When US-born MasterChef NZ judge Michael Dearth set foot on New Zealand soil as a 22-year-old, he was smitten.
"That turangawaewae, that sense of New Zealand calling me happened. I fell in love," Michael tells the Weekly.
Now, 30 years later, the 52-year-old has built the life he dreamed of all those years ago, raising his family in Aotearoa and opening two of New Zealand's most celebrated restaurants along with his wife Annette.
Though they can bask in their success now, Michael and Annette's journey to culinary success has been a bumpy ride.
Michael met Annette, 52, while working at a restaurant in San Francisco and when things started to turn serious, Michael told her of his desire to move down under and open his own restaurant. After she saw the beauty of our country for herself, she took a leap of faith and decided to join him.
They married in the Cook Islands, and in 2003 they packed up their lives and moved across the world to start their new adventure.
"When we first moved here, I was like, 'Oh, my God, what have we done?'" recalls Annette. "Even though I was totally along for the ride, I found it hard. We'd left everyone behind."
They spent the next 18 months searching for the right location, the best chefs and scraping together every dollar they could find to open the fine-dining restaurant they so wanted.
"We opened The Grove on maxed-out credit cards and loans," tells Michael. "We were the managers and the owners, and we worked crazy hours. Any shift that The Grove was open, we worked it – lunches and dinners every day."
Adds Annette, "The only day we closed was Sunday."
Though the hours were long and it took years before they were making good money, Michael says the day they opened the doors of The Grove for the first time is something he will never forget. "I remember the excitement of ticking off that box and that dream of opening up a restaurant. It ranks up to the birth of my children and getting married," he tells.
After a few years, though, he was balancing running a restaurant with raising two young kids, Ezra, now 15, and Lucia, 12. Then Michael decided he wanted to open a meatball joint as an ode to the food his mother and grandmother made when he was a kid in Connecticut.
He tried a few times over the years, but the plans kept falling through. Then, in 2012, tragedy struck as Michael lost his grandmother, father and mother in quick succession.
Michael grew up not far from Sandy Hook in Connecticut, and his mother passed away the same day as the horrific shooting that killed 26 children and teachers at the local elementary school. He returned to America not only mourning his beloved mother, but coming to terms with a shocking tragedy in
When he returned to Auckland, Michael was at one of the lowest points of his life.
"He was broken," tells Annette.
But the drive home from the airport proved to be life-changing as they stopped by Auckland's Wynyard Quarter, where he spotted a shopfront that was boarded up. It would become the home of his second restaurant, Baduzzi.
"It was actually profound and inspiring opening Baduzzi," tells Michael. "On the menu there are photos of my family, so I see my mum and my dad and my grandparents every day. Some of the dishes that I first learned to make with my mum are there on the menu. It's that Italian-American food that really sparked my love of food and hospitality.
"There are things that I wish my mum and dad could see today that they would just love. But I do think they were proud that we chased down our dreams and we have an awesome life."
Over the years, Michael and Annette have fostered some of the country's greatest culinary talents in their kitchens, so when the opportunity arose for him to be a judge on Three's MasterChef NZ, he jumped at the chance.
"It feels like something I was made for," says Michael. "I love working with young minds. Over the years, I've worked with so many young people and a lot of them have gone on to open their own restaurants or become chefs."
And if anyone knows what comes of chasing a wild goal, it is Michael Dearth.
"I followed my internal compass that was telling me to come to New Zealand. I'm just grateful that I'm in this corner of the world and I was able to etch out this life."
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