Ben Bayly: The Mind Behind The Menu

By Cindy Leong
Award winning chef Ben Bayly. Photo Credit: Cindy Leong

Ahead of our first TEDxAuckland event in May, we caught up with multi-award winning chef, Ben Bayly who has created a four course menu for speakers and guests to enjoy following the talks, at his restaurant The Grounds. Read on for a preview of the menu, how The Grounds started and what gives Ben inspiration.

How would you describe The Grounds/Whoa! Studios to someone who hasn’t been before?

I always get lost in trying to be concise with what we are - there’s so much to it.

The original 4 acre site was an old farm machinery building, when the area was all farmland and orchards. My business partner Dave bought this land when it was a derelict building basically, and he spent 5 years transforming it with the goal to make it a TV studio. 

Two-thirds of the building is a TV studio, where Custard World is filmed. That’s one part of its life. Another is the stage theatre where the live shows and your TEDxAuckland talks will take place. Then we have our park and the restaurant which has become a little bit of the hero of the site.

You can go there at 10:30am, see a show, and have an awesome lunch. There’s still naughty mixed in with the nice when it comes to eating but it’s balanced. Most kids venues for families, most things come out of the deep fryer so we wanted to change that and create a more upmarket venue where parents can have a glass of wine and let the kids run riot. Then at night it’s quite intimate, and during the week we have a lot of business people coming in to do work. We have something for everyone.

How did the collaboration with Whoa! Studios come about? What made you want to start a restaurant here?

Dave (the founder of Whoa! Studios) is mad. He made a chunk of money in IT and instead of putting that money into investments, he decided to turn a derelict building in Henderson into something really awesome. Dave was big on community; and we needed sanctuaries out West for people to come and hang. 

It all came about when I met Dan. He’s an art director who worked in film & TV production with Dave, and his daughter and my daughter were best mates at school. So Dan and I got talking 6-7 years ago, he was like ‘Oh we’re doing this thing, we wanna do a café’. 

I saw the site and the scope of it and thought there was a lot of potential in running big events. I was introduced to Dave through Dan and thought I could learn a lot from this guy. I like his philanthropy, he gives a lot of money away, I like the way he operates, and the way he leads a team. He’s a really savvy businessman, and it’s about hanging out with people who are better than you or more interesting, so I just really wanted to connect with him.

The idea for The Grounds came about through my three children. I was doing fine dining at The Grove, I’ve got Baduzzi which is casual fine dining, then I thought, how do I do something for kids and families? How can I give back through that? Once the space started to open and I saw the size and the scope of it, I thought we should really do events here too. It’s about having fun and being casual.

Local ingredients are very important to The Grounds and it’s food. How do you select your suppliers, what’s your process?

We have a mix of people who supply us, including people who are small growers. Some of the best people who grow vegetables are from the local Chinese community. 

We have a lot of growers who we’ve known after being here for many years, and we’ve naturally met these people. Often people hear about what we’re doing and have a product they would like to sell us, so there’s not really any method to it.  

You’re preparing a special menu for TEDxAuckland - what can attendees expect? 

It’s all about shining a light on West Auckland, and a representation of us Westies. This place is like the fruit bowl of New Zealand. 

The menu has a vegetarian focus and all the ingredients and produce are predominantly sourced locally in West Auckland.

We have a terrine, which uses Goat’s curds from Helensville. We’re doing Meatless Meatballs, based on heaps of greens from out West. Kale, Silverbeet, Parsley, and herbs, onions and spices and garlic that has been sautéed down. There’s also a play on Curried Eggs, which is very kiwi and Westie. 

One meat dish we have will be a pie using pork and vegetables cooked by the Hangi Master out in Bethells. He’s a legend. So all the pork and vegetables they’re all kind of diced up and infuse the flavour of the hangi, then we make a gravy, heaps of chopped down sautéed water cress in there, and put that into a pie. Then we make a ketchup out of Eighty4 (a local farm) tomatoes.

How do you find inspiration for new dishes? What’s your creative process?

Talking to cool people. I think there’s two main things for inspiration which is the people you work with and then what you can get hold of, what’s in season or what’s nearby.

Inspiration can be lying in bed and something will come to you, or going for a run and something will come to you. Once you find the hero for the dish, you have a few ingredients around it to accentuate it, then you need to work on things like texture, balance of flavours, acidity, astringency etc.

If you had to do a TEDxAuckland talk, what would it be about? What ideas do you think the world should know?

My TEDx talk would be would be on ‘What is New Zealand Food?’.

It would centre around the TV show we’re doing, which is about trying to discover who we are as New Zealanders through food. And also about being proud of who we are as a melting pot of cultures. 

NZ wine is so globally celebrated so why isn’t NZ food? With so many local sources of inspiration, and a lot of tourists coming to our door, we have the potential to make something unique.