HOT­HOUSE OF HAP­PI­NESS

GET­TING TO GRIPS WITH THE GRASS­ROOTS OF GROW­ING, AND OF A COM­MU­NITY, LLOYD ROONEY AND MICHAEL FRASER FOUND CON­TENT­MENT IN THE MID­DLE GROUND BE­TWEEN THE GLAM­OUR OF CELEBRITY LON­DON AND THE QUIET BACK­WA­TERS OF THE WAIKATO WORDS JANE WAR­WICK PHO­TO­GRAPHS VANE

NZ Life & Leisure - - On The Cover -

Mov­ing from Lon­don to the Waikato to the coast at Waipu has brought Lloyd Rooney and Michael Fraser both chal­lenge and con­tent­ment

LON­DON IS HOME to more than eight mil­lion peo­ple, Onewhero Dis­trict nearly 4000, and there are just over 1000 in Waipu Cove. It looks very much like Lloyd Rooney and Michael Fraser are down­siz­ing, when in fact their life is only get­ting big­ger.

In the be­gin­ning, on a 900-hectare sheep-and-cat­tle farm at Waimarama in the Onewhero in north­ern Waikato, it al­ready felt pretty big. Or at least it was a pretty big deal, es­pe­cially for Lloyd. He left his hos­pi­tal­ity job in the EU’s largest city, flew more than 18,000kms, swapped his win­ter Welling­tons for year-round gum­boots and be­came a farmer. He and Mike not only forged a re­la­tion­ship be­tween them­selves, but also with ru­ral New Zealand, which was more used to a Mr and Mrs than Mr and Mr. They re­de­fined tra­di­tional roles and slogged through a down­turn in the sec­tor. This is what you do for love. Mike had grown up on a dairy farm in Te Awa­mutu, had done a BCom(Ag) at Lin­coln Univer­sity and then worked on farms in New Zealand and Aus­tralia. When he re­turned from his OE with Lloyd in tow, they worked on his fam­ily’s farm be­fore buy­ing High­gate Hill farm, the Waimarama prop­erty. Farm­ing was well and truly in Mike’s blood; it made him who he is.

Those cat­tle, those silly sheep, those rolling New Zealand hills, Lloyd was cer­tainly up for it but, not count­ing the phys­i­cal dis­tance, he couldn’t have been fur­ther from his pre­vi­ous life.

In Lon­don he was fund­ing a law de­gree by work­ing as an usher at the fa­mous The­atre Royal in Drury Lane. In a sharp red jacket, crisp white shirt and bow tie, he served cham­pagne to HRH Queen El­iz­a­beth II and her con­sort, rubbed shoul­ders with the Princess of Wales, kept an eye on HRH the Queen Mum, and wran­gled other celebri­ties.

By the time his fi­nals were loom­ing he was work­ing front of house at a trendy res­tau­rant in Cam­den and do­ing it well enough to be ap­proached by Tam­sin Olivier, daugh­ter of the late, great Sir Lau­rence, who asked him to help her run her newly pur­chased pub­lic house, The En­gi­neer. Be­cause of who she was and who she knew, The En­gi­neer be­came the place to be in Prim­rose Hill (North Lon­don). Be­fore he re­al­ized it, law had be­come very much a sec­ond to hos­pi­tal­ity.

Even so, just as law gave way to hos­pi­tal­ity, so hos­pi­tal­ity gave way to Mike – and Lloyd will­ingly swapped the red car­pet for green fields, the open­ing-night par­ties for calf feed­ing, and hob­nob­bing with the who’s who of the­atre and tele­vi­sion for four dogs and a pet goat called Krusty.

And Lloyd did love it, but most of all he loved Mike, so for nine years he was hap­pily set­tled among the pretty-eyed cat­tle and sheep do­ing in­ter­est­ing Kiwi things like rat­tling their dags.

But came a time that Lloyd felt the need to rat­tle his own dags; not to flee, but to move in an­other di­rec­tion. Farm­ing was sat­is­fy­ing - but he missed the so­cia­bil­ity and mad rush of hos­pi­tal­ity.

It is a pe­cu­liarly New Zealand thing that some­body al­ways knows some­body who knows some­body else; the six-de­grees-of-sep­a­ra­tion the­ory is a mere 1:5 in Aotearoa. So, of course, as soon as the idea of buy­ing a café was mooted up popped a friend who had a friend who had a café he wanted to sell.

Mike and Lloyd made the three-hour trip north to Waipu Cove on the east coast and there it was – an un­der­uti­lized res­tau­rant in an ex­tra­or­di­nary lo­ca­tion. If any­thing was meant to be, this was surely it.

They be­gan to know that road north very, very well as they trav­eled to and fro, man­ag­ing the farm and over­see­ing the re­fur­bish­ment of the old café. Over time, they dragged the nearly 100-year-old build­ing into their fu­ture, con­vert­ing it into the Cove Res­tau­rant and Bar.

The ven­ture was an im­me­di­ate suc­cess but not without hard work, although that grind was al­le­vi­ated by Shavaun Pan­iora, the café man­ager they in­her­ited from the pre­vi­ous own­ers. De­spite Lloyd’s ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence, he at first mis­judged how im­por­tant it was to get the right chef and was re­lieved to even­tu­ally find Craig Estick, the kitchen’s ex­ec­u­tive chef. Would the busi­ness have worked as well so quickly without Craig? No, reck­ons Lloyd. Would it have worked as well without Shavaun? Def­i­nitely not.

In the be­gin­ning, it was turn and turn-about; they spent three days at Waipu then three at Waimarama. It was a whirl­wind ex­is­tence: some­times the days tripped them up; some­times they found them­selves look­ing at cat­tle when they thought they should be look­ing at the sea. It wasn’t long be­fore they were well and truly over the com­mute, so they leased out the farm and moved north for good.

Leav­ing the farm was a wrench for Mike but, they say, a farmer has to be an op­ti­mist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer; this trait meant Mike was up for change. And, of course, this is also what you do for love.

As Lloyd had thrown him­self into farm­ing for Mike, so did Mike throw him­self into hos­pi­tal­ity for Lloyd. He liked it well enough but he longed to do some­thing agri­cul­tural. Be­ing up to his el­bows in flat whites could not com­pare with be­ing up to his el­bows in good, sweet earth.

Just over the hill from Waipu Cove, just there where the high­way bends its el­bow at Puw­era, is the Maun­gakaramea Road and along that by­way is where Mike found his soil. In the foot­print of an old orchid-grow­ing busi­ness he set up the Vege Shack, a mar­ket gar­den that means, as restau­ra­teurs, he and Lloyd can of­fer a true pad­dock-to-plate menu.

It was the project he needed. Like Lloyd and his chef learn­ing curve, Mike had curves all of his own, not least get­ting used to work­ing at a faster pace with the speedy plant cy­cles that are very dif­fer­ent from the lan­guid cy­cles of farm­ing an­i­mals. He, too, has a man­ager that saves the day for him, Toni Am­bler, pulling all the pieces to­gether when Mike can’t be there.

Lloyd feels that small-town New Zealand is a bit lack­ing on the res­tau­rant front, and the suc­cess of The Cove en­cour­aged Mike and him to look at other pos­si­bil­i­ties to open eater­ies, find­ing lo­ca­tions that just need a bit of love and imag­i­na­tion. They now have The Quay and Num­ber 8 in Whangarei, and The Dune in Man­gawhai.

Some­where in among all these life-chang­ing events, the cou­ple found time to build a house. They’d been search­ing for a lo­cal prop­erty without much luck when they were told of a place just five min­utes’ away from the res­tau­rant.

They went and had a look, up a steep drive and onto a pri­vate road and from there to a sec­tion guarded by na­tive bush. They climbed onto the roof of their ute and, peer­ing over the ponga, could see the most spec­tac­u­lar, panoramic view of Bream Bay. They bought, they built and, if they metaphor­i­cally didn’t al­ready have the world at their feet through their busi­ness suc­cess, they most cer­tainly phys­i­cally do so from their home on the hill.

It was a whirl­wind ex­is­tence; some­times the days tripped them up, some­times they found them­selves look­ing at cat­tle when they thought they should be look­ing at the sea

FROM TOP: Lloyd and Mike never tire of their spec­tac­u­lar view of Bream Bay. One day the cou­ple hope to have a hot tub on the deck; Mike kicks back on the sofa after a hard day’s graft at the Vege Shack.

Diggy, the stray, found the best bil­let in Waipu. He shares the house with old Tom, while the three dogs – Scott, Micky and Car­rie – have three cosy ken­nels that look out over the ocean. “A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread— and Thou” may be a line from a 10th- cen­tury poem, but the sen­ti­ment re­mains true for Mike ( left) and Lloyd (right). OP­PO­SITE: There was a time in Lon­don, be­tween for­ays into hos­pi­tal­ity, that Lloyd had a de­sign stu­dio and his love of in­te­rior dec­o­rat­ing con­tin­ues. The gold wall­pa­per in the up­stairs lounge is from French com­pany Eli­tis, and the black leather- tex­tured pa­per is from Seneca in Auck­land.

Lloyd and Mike walk the dogs on the beach as many morn­ings as they are able. Keep­ing fit is very im­por­tant to them. They also run along the beach and at­tend the gym three times a week with a per­sonal trainer.

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