Michael Meredith is one of New Zealand's most talented chefs, celebrated for the gourmet dishes he creates at his Auckland restaurants. However, the Samoan-born star's earliest food memories involve humbler fare and he's always held on to a love of the flavours he grew up with.
"One of my first memories is my mother's pancake stand at the market in Apia," says Michael. "Panikeke are almost like a doughnut, made from flour, sugar, vanilla and maybe mashed banana. Mum would cook them in a big pot of oil, heated by a kerosene lamp, and sell them for 5c apiece. It was a little business to earn extra money. Me and my brother used to help."
Michael's father wasn't around much and his mother, Metita Saleilua, worked hard to look after her family. She was also a housekeeper for the High Commissioner of Australia, sometimes catering for large groups of people, as well as cooking traditional food, like pineapple pies, chop suey and a fermented coconut sauce called miti, for her sons.
Sadly, in later life, Metita suffered from dementia and she died at the start of the pandemic. Now Michael has found a way to celebrate both his mother and her food, opening a new restaurant called Metita in Auckland's SkyCity complex, which serves his own modern take on Polynesian cuisine.
"I wanted to honour her because she influenced the way I turned out and the career I've had," he explains. "She'd be quite shy if she knew, but she was always very proud of the fact I got into cooking."
Michael's success is down to a lot of hard graft and he credits his mother with passing on her work ethic. But he also had to learn to be self-reliant early on. When he was six, Metita needed to come to New Zealand to care for her own mother, who was sick.
She was only meant to stay for three months, but that turned into years. Michael and his brother had to live with an uncle until finally, when he was 12, Metita was able to bring them to Auckland and the family was reunited.
"It was a really hard time for me and my brother," recalls Michael. "We missed her. I didn't really understand why she had to leave – that she had no choice. But even when she was with us in Samoa, she was always working, so I had to fend for myself."
Michael needed every ounce of his drive and determination to succeed in the punishing restaurant industry. His working day often begins at 6am, sitting at home doing paperwork, and might not finish until very late.
"With the menu planning for Metita, sometimes I'd be there until 4am cooking and trying things out, then putting the recipe down on paper, which is the hardest part of the process for me."
Restaurant work often isn't compatible with family life and father-of-five Michael admits he has struggled to find the right balance.
After his first long-term relationship ended, his ex took their three eldest daughters – Sophia, now 19, Tahlia, 18, and Ella, 15 – to live in Australia so she could be closer to her own family. Michael flew back and forth to see them regularly, but being a long-distance dad is far from ideal.
Now Ella has moved back to Auckland and is staying with Michael in his city apartment. Meanwhile, his two younger children, daughter Franklyn, five, and son Finnlay, two, live with him part-time, after he and their mother split a couple of years ago.
"I see them all the time and I'm close to them, but with my older girls, I'm still trying to build bridges," admits Michael.
At 48, with two long-term relationships behind him, there is plenty of time for Michael to find love again, but he says it isn't a priority.
"If it happens, it happens," he muses. "I have five kids, which is a lot for anyone to take on and, for now, I just want to better myself as a dad to them."
Brought up with strong family values, Michael also gives his time and energy to helping others. His skills have raised money for the Starship Children's Hospital and he was co-founder of Eat My Lunch, a project that helps feed Kiwi kids in need.
"It's a part of who I am," he says. "It's important to give back. If you have the opportunity to, why wouldn't you?"
With his new restaurant Metita now up and running, Michael is looking forward to bringing his kids together and heading back to Samoa for a break.
"I'm taking all five of them," he shares. "There's family to catch up with, and we're going to stay at a resort and just chill. It'll be fun."
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