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

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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.


Pete Evans.

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