Michelle Armstrong
Michelle Armstrong

Michelle Armstrong

 Kawerau, Bay of Plenty, NZ

History: In 1994 I completed my chef training at CHATS (Catering, Hospitality and Tourism School) in Auckland, New Zealand. This followed by eighteen months at Austin’s Catering in Auckland where we catered for a wide variety of functions, from corporate morning tea’s and lunches to dinner parties and large city events.  We worked outdoor and indoor functions such as Opera in the Park and various weddings.

Everything was made fresh on the job, so I was given a good foundation right from the beginning. From Auckland I moved to London and landed a great position at Bertorelli’s in Charlotte Street in the West End. I worked under Maddelena Bonino who is a very passionate Chef. This is where I developed my skills in Italian cooking, which was then backed up with a CDP position back in New Zealand at Toto Restaurant in Nelson Street, Auckland. Following this was a stint at Ruapehu in New Zealand at a ski lodge, but not enjoying the food there I then moved to Tauranga, NZ to work in a Seafood Restaurant on the Marina called Spinnakers.

Two years later I followed my partner down to Palmerston North, NZ and entered the world of Hotels. First by landing a Sous Chef Position at the Coachman Hotel, which was taken over by the Rydges.  By then I had taken on the role of Executive Chef but a year later needed to change scenery and took the Executive Chef position at the new Novotel in town. After the Novotel I was tempted back to the Coachman Hotel as the Rydges chain had moved on and it was back to a boutique Hotel with an Executive Chef, Mark Harman who had some experience in 5-star dining at the exclusive Huka Lodge in NZ. Keen to learn something new from him, I worked under Mark until he left to work in the Bahamas eighteen  months later.

Again I took on the top role and let them know it wasn’t long term as at the time I wasn’t keen to stay in Palmerston North for much longer. Eighteen months after that my husband got a job offer in Doha, Qatar. So, after applying for a couple of positions, I received an offer for a Sous Chef position at the Four Seasons Hotel in Doha, Qatar. On the way over I passed through Griffith, NSW, Australia to visit friends and loved the community spirit and country feel. I arrived in Doha two weeks later and began my induction into Hotel life.  Again I realised I needed to go smaller not bigger, after eight years in Hotels I wanted to work in a restaurant again. That is where my passion for cooking lies.

I had loved what I learnt in Hotels but didn’t want to go further in that direction. So after great consideration I made a massive move in my life and chose to move to Australia. Living in a small town in the outback of NSW is very different to anything I have experienced before in my life. I love everything about it, the landscape, the people, and the opportunity it offers. After working eighteen months in a newly refurbished restaurant in town I went into partnership with a good friend, Janelle Mannes to buy the Clock Restaurant, which we have owned for the past eighteen months. I just love it.

Have you always wanted to be a Chef? 

As far back as I recall I have always wanted to be a Chef. I remember wanting to surprise my Dad on Father’s Day with some freshly baked cookies when I was about six years old though my Mother got wind of it after my brother and sisters and I had made the cookie dough and put an immediate stop to us using any appliances at that hour of the morning with no supervision… most disappointing.

I also recall a camping expedition in the backyard very early on another frosty morning; after stringing up a few sheets for shelter between the trees we started a camp fire for breakfast. This was my first experience of outdoor cookery, and wasn’t very successful I must admit. Scrambled eggs were the easiest idea for a cooked breakfast I could come up with and I was pretty confident it would be fairly simple to cook. Boy was I mistaken! The result was a pot as black as the ace of spades and eggs to match.

My first attempt at a Kiwi favourite, the Pavlova, wasn’t very successful either, age nine. This was when I learnt about the differences between Fahrenheight and Celsius.  The result, a caramelised round slab of meringue.  Still tasted good but not the desired outcome.  Age ten, I was in discussions with my best friend at school about buying a restaurant in the future. Really, I can always remember wanting to be a Chef. I can’t explain why, it just feels like being a Chef is the essence of who I am. 

How would you define your style? 

My style of cooking is fresh, flavoursome and honest. With a healthy respect for the classic foundations of cooking, there is a strong Italian influence as a result of the restaurants & chefs I have worked with in the past and the experience I have gained. But I am not limited by that. I also love Asian food and enjoy cooking with Thai influences, ingredients and flavours.

Obsessive compulsive about?

Most things to do with the kitchen really. Clean & tidy benches, vegetable cuts, all food preparation. Position of sauce bottles, spoons & utensils, salt & pepper. Position of mis en place for service.

Your greatest culinary inspirations?

My chef tutors Brendon Turner & Martin Harrap were an inspiration to me; Brendon was young, full of energy and a talented Chef, and Martin was very professional and brimming with experience. Because of my tutors and the high level of professionalism at the catering school I attended my standards have always been set fairly high.

The Chef I worked under in London, Maddelena Bonino, was also a strong influence on me. Maddelena inspired me with her extensive knowledge of food, strength in the kitchen and her high level of skill. She gave me the foundation that has led me to where I am today. Also Celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsey is a Chef who I look up to for having a high level of skill and for working extremely hard to get where he is today. I am also inspired by Chefs, Thomas Keller, Rick Tramonto & Teage Ezard. 

Most “eyebrow raising” menu item? 

I’m not sure I would describe my food as eyebrow raising but a dish that jumps to mind is the Chinese braised pork belly & pan-fried scallops with a shallot & coriander salad.

Signature Dish: This is something has a constantly evolving nature. Two dish’s that I have had a significant following for in the last eighteen months has been the ‘Black Mussels & King Prawns in a Saffron Broth with cherry tomato, kipfler potato, fresh parsley & grilled Bruschetta’ and also the ‘Baked King Salmon with a basil crust, served with a caper & lemon risotto & salsa rossa.’