FOODIE FOLK

IN NEW ZEALAND TO HOST THE KIWI VER­SION OF MY KITCHEN RULES, MANU FEI­DEL TALKS TO CATH BEN­NETT ABOUT THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF CRE­AT­ING A STIR ON TV

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My Kitchen Rules favourite Manu Fei­del

Fronting one of Aus­trala­sia’s most pop­u­lar cook­ing shows and of­fer­ing cri­tiques in his sig­na­ture French ac­cent has made Manu Fei­del a star. But the host of My Kitchen

Rules ad­mits that, iron­i­cally, it was his dis­tinc­tive enun­ci­a­tion that al­most de­stroyed his am­bi­tion of be­com­ing a tele­vi­sion chef.

Manu was ini­tially turned down when he ap­plied to host the pop­u­lar re­al­ity cook­ing show, be­cause tele­vi­sion ex­ecs felt he was too hard to un­der­stand. The re­jec­tion came just months after he nar­rowly missed out on a judg­ing role on Masterchef

Aus­tralia for the same rea­son, leav­ing the 44-year-old dev­as­tated.

“I was pissed off, very very much so,” ad­mits the dad-of-two. “The French ac­cent was the big thing.”

Luck­ily for Manu, two key peo­ple dis­agreed with the de­ci­sion of the cast­ing team – ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Ricky Pur­cell and co-host Pete Evans.

“Pete was ac­tu­ally given my job and they were go­ing to have some­one else do it with him,” re­calls Manu, who went on to have elo­cu­tion lessons to soften his French lilt. “But Pete told them, ‘I am only go­ing to sign if Manu joins in too, be­cause I think he would make a big dif­fer­ence.’”

Pete’s ac­tions not only se­cured Manu the job, they ce­mented the pair’s friend­ship, which, con­trary to spec­u­la­tion, Manu in­sists is as strong as ever. “We al­ways have and we al­ways will be sup­port­ing each other.”

The duo has cer­tainly come a long way since those au­di­tions eight years ago. Both have be­come house­hold names, in a fairy­tale suc­cess story that has in­volved glitzy award bashes, solo TV shows, cook­books, char­ity din­ners and lu­cra­tive ad­ver­tis­ing con­tracts.

Now they are set­ting their sights on this side of the Tas­man. The pair re­cently re­lo­cated here to film TVNZ 2’s

My Kitchen Rules New Zealand, which was pre­vi­ously hosted by Kiwi chefs Ben Bayly and Gareth Ste­wart.

Hav­ing only vis­ited a cou­ple of times be­fore, Manu has been im­pressed by the evo­lu­tion of the Kiwi food scene.

“The num­ber of restau­rants and the amount of great food is just un­be­liev­able,” he says, chat­ting to Food mag­a­zine dur­ing a break from film­ing. “Some­thing has hap­pened and the restau­rants are grow­ing like mush­rooms. The seafood is fan­tas­tic; while I find the va­ri­ety a bit short, what you’ve got is good – and the oys­ters are out­stand­ing.”

For­eign flavours

When it comes to as­sess­ing the in­ter­na­tional food scene, there’s no doubt Manu knows his stuff.

De­scended from a fam­ily of chefs, he be­gan his ca­reer aged 15 in his father Pa­trick’s restau­rant in Brit­tany. He later made the move to Lon­don, where he even­tu­ally be­came head chef at the ac­claimed seafood restau­rant Live­bait.

When Manu was 26, he moved to Aus­tralia, where he went on to work at Pete Evans’ Hugo’s Lounge. By 2004 he was at the multi-award-win­ning Bil­son’s.

While Sydney is now home, he hasn’t stopped jet-set­ting, film­ing pop­u­lar se­ries Around the World with Manu, which screened last year on TVNZ 1.

But the great­est in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence on his own cook­ing style

“Pete was ac­tu­ally given my job and they were go­ing to have some­one else do it with him”

“It will in­volve di­ets, no booze and sport. I am full on; it’s ei­ther ev­ery­thing or noth­ing. I hate run­ning, but I’ll do it be­cause it works”

hasn’t come from get­ting on a plane, but fall­ing in love.

Manu’s fi­ancée, jew­eller Clarissa Weerasena, is from Malaysia, and last year the pair col­lab­o­rated on a cook­book of fam­ily recipes; More

Please! “She’s an amaz­ing home cook – like, amaz­ing,” says Manu, his face light­ing up at the thought of his wife-to-be, who he pro­posed to in 2013. “I didn’t know any­thing about Malaysian food; it is a melt­ing pot of so many dif­fer­ent cul­tures. She has taught me to un­der­stand chilli – I can eat a lot of it now. French peo­ple don’t eat chilli.”

You might think that be­ing en­gaged to one of Aus­tralia’s top chefs would mean Clarissa doesn’t have to do much slav­ing in the kitchen, but it doesn’t quite work out like that.

“It’s about 70/30 – she does 70 per cent, I do 30 per cent,” quips Manu with a cheeky grin. “And we will never share the kitchen to­gether. We tried but it was like, ‘Why are you do­ing it that way? You should do it this way!’ So we found it’s best to keep it sep­a­rate.”

How­ever, that doesn’t mean they can’t mesh their work­ing lives. Hav­ing joined forces on the cook­book, Manu is keen to get Clarissa, with whom he has a two-year-old daugh­ter Charlee, work­ing on more culi­nary projects. “I want to in­volve Clarissa in my pro­fes­sional life more be­cause she is fan­tas­tic,” says Manu, who also has a son, Jonti, 12, from a pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship. “I’ve re­cently bought a 400m² ware­house and Clarissa is go­ing to run it. I’m go­ing to put a big kitchen in there and a func­tion room, maybe do film­ing there – I can do what­ever I want in it.”

Boil­ing point

It might all sound pretty per­fect now, but it hasn’t all been plain sail­ing for the charis­matic chef. After bat­tling to get his break on My Kitchen Rules, Manu had a lot to prove, and he ad­mits “it was the hard­est job I ever had in my life”, which is say­ing some­thing given his early ca­reer ex­pe­ri­ences in­cluded learn­ing un­der a dic­ta­to­rial chef and work­ing in the UK with­out speak­ing English.

“It was hor­ri­ble be­cause ob­vi­ously there’s a bit of scripts for the in­tros and things and I was just hav­ing to learn my lines for hours,” he re­calls. “And then, you know, you get it wrong once, you get it wrong twice, then you get it wrong three times – you kind of go gr­rrr.”

Grad­u­ally Manu over­came those chal­lenges to the point that “now it’s just like go­ing to the of­fice”, but as his TV ca­reer picked up, his cook­ing em­pire crum­bled. In early 2014, the for­mer Dancing with

the Stars cham­pion was forced to close his restau­rant L’etoile in Sydney after six years, due to dwin­dling prof­its. Sev­eral months later, his Mel­bourne eatery, Le Grand Cirque, also folded. Manu has since ad­mit­ted the fail­ures hit him hard: “I lost my pride, my money and went through a stage of de­pres­sion.”

To­day, he can look back on it with some per­spec­tive.

“What hap­pened – and for a long time I didn’t want to ac­cept it – is peo­ple want to see me on screen and then they want to see me in my restau­rant. And if they don’t see me in the restau­rant they get an­gry – and you get back­lash.

“Also, I can’t trust any­one else to run my restau­rant be­cause the qual­ity is not the same.

“So I had to make a de­ci­sion a cou­ple

of years ago that in­stead of stretch­ing and jug­gling be­tween run­ning a restau­rant and do­ing TV and hav­ing a fam­ily, I would leave the restau­rant world for a bit.”

Now dip­ping his toes back in with the re­cent open­ing of Sydney pop-up Duck In Duck Out, Manu is also try­ing to get some bal­ance back in his life by pay­ing more at­ten­tion to ex­er­cise.

Rue­fully ad­mit­ting that, as hap­pens dur­ing every se­ries of MKR, he has piled on the weight in re­cent months (“I have put on 10 ki­los; it’s ter­ri­ble – when you work you just for­get about your­self”), he is now de­ter­mined to “go hard”.

“So that will in­volve di­ets, no booze and sport,” he says, wrin­kling his nose up at the prospect. “I am full on; it’s ei­ther ev­ery­thing or noth­ing. I hate run­ning, but I will try to do it be­cause it works, and I have de­cided to try box­ing. Not that I want to get punched in the head – I want to punch the bags.”

As to the fu­ture, Manu’s fo­cus is very much on fam­ily. Hav­ing had to re­peat­edly de­lay his wed­ding to Clarissa, most re­cently in Jan­uary this year be­cause her father had a heart is­sue, he is de­ter­mined it will hap­pen soon. “Next year it is sup­posed to be.”

He is also de­ter­mined to de­vote at­ten­tion to his kids, feel­ing some re­gret at the time he lost with Jonti while work­ing long hours in restau­rants a decade ago. “It was hard enough when he was young and I don’t want to do the same again,” he says. “Kids – you only get them once, and you get that time with them only once.”

And for all that he’s loving his tele­vi­sion ca­reer, and plan­ning an­other food and travel show, you get the sense that, at some point in the not too dis­tant fu­ture, Manu would love to be able to just en­joy cook­ing and eat­ing with­out think­ing about photo shoots or TV cam­eras.

When asked where he would like to be in 10 years’ time, his an­swer is sim­ple. “Re­tired and eat­ing my way around the world with my wife,” he says with a lazy smile. “And not wor­ried about my weight any more.”

“I don’t want to do the same again. Kids; you get that time with them only once”

MKR NZ starts on Septem­ber 25, on TVNZ 2.

Manu with fi­ancée Clarissa Weerasena

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