their 21st wedding anniversary.

“I told him our 20th was coming up and he gave me a bit of a hard time about not having planned something special to celebrate it. His advice was ‘Do something with no kids!’ because I naturally always want to take the kids with us.

“I came home that night – Cara often wakes up when I get home and we lie in bed, having a bit of a chat – and we decided to book a trip to Kadavu in May, which is on a remote island south of Fiji and part of the Great Astrolabe Reef.

“There are no roads! We travelled quite extensively when we were younger and I always want to find a place where you’re not on the tourist route. We’ve never been to Fiji before and yes, the kids aren’t invited.”

Now the couple are in their forties, they agree they look at food differently to when they were younger.

“Oh, for sure!” insists Ben. “We’re always talking about it and looking at ingredients. My big belief is ‘Food is medicine’. If you want longevity, then you have to know what you’re putting in your body. For example, we only buy cold-pressed oils for cooking now – we don’t buy hot-pressed canola oil any more.

“How long you live depends on the environment you live in. Sure, you can get sick – you might get a disease or cancer or something that’s not environmental – but generally if you exercise,
get sleep and eat well, you will probably live a long time. And food is a massive part of that, so we need to get educated.”

The family’s fur baby is called Obie.

Which is why Ben – who is the co-owner and executive chef of restaurants Ahi, Origine, Aosta, Little Aosta, Blue Door Bar and The Bathhouse – loves getting out of the kitchen to talk to our finest farmers, growers, hunters, divers and foodies for A New Zealand Food Story. He travels the length of the country to find out more about the people and history behind the produce used in his Ahi menu.

This season encompasses more diverse landscapes, from a farmer pioneering climate-resilient peanut cultivation in the Far North to a mussel farm in Marlborough Sounds, and the intricate harvest of elk in the deep South.

“I’ve also really enjoyed discovering how food tastes different in every region. Lamb from Central Otago is really different from, say, lamb from Marlborough.

“Meeting farmers, I see how they’re doing it really tough right now. So if we shine a light and tell the story of these producers better, they’ll be able to ask for a higher price for their ingredients.”

Ben has also recently started filming season two of The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes at Origine, his French restaurant on Auckland’s waterfront.

The show took out Best Format Reality Series at the 2023 New Zealand Television Awards and follows eight volunteers – all living with various stages of dementia – who work under Ben’s guidance.

Filming a segment of Food Story in Otago.

Cara also still takes care of the accounts for The Grounds. “Marilyn, who was one of the trainee workers on the first series, continues coming in to work on a Thursday, which coincides with my day there. So we always have a little natter then.”

“It’s been such a lovely show to work on,” tells Ben, who lost his grandmother Joan to dementia. But once filming finishes, his goal is to simplify his schedule, put family before fine dining
and “say no to stuff”.

“We’ve been through a lot of hard times as a family and it really upsets me when I get too busy,” he shares. “As I’ve gotten older, you realise there’s a lot of people in this world who will steal your time and sometimes it’s the people who matter most who get the leftovers.

“So I just want to try and allocate my time to my family, who are the most important people.”

A New Zealand Food Story screens Saturdays at 7pm on TVNZ 1 and TVNZ+. Plus Sundays at 8pm on TVNZ Duke.

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