Why Chelsea Winter feels at home in the country
The cookbook queen is happiest when she’s following the lead of her nature-loving mother.
Words: Emma Rawson Photos: Tessa Chrisp
Chelsea Winter has a pocket full of bits and bobs. Shells, rocks, seed pods and three shades of pohutukawa leaves collected on a walk along Point Chevalier beach, too precious not to rescue from being stomped on by a jogger engrossed in the sound in his headphones. It’s a habit she has picked up from her mother, artist Annemieke Farmilo who, 150 kilometres away, is traipsing around the green hills of Pukeatua, Waikato, with her nose to the ground, treasure hunting. Annemieke has an eye for spotting nature’s gems. She can see the tiniest of feathers in a puddle and rescue a kina shell smaller than a pea from sea foam on Great Barrier.
“My mum has a way of finding beauty in really simple things. The way she sees the world is the way I also want to live my life,” says Chelsea.
Annemieke uses her treasures – pounamu, glass and other natural pieces – in her art to make landscape scenes. Her art celebrates nature and challenges perspectives; put an object in a frame, and it forces the viewer to stop and focus on the fine lines of a gnarled piece of wood or the symmetry of a feather, she says. Take a step back, and the framed objects form a bigger picture.
Chelsea herself should never be taken at first glance. There’s Chelsea Winter at large – the phenomenon. The MasterChef winner with more than 350,000 Facebook fans, author of four cookbooks, all number one bestsellers, with a fifth book, Eat, hitting the shelves late September. Her third book Homemade Happiness is about to be translated into German. She is a successful public speaker and regularly travels with groups around Europe with Trafalgar tour company.
But take a closer look beyond the hoopla and Chelsea is a nature enthusiast who loves bush walks and bodysurfing. She grew up in the countryside on the outskirts of Hamilton with deer, chickens, pigs and a fat pony called Angie. She describes herself as “quite good at cooking”; her latest cookbook includes recipes requested by her Facebook fans. “Someone on my page asked if I had a cream doughnut recipe, so I made one. There’s a slow-cooker section for cooking with cheaper cuts of meat, because they asked for it.”
Her fans love her because she’s unapologetically, Chelsea. She speaks in her own language; part Roald Dahl and part Ches from Chesdale Cheese. Chelsea-isms include phrases such as: “Mum thinks I’m a better cook than her but that’s poppycock.” “I can’t wait to put this cake in my gob.” “I just galumphed a whole croissant.” And, “Get your laughing gear round this.”
She can ride a horse and quote the entire Jim Carrey movie Dumb and Dumber, not necessarily at the same time, although she’d give it a crack. On a “blimmin’ freezing” day in Pukeatua, where the fog from nearby Karapiro River is so thick it obscures nearby Maungatautari Mountain, Chelsea and her mum are “up at sparrow’s fart” out with the horses, Chelsea leading Mouse, a shetland pony around the paddock and Annemieke in the saddle of Blackbird, a quarter horse/arab.
“I frickin’ love this place. I love the fresh air. I love the earth. I love the animals. I feel at home. Mike [Chelsea’s husband] and I have made our house in Auckland cosy and nice, but the city isn’t me. It’s not until I get back into nature that I ever feel my true self,” she says.
It’s not a matter of if, but when, Chelsea moves from Point Chevalier, Auckland. She and Mike (Bullot, a successful entrepreneur and a former New Zealand representative in laser class sailing) are just debating the location. “We will definitely be moving after we start a family. At the moment I’m dead keen on going rural, and Mike’s hanging out to live by the sea. So it’s surf versus turf. Either way, it’s a win.” Chelsea’s dad Mark and her brother Simon and sister Dana all live in Mt Maunganui, so there’s family both in the country and by the sea.
The couple has already bought a patch of land on Great Barrier Island, a beach pebble’s throw from her mum and stepdad Kevin’s bach. It’s at the family bolt hole that Annemieke says Chelsea honed the cooking and problem-solving skills that led her to win MasterChef in 2012. From the age of six she was cooking off the grid alongside Annemieke, without a steady stream of grocery supplies. Simon and Dana are nine and 10 years her senior. She also has a stepbrother and stepsister, Jason and Lara, who are Kevin’s kids from a previous marriage. During the summer holidays on the Barrier, tents are pitched all over the sun-bleached yellow grass and there are usually about 15 kids to feed.
“I’m a big believer in a sack of onions and a sack of potatoes as a base for podging things out and making nutritional meals go a long way,” says Annemieke. “Kevin would take the kids out to catch fish, and we’d eat fish morning, noon and night and live off pipi or mussel fritters. Chelsea was six when we bought the bach, and she was in the kitchen from the beginning, thinking on her feet and managing what food we had with lots of laughter and silliness.”
That inventive kitchen thriftiness was installed by Annemieke’s parents. Her family immigrated to New Zealand from The Netherlands when she was six, some of the tens of thousands of Dutch nationals who moved to the land of milk and honey after World War II.
From Holland, her father left his job as a metallurgist and photographer with Phillips (he was part of a team who invented the coil inside a light bulb) to settle in Te Awamutu. In the beginning he cycled to Otorohanga to work in his brother-in-law’s fish and chip shop.
Annemieke and her siblings, who didn’t speak a lick of English, were enrolled at the local convent school. “It was quite frightening. We were all blonde and stood out from the others, and the nuns didn’t know what to do with us. On birthdays we were given a special treat of windmill biscuits on bread with butter and jam.
“The teasing from the other kids was bad and we worked out quickly that we didn’t want to have those biscuit sandwiches anymore.” She downplayed her Dutch-ness, and Annemieke’s (pronounced Ana-meek) name was shortened to Anna until she reclaimed it back a few years ago. “It meant a lot to have my birth name back. These days, I’m very proud of my Dutch heritage.”
“I am so aware of Dad’s sacrifice leaving Holland, and I thanked him so many times for bringing us here. Before he died I said, ‘Dad I can’t even find the words to say to you how I appreciate coming to New Zealand.’” Every day she is in awe of the beauty of the Pukeatua countryside, where the hills duck behind fog and the Karapiro River sparkles to life when it catches the midday sun.
Chelsea and her mum are headed to The Netherlands this September on the tail end of Chelsea’s “dream gig”, traveling on behalf of Trafalgar with a group around France.
“I’m keen to learn what I can from my mum and her heritage,” says Chelsea who included a few of Annemieke’s and her oma’s recipes in her first cookbook, At My Table. Earlier in her career, when she was apprehensive about writing a cookbook and doing a demo in front of 500 people at the Food Show, it was her mum who told her she can do anything and to shake off the nerves. And how could she really argue with a woman who taught herself to ride a horse at 57, and got back in the saddle six weeks after being thrown off, smashing her pelvis and sustaining an injury that resulted in about 30 breaks?
“That accident was horrific, but she just got back on her feet again. My mum has limitless energy, and there’s no issue that comes up that can’t be resolved,” says Chelsea.
“I look at the life she and Kevin have created here in the Waikato by working hard, and it makes me want to work hard too. She’s inspired me to value the beauty of nature, and installed the importance of family. And if I could be even a smidge as brave as her, I’d be away laughing,” says Chelsea.
NATURE OF THINGS
Annemieke has worked with many art forms, including oil and watercolour paints and glass art, but it was working in picture framing that set her on a journey that led her to create her signature framed, abstract expressions of New Zealand landscapes using pounamu (nephrite jade) and glass. The pieces are designed to place the viewer into the scene of the artwork. “The pounamu brings a sense of ruggedness. I hope people can hear gulls cry and feel the wind rustle the trees across the valley,” she says.
She is preparing to show her work in November at Inspirit Gallery in Hamilton, and in December alongside feather artist Fiona Kerr Gedson, at the Art Bay Gallery in Queenstown (the gallery’s owner Pauline Bianchi featured in NZ Life & Leisure, May/June 17). Kevin is a huge part of her work, the former joiner makes all her frames. “We bounce ideas off each other and we always find a way to make some crazy idea of mine work. Almost every art work creates a different challenge and I couldn’t do it without him.”
Chelsea’s parents Mark and Annemieke divorced when Chelsea was five, and both parents found their new partners quickly after separating. She’s close to both her stepdad Kevin and stepmum Heather, and a tight-knit family has been the backbone of her success. “MasterChef was hard, and the win was pretty surreal. But when the dust settled, it was a bit like, ‘Well done, and good luck, you’re on your own.’ So I thought, ‘OK, what now?’ I really couldn’t have got through it all without the support of my amazing husband, Mike, and my family; they’ve motivated me to do more and always encouraged me to be myself.”
EAT YOUR HEART OUT
Eat is Chelsea’s fifth book in five years. The Roasted Tomato Pasta, Golden Tuscan Chicken, Saltimbocca and a pesto recipe called Hey Pesto were influenced by her Trafalgar tours of Italy; she’s also used her Facebook fans as a source of inspiration. “When they ask for a ginger loaf, I make my version which is a Fresh Ginger and Pear Loaf. “Food can be confusing for people. They get all caught up with counting calories and things like, ‘Is this low-fat? Is it this low-carb? Is this sugar-free?’ “My focus is helping them make nourishing food from scratch using real ingredients. I want to teach them to get away from the packet sauces and all the pre-made stuff and actually enjoy cooking and eating.”