MasterChef winner and author Chelsea Winter on her food philosophy and keeping balanced
MASTERCHEF WINNER, AUTHOR AND ADVOCATE FOR HOME-COOKED MEALS, CHELSEA WINTER SHARES HOW SHE STAYS BALANCED AND WHY NOTHING’S OFF THE MENU
‘There’s enough stress in life without having to obsess about every crumb you put in your mouth’
She’s not afraid of butter or cream, and she hasn’t given up sugar. Carbohydrates pass her lips on a regular basis, as do wheat and meat. Yes, looking after her health is important to Chelsea Winter, but so is the pleasure she takes in cooking and eating. And she reckons she’s found a way to balance one with the other.
“Food is obviously a huge part of being healthy – you really are what you eat,” says Chelsea. “My philosophy is to stay away from overly processed, refined, readymade food as much as possible. Sure, every now and then if I’m driving down to Hamilton I might go through a drive-thru – but it’s what you do most of the time that counts. And most of the time I stick to good old homemade, real food. There’s nothing I don’t eat.”
Having won MasterChef back in 2012, Chelsea has established a career as a writer of hugely successful cookbooks. Her recipes are family-friendly, and there are plenty of sweet treats in the mix, along with hearty dinners and Kiwi classics with a modern twist. So what about clean eating?
“I don’t pay any attention to it,” says Chelsea, resolutely. “Anyone who’s cooked out of my books will see that.”
The title of her fifth and latest book is Eat. Chelsea appreciates this can be a loaded word for anyone who has a tricky relationship with food. She’d like to be a part of changing that.
“What I want is to be giving people back a good relationship with food, because ironically I think the more you get wound up trying to follow whatever diet is trending, the unhealthier it is. There’s enough stress in life without having to obsess about every crumb you put in your mouth. And it’s not that hard to have a good diet.”
If you cook wholesome meals from scratch, rather than relying on the stuff from packets and jars, then you’re eating well, argues Chelsea. Admittedly she’s blessed with good genes and has never had to worry about losing kilos – in fact she was that kid at school who always got teased about being too skinny.
“I don’t count calories,” she says. “I’ve never been down that track.”
Instead her focus is on making food delicious. Vegetables are important, but serve them up plainly steamed and most kids are likely to push them to the side of the plate, she points out. So in Eat there is a cauliflower and pumpkin bake
smothered in a rich, creamy, cheese sauce. Definitely not low-fat. “But at least you know your kids are going to be getting some vegetables.”
Chelsea is all about moderation and balance – it’s how she approaches the ways she works and plays, as well as how she eats. That hasn’t always been the case. After the MasterChef win, she stepped away from a corporate job to build a career in food and for a while thought she had to say yes to every new opportunity that came along. Not surprisingly she ended up feeling exhausted and burnt out.
So after turning 30, Chelsea paused for a moment to focus on how she could make positive changes to the way she was living.
“I had a good think about things that weren’t adding value to my life any more,” she explains. “And I decided alcohol was one of those things. I took a couple of months off and liked it so much I decided to keep going. Now I always have a really clear head and limitless energy. It’s awesome! I very, very rarely drink alcohol and I think that plays a huge role in my good health.”
At about the same time, Chelsea sat down with her husband of four years, entrepreneur Mike Bullot, and worked out which parts of her new foodie career were giving her the most satisfaction. She realised what she enjoyed was writing the recipe books and interacting with her community of readers via her Facebook page, which has more than 350,000 followers. So she learned to say no to work offers that will pull her attention and energy away from those key areas.
These days when Chelsea wakes in the morning she doesn’t panic about the long list of tasks she has to get through. “I wake up and go ‘Cool, I love everything I’m doing, more or less’ and I feel really fortunate.”
‘Food is a huge part of being healthy – you really are what you
Heading into her early 30s, Auckland-based Chelsea also made changes to the way she was exercising.
“I used to be a jogger but got to the point where I felt like it wasn’t that good for my body any more so I stopped,” she explains. “Then I got really into yoga, but when life is busy it can be tricky getting to a class.”
In the winter her main physical activity is walking their dog, Sprite, twice a day on a local beach. In the summer months she steps things up a lot. “That’s when I’m really active – body boarding, trying to surf, swimming and hiking.”
She loves beach life and whenever possible visits her family at Mt Maunganui or heads over to Great Barrier Island where she and Mike have bought a section they plan to camp on this summer.
“Those are my happy places,” she says. “Pretty much as soon as the holiday season starts we’re out of the city and at the beach.”
Before too long they hope to make a more permanent move out of the city. Chelsea, 33, is not really an urban girl, and besides she’s longing to start a family and would like to give her kids the same sort of outdoorsy, rural upbringing she enjoyed.
“I’m pretty much the last one of my friends to have a baby,” she admits. “So we’re hoping we can make it happen some time in the near future.”
Family is hugely important to the couple and they’re excited about the prospect of having kids of their own. But Chelsea’s not one for stressing over things she can’t control and has a philosophy that life tends to work out the way it’s meant to – which is why she is currently saying “if it happens, it happens”.
In the meantime, she’s been fulfilling her ambition to travel more, recently visiting Holland with her Dutch-born mum Annemieke. “That was amazing,” she says. “I felt a real sense of coming home.”
The pair returned to Annemieke’s birthplace and met up with lots of long-lost relatives. Chelsea loved getting an insight into a culture that is part of her heritage. And the food was a highlight. “The Dutch really know how to do a good cheese!”
Chelsea loves cheese. She loves butter slathered onto crusty bread with maybe a sprinkling of salt. And yummy, creamy dishes. And chocolate cake – possibly for breakfast.
Joy on a plate
Food is happiness for Chelsea. She likes knowing that her recipes are being recreated in kitchens all over the country because it feels like spreading some of that happiness.
“Healthy is more than just a plate of food; it’s a lifestyle and it’s about balance,” she says. “As long as you’ve got some balance in what you’re eating and a lot of variation then healthy to me is about being able to have pudding after dinner and not worry about it because you know you’ve had some pretty good food throughout the day.
“That is the ideal – not looking at every ingredient and worrying about whether it’s healthy because that’s when you start to freak out. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve freaked out about food. Now it’s my very good friend and I love it dearly.”
‘Pretty much as soon as the holiday season starts we’re at the beach’
Eat by Chelsea Winter, Penguin Random House, $49.99.