MIT graduate, Luke Gurnick as Executive Chef at LaValla Estate

MIT-trained Executive Chef ten times busier after tough year.

Growing up the oldest of six, Luke Gurnick knew his way around a kitchen – cooking for his whānau in Manurewa while his mum was working night shifts and on weekends.

Now, Luke is the Executive Chef at LaValla Estate in Tuakau, which was announced the Wedding Industry Awards 2019 Supreme Winner – it’s third supreme title.

“I’ve always loved cooking,” says Luke. “It was always really basic stuff like bolognese. I didn’t have the money to do anything flash. I’d never been to a fancy restaurant, but I’d seen it all on TV and I just went from there.”

After finishing Year 13 at Dilworth School, Luke felt no real sense of what he wanted to achieve in his life.

“I won’t sugar coat it, I was a bum – I would just sit around playing PlayStation, I would smoke, I would drink, I was going nowhere with my life.”

But that soon changed after learning about Hospitality School at Manukau Institute of Technology where Luke enrolled in the New Zealand Certificate in Cookery in 2015.

“I absolutely loved it.” Luke says.

“We were learning things like the basic cuts of meat and how to make basic stocks. After cooking for my family, I pretty much had the gist of it, whereas some of the others were starting completely from scratch.”

What motivated Luke to keep going with his studies was the culture he discovered at MIT.

“There were a lot of older Māori and Pacific students, all from the same background. I would normally keep to myself but these guys really brought me out of my shell.”

He loved how his tutors and peers knew where he was coming from, as many of them were young parents juggling their studies.

“They wrapped around us as much as we wrapped around them.”

MIT Senior Lecturer Chef Brian Wallace invited Luke back on campus to host a cooking demonstration for his level 3 students. He says it’s hugely encouraging for him to speak to his current Hospitality School students about the path he chose.

“He was exactly where they are now. I think he’s an example for the certificate course. Luke’s a local boy, and he still is. When he was here, he struggled with external pressures. He struggled with his attendance and assignments.

“He’s not shy to talk about that, but a few key lecturers and myself dragged him up by the shoe straps, because he clearly had a natural talent for cooking."

Through his studies at MIT, Luke was working in the kitchen at the Manurewa RSA, and after graduating, Stampede Bar in Papakura before eventually applying for the job at La Valla through Trademe.

“I’d never even heard of Tuakau before I had my interview, and after getting the job, I just fell in love.”

This year, lockdowns have hit the hospitality industry hard with card-spending on businesses including cafes, restaurants, takeaway food, and bars falling 95 percent compared with April 2019.

But Luke’s employers were committed to keeping the business going.

“It paid off - we are 10 times as busy,” says Luke. “I was doing roughly three to four conferences a week, now I’m doing 10 to 15 – weddings, birthdays, conferences.”

Luke and his kitchen also cater for up to three hundred guests at Steelers home games as well as supplying corporate boxes.

The catering for the business crowd is designed to open up conversations.

“We’re serving them food where they need to break bread together – we encourage them to talk, to get to know each other and get them out of that corporate mindset.”

He can feel the industry is definitely finding its feet again – “people want to eat. Come Christmas time, everyone is going to want to spend up.”

As the economy reopens, cafes and restaurants have been quick to mitigate the impact on their business, bringing with it new prospects.

However, with 30 percent of the industry’s workforce being international, many workers have either left the country in the first lockdown and are now unable to get back to New Zealand, key staff are needed in the hospitality industry.

MIT culinary programmes deliver all the practical skills students need – whether that's basic food preparation, or advanced cookery and full chef training.

For further information email enquiries@manukau.ac.nz or call 0800 62 62 52.


Luke has also provided a recipe for a Vanilla and Mango Panna Cotta. Read about here.

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