FOODIE FOLK A chat with foodie superstars Karena and Kasey Bird
KARENA AND KASEY BIRD HAVE NOTCHED UP A MASTERCHEF WIN, A HIT TV SERIES AND BEST-SELLING BOOK. BUT THEIR GREATEST JOY TO DATE IS IN SHOWCASING THEIR CULTURE WITH A MULTI-SENSORY MIX OF MAORI LEGEND AND FOOD
It’s a photo that’s going straight to the pool room. With their foreheads and noses pressed against those of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Karena and Kasey Bird couldn’t help but grin as they performed a hongi with Harry and Meghan on the grounds of Te Papaiouru marae in Rotorua.
At the time, they say laughing, they were just focussed on not embarrassing themselves in front of the Royals, while at the same time trying to focus on the meal they were in the middle of preparing for 180 people, the duke and duchess included.
Now, however, as they look back on this and all of the other remarkable feats they’ve accomplished since winning Masterchef in 2014, they take a second to appreciate just how far they’ve come.
“It feels like 10 years ago!” Karena (30) laughs, referring to their reality TV win.
“Since then, there have been so many full-circle moments, like cooking for the royals – our great-grandparents were in the kitchen when Prince Andrew visited (in 2007). And recently we were asked to be chefs at a Leukaemia and Blood Cancer foundation dinner – just a few years before that, we were just guests, and then all of a sudden we’re cooking alongside the likes of Peter Gordon and Al Brown.”
Adds 29-year-old Kasey, “To be part of that group really made us feel like we were on the right path.”
The sisters, who still live in their tiny Bay of Plenty hometown of Maketu – population 900 – took their time deciding on that right path, they freely admit.
Fame, attention and the glare of the spotlight doesn’t come naturally to the pair, a concept perhaps at odds with their TV beginnings. While they’ve enjoyed great success since – and have gone on to star in two seasons of their award-winning show Karena and Kasey’s Kitchen Diplomacy – it’s been their other projects, such as their self-published cookbooks and, most recently, the birth of their aptly-named Creation Dinner, that have given them the most contentment.
“The amount of different stuff we’ve crammed into the last four years has been pretty wild,” nods Kasey, the younger and perhaps more subdued of the sisters.
“But it’s been good. It’s really given us an understanding of what we really want to do and a real focus. And now we know it’s not really television. We find more satisfaction in other things, and it’s nice to take a step back from the spotlight a little bit. We find the whole idea of
‘Everything is about storytelling; that’s where food is going’
trying to sell ourselves really hard; we struggle with it.”
Their success has been hard-won. Though they enjoyed profile and plaudits following their Masterchef win, the girls quickly found their provenance to be detrimental when it came to fulfilling their dreams of becoming professional chefs.
“We weren’t taken seriously at all,” Karena admits. “I mean, we came from a reality show! And there were chefs who had worked in kitchens for years and years, who had started from the bottom and were working their way up to the top – and there we were.”
So they decided that the only way forward was to take a step back, and they worked for free in two of Auckland’s best restaurants for two months, learning how a kitchen worked. They then did the same thing in the south of France at Kiwi chef Nick Honeyman’s former restaurant, Le Petit Léon.
With a bit of pedigree behind them, Karen and Kasey then set out to discover who they were as chefs, and quickly realised that their strength and passion lay in their roots.
Showcasing their culture – through both food and storytelling – is their greatest joy, and the drive that led to the Creation Dinner, a series of pop-up restaurants that spanned the nation in 2018. Exceptionally intimate affairs with no more than 30 people per sitting, guests would first gather at a meet-up location before being taken to the mystery location, often a marae, but Karena and Kasey’s Wellington guests were taken to the Beehive (yes, that Beehive – even they can’t figure out how they managed to swing that particular location!).
Once settled, diners were then treated to a seven-course meal, complete with wine matches, that were designed to mirror the story of sky father Ranginui and earth
mother Papatuanuku – the creation story of Aotearoa.
But as well as telling the tale through their food – think pork and watercress consommé, butter-poached crayfish and crayfish dumplings, miso-bruléed kumara with puha, and vanilla and passionfruit panacotta with manuka honey – the story of New Zealand played out in projections on the roof and walls, with Te Karere presenter Scotty Morrison’s booming voice narrating.
It’s a unique concept and a real first for New Zealand, but the idea came during the sisters’ travels for Kitchen Diplomacy, when they realised plating up food, however delicious or impressive it is, wasn’t enough any more.
“Everything is about storytelling; that’s where food is going. Why don’t we just do something that tells a story, our story?” Karena remembers asking herself.
“So, we did. It’s very different, and it was a risky move. But to have it pay off, and for the final product to turn out exactly as we’d hoped, has been really cool.”
It’s definitely fair to say Karena and Kasey are far from risk adverse – the sisters famously turned down a portion of their Masterchef prize, a cookbook deal, because they weren’t happy with the format it would have been published in. Instead, they decided to self-publish, and their resulting cookbook For the Love Of won a prestigious international cookbook award in 2016.
And the pair already had a legacy of incorporating traditional Maori flavours into their cooking; a talent which helped them win Masterchef in the first place. They effortlessly intertwine their culture into their food, as well as in the way they operate their small but burgeoning empire – it’s simply a by-product of their complete inability to be anything but themselves. It even extends to the logistics of the events – their sister Michaela hosts and is in charge of wine matching, while they recruited young women from Maketu and taught them the intricacies of fine-dining service.
“I’m the oldest in our crew, and I’m 30!” Karena laments. “We even roped in the cousins too – one of them does our sound and AV. It’s a real family affair.”
The next step, they nod, is to take the Creation Dinner internationally, starting with a trip to Japan to coincide with the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and then perhaps China.
“Our biggest goal is that we want to take as many of our crew over as possible, and get ourselves in the position to make the right partnerships to be able to take them all,” says Kasey. “We would have gone overseas sooner, but it wouldn’t be with everyone. “
Adds Karena, “We’ve got a few bits and bobs we’re working on. 2019 is going to be a good year!”
Maketu sisters Karena (left) and Kasey Bird. “The amount of different stuff we’ve crammed into the last four years has been pretty wild.”
Prince Harry peforms a hongi with Kasey at Te Papaiouru Marae, Rotorua, 2018.