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
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.”
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.”
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