With MKR judges Manu and Pete coming for lunch, Kim Knight has a taste of host anxiety
With MKR judges Manu and Pete coming for lunch, Kim Knight has a taste of host anxiety
There was blood on the egg beater and blood on the oven dial. I hoped there was no blood in my icecream wafer biscuit mix. It tasted amazing. It was pillowy with hopes and dreams. I licked the beaters. I licked the toaster and the fridge door. Hopes and dreams had splattered everywhere.
My kitchen was a sugary Pollock and I was a bona fide mess. But if you can’t stand the heat, don’t set your oven to 250 degrees. I smoothed that wafer mix as flat as a hotel bed sheet and hoped 12 minutes was long enough to sterilise biscuit-borne pathogens.
Dear Pete and Manu, if you’re reading this, please know I am exaggerating for effect (but also trying not to cry when my thumb hits the space bar because, apparently, it is possible to cut your thumb while making wafers).
It was still summer when Australia’s most famous food critics rang my doorbell. I’d spent the weekend scrubbing the front porch with a toothbrush. For three days you couldn’t see my living room floor for the books containing recipes of the things I was going to cook for Australia’s most famous food critics. My boyfriend said I was being completely ridiculous when I cleaned the dust off the lightshade in the toilet for the first time in eight years.
My doorbell rang. “Gidday Kim, I’m Pete,” said Pete. And then he asked if he could use the toilet.
BY THE time you read this, Pete Evans and Manu Feildel will be filming Australia’s 10th season of My Kitchen Rules, the reality television competition where teams create instant restaurants in their own homes before a select group head to kitchen headquarters to slug it out for $250,000.
New Zealand got its own version in 2014 with chefs Ben Bayly and Gareth Stewart in the hosting hot seat. Last year, Seven Productions shortened the Kiwi season and flew Evans and Feildel in to judge. This February, they came back and did it all again. And, on the day before the pair went home to Australia, right after they posed for the promo photos for the season that starts on TVNZ 2 next Sunday, they had lunch at my house.
MKR is a popular show. In Australia, it pulls in around 1.5m viewers — or approximately all of Auckland — every episode. It’s so popular that in 2010, when contestants cooked lamb brains and ling, demand for these products reportedly increased by up to 480 per cent at the sponsoring supermarket.
Everybody has an opinion on MKR. From social media (“venison should be served rare, you dicks #MKRNZ”), to women’s magazines (“Haddil calls Emma a blowfish!”) to academic researchers (“the changing face of performativity in reality television”). There are heroes and villains and contestants who can’t fillet fish or (true story) have never eaten a lamb shank. But it’s just television. And Pete and Manu are only human. Still, I felt anxious. I texted my mother for advice.
Me: “If Pete & Manu were coming to your house next week to judge your cooking, what would you cook? Yes, they are coming to my house!!! And judging my cooking!!!”
Mum: “Ok who r Pete & Manu?”
PETE AND Manu. So famous now you can’t say one without the other. So famous now their surnames are lost to anybody born after the internet was invented. A recap: Manu is the French guy from the television ads for Campbell’s stock. Pete is the paleo guy from the cookbook health experts once said contained advice that might be lethal to babies.
Other things they are famous for: marrying Nicky Watson (Pete). Feuding publicly with national food critics (Manu). You can tell them apart because when Pete flogs soup stock, he calls it “bone broth”.
What to cook? I checked their Instagram accounts for clues. Among the things Pete packed for his trip to New Zealand were probiotics, liver capsules and collagen. Things he ate here included raw oysters (four times) and a chicken leg he apparently cooked in a motel room.
Among the things Manu brought to New Zealand were his mother-in-law. She cooked him nasi lemak with fresh gurnard purchased from the Auckland Fish Market and organic eggs from Matakana.
My original menu plan included a Big Ben
mince and cheese pie in a retro paper bag, but then I changed my mind and prepared kayakcaught, backyard-smoked Waitemata snapper chowder followed by ginger and Drambuie semifreddo with star anise-roasted pineapple and wafer biscuits. You’re welcome.
“EVEN BEFORE they start cooking, you can see who is going to be there at the end,” says Pete. “You can see the fighters, the people who are there for the right reasons, who want to change their lives, who have got something to prove. Generally people who say, ‘Oh, I don’t like this’ or ‘I don’t like fennel or oysters or this type of food.’ They don’t last very long.”
The biggest mistake contestants make, say these judges, is cooking something they’ve never cooked before. There’s a rumour producers choose the contestants’ dishes — but it’s only half true. At the beginning of each series, explains Pete, the home cooks supply up to eight three-course menus.
Manu: “We don’t choose for them, but we might swap something they’ve already given us.”
Pete: “It’s always their food, that they’ve submitted on paper.”
Because, for example, it would be boring if everybody made seafood chowder. Pete will later advise mine is not the first he’s eaten in New Zealand but the night before they’re due at my house, I’m blissfully unaware of the repetitive nature of Kiwi cuisine. I take an icecream container labelled “snapper stock, 800mls” out of the freezer. Three hours before Pete and Manu arrive, I open the container and discover it contains “sauce tomatoes, one litre”. F***.
In 2015, writing in Screen Education, Australian university lecturer Michelle Phillipov broke down the cinematic success of MKR, citing its classic three-act formula: the set-up, the confrontation and the resolution.
Phillipov noted the use of careful editing (“contestants I have spoken to often report that interview sessions can last up to 11 hours”) and costuming to create “characters”. She says clothes, which contestants can purchase post-filming, are supplied by the production company to help tell the story — the “nice girls” wear florals; the “country blokes” are in R.M. Williams and so forth.
I am wearing a dressing gown and tears. I find my narrative resolution between the peas and a bag of frozen dumplings. At a certain point, I will actually interview Pete and/or Manu but right now I have to microwave defrost some snapper stock and then pop to the shops for a locally sourced baguette. My restaurant is called “Hack”.
Usually, I cook by sight and sound, smell and taste. I never do mise en place — that thing where you put everything you need in little bowls — but I can’t afford any more mistakes. I assemble ramekins of precisely cubed onions, celery and carrot. I gently fry them off in a pat of butter, then I add flour and keep cooking it down. Eventually, I pour in my now-warm stock and whisk furiously.
Molecules collide. The incongruous becomes cohesive. It is not just the science of roux that makes me happy. Somewhere deep inside me is the winter my mother taught me macaroni cheese and the summer her mother taught her parsley sauce.
A splash of wine, a handful of par-cooked kumara and kernels from the last corn I’ll buy this season. The brown sugar-cured and manukasmoked snapper goes in last. I think I might have nailed this. I stack the last of the emptied mise en place bowls in the dishwasher and realise I have actually carefully loaded them all into my fridge.
By the time the doorbell rings, I have also boiled the jug with no water in it. The photographer is complaining the light is bad. I am 200 per cent more concerned my soup is bad because Pete and Manu are in my living room and they appear to have doubled in size since I last saw them on my television.
MANU: CAN you make less noise? Pete: It’s a sign of appreciation. Manu: In France, you get a smack in the head. Pete: We’re in Kiwiland now, mate. Go to nzherald.co.nz for the video verdict on what really happened, but, in brief, a chowderslurping Pete loved my soup (10) and liked my icecream (9). Manu loved my dessert (10) and liked my chowder (9). I lost points for the sweetcorn “that didn’t add anything” and the wafer “that could have been thinner”. The less said about the baguette, the better.
“It’s the humidity, darling,” said Manu while Pete flicked through a book called Being Human he’d taken from the art section of my bookshelf.
We are the same people we were 10 years ago, but people are looking at us differently. Manu Feildel
What is it like being Pete and/or Manu? “It gives you an interesting view into the world of celebrity,” says Pete.
“We are the same people we were 10 years ago, but people are looking at us differently,” says Manu.
Last night, for example, they ate at Auckland’s Cassia restaurant. Five minutes in, and diners were asking for photographs.
“I find it bizarre,” says Pete. “If I saw someone I really appreciate in the music business, or an actor, never in the world would I cross the road and say, ‘Please can I get an autograph?’ Maybe, if it was a sports legend, for my kids ... ”
Manu says back home, if he wants to swim, he waits until the evening when there are less people. He never shops in the weekends. The darkest moment of his celebrity so far might have been the 2014 review of his South Yarra restaurant Le Grand Cirque by John Lethlean in The Weekend
Australian that included this sentence: “It is all, ‘ow you say, tres ordinaire ... ”
“As a chef,” explains Manu, “You’ve got a huge ego. But it’s not only that, you put everything into it, you employ 40 staff, you borrow a lot of money from the bank ... There was a time where we were pretty much fully booked on a daily basis, and we went to empty after the critic.”
His restaurant closed down. “The depression kind of settled for a while,” says Manu.
Earlier this year, he announced he would be reviewing restaurants for Delicious magazine. He aims to prove, “You can still express the positive and the negative without being an arsehole ... it’s like the guy who puts the ticket on the car when you’re not parked properly. I feel like they’re just enjoying giving you the f***ing ticket.”
Lethlean’s response to Manu? He recently re-published the Le Grand Cirque critique for anyone who missed it first time round.
“Far out,” says Manu. “That’s being evil, man.”
Pete estimates that, between them, this pair has cooked more than a million meals. On MKR, he says, “We get amazing food. We definitely do — surprisingly, a lot of the time.”
Yes, he confirms, by the time they’re eating on camera it’s cold, but they will have usually tasted it hot, as soon as it’s made. Do they worry about food hygiene? That contestants haven’t cleaned the lightshade in the loo?
“I don’t think we’ve had a bad experience, in that sense. Generally, the production crew are in there helping out — they stock up on toilet paper and all that sort of stuff.”
In the instant restaurant rounds, there are at least four cameras at the dining table and two in the kitchen. Pete and Manu don’t sit through the entire meal, or the sometimes interminable wait between courses. “They open up a bit more when we’re not there, ” says Pete.
This year’s most explosive episode on the Australian season — the one where Manu actually tells two grown women they are excused from the table — had not even been promo’ed when the pair did this interview. But we had endured the season in which one contestant called another a slut, and another became known as “angry, angry man”.
Does anyone really go on My Kitchen Rules because they can temper chocolate or debone a chicken? In a recent article for the Australian Psychological Society, Hugh Mackay wrote: “Reality media have been conditioning us, however unintentionally, to accept and even to welcome the idea of a camera being trained on us.”
It is undeniably more interesting to watch someone who can’t fillet a fish than someone who can. But, back at my kitchen table, the judges say even the contestants who appear to only be on the show to get famous have one thing in common. Pete: They still believe they can cook. Manu: That is the issue.
MY KITCHEN RULES NEW ZEALAND STARTS SUNDAY, OCTOBER 7, 7.30PM, TVNZ 2