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

Food - - Contents - STORY KELLY BER­TRAND

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.

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