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At home with MKR’s Manu Feildel

Popular French chef Manu Feildel talks food, fatherhood and how he knew his fiancee was The One.

The gastronomic gauntlet was thrown down from the very beginning. When Clarissa Weerasena met Manu Feildel in the elevator of Sydney’s Ivy nightclub five years ago, the flirty French chef was already famous as co-host of the top-rating TV show My Kitchen Rules (MKR) – but the Perth jewellery store manager had no idea who he was.

“He comes up to me and says, ‘Your friend says that you can cook better than me,’ and I said, ‘I probably can,’” recalls 41-year-old Clarissa. “I thought, who the hell are you?”

Clarissa was on holiday, but the pair swapped numbers and caught up for lunch when Manu was next in Perth. It wasn’t love at first sight, but the couple fell for each other over the following six months – and when he tasted her cooking, he knew he’d hit the jackpot.

“Clarissa ticked all the boxes – and that was the biggest box,” says 43-year-old Manu. “I was like, thank God! She loves eating and she loves cooking – she’s perfect!”

To Clarissa’s surprise (“We’d always talked about not getting married”), Manu proposed in 2013 and she became a first-time mum last year with the birth of Charlee (now 21 months) – a second child for Manu, who has 11-year-old son Jonti from a previous relationship.

Coming home to Clarissa and the kids, says Manu, has made cooking after work a lot more appealing.

“Usually [chefs] just go home and eat crap because you don’t want to be cooking again, but with the family it’s different,” he says. “It’s always a pleasure to cook because it’s a pleasure to eat – it’s sitting around the table and talking about your day. That’s what every family should be doing.”

Cooking together over a glass of wine is probably the couple’s favourite pastime, so it made sense, for Manu’s fourth cookbook – and Clarissa’s first – to produce a compilation of home-cooked meals they have on high rotation.

The result is More Please! My Family Recipes You’ll Love to Cook and Share (Murdoch Books), an eclectic mix of dishes from Oxtail and Carrot Stew and Black Hokkien Noodles to “Grandma-in-law’s Laksa” and “Jonti’s Favourite Mince” (a tasty, albeit not terribly photogenic, winner with the kids). Manu shares dishes he grew up with, while Clarissa draws on her Chinese, Malay and Sri Lankan roots, revealing secret family recipes.

Clarissa, who migrated from Malaysia 21 years ago to study in Perth, says the Asian dishes are mostly her domain, but she and Manu have influenced each other; she now adds butter, for instance, to her fried rice.

The family eats the same meal and the kids have to at least taste it; Jonti, however, jokes that when they get a dog, he’ll be slipping offensive food, namely mushrooms and tomatoes, under the table.

Today, at the family’s renovated four-bedroom semi in Sydney’s south-east, Jonti and his dad arrive for the photo shoot wearing matching checked shirts and jeans, with identical hairdos. Sweet and attentive with his sister, Jonti offers to fetch Charlee from her morning nap and feeds her a spinach omelette in her high chair, in between high-fives and fist bumps.

When Clarissa emerges from hair and make-up in a white mini, Manu wolf-whistles his appreciation. “Hubba, hubba!” he says.

As they pose for pictures in the kitchen, Manu kisses Charlee and cheekily grabs his fiancée by the hips. Standing behind Clarissa, he jokes, “I can hide my belly behind you.”

Manu is midway through MKR’s five months of filming, working up to 15 hours a day, and has already put on 5kg. When you’re eating late into the night, weight gain is an occupational hazard, so Manu is trying to make his peace with it – because self-denial is miserable.

“It’s not a cliché – food is my life,” he says.

“I’ve been trying to keep the weight off the last few years but I’m getting to a point where, like, bugger off. Every time I try to lose my weight, I don’t like my life, so I’m just going to take the mirrors off the wall.”

Manu walked the Kokoda Trail for charity in 2011.

Still, during a break, Manu serves Paleo chicken liver pâté, made with coconut cream. He lost 7kg last year after taking dietary tips from longtime friend and co-host “Paleo Pete” Evans, but seemed to fall off the wagon in spectacular fashion when he launched a new Magnum ice-cream earlier this year.

“I don’t think we’ve got different food philosophies,” Manu says of Pete. “We’ve got different lifestyles.”

For Manu, having a baby again has been wonderful, if initially wearing. As a newborn, Charlee was tongue-tied and struggled with reflux, so she was crying all day and night.

“I really thought I knew everything about babies,” he says. “I didn’t. The first couple of months were like, whoa! I’d forgotten how hard it is.”

Manu won Dancing with the Stars

Now, though, Charlee sleeps 13 hours every night, he says, and has turned into a mini-Manu: a clown who can be a little grumpy. Despite his gruelling schedule, Manu actually sees more of her than he did of Jonti as a baby because he no longer has to run restaurant kitchens at night.

These days, Jonti lives with Manu half the time and Manu enjoys watching his son’s rugby matches on weekends, shouting from the sidelines.

Around his neck is a silver necklace Clarissa gave him last Father’s Day, with two pendants, one bearing the word “hero” and the other “love” – because he is Jonti’s first hero and Charlee’s first love.

“When you have kids,” says Manu, “all you worry about is their wellbeing. I was raised just by my mum and always found it hard to understand what must be going on for a dad who leaves his family.”

Growing up in Brittany, Manu didn’t see much of his father after his parents split when he was four.

“I can’t imagine not being there,” says Manu, who broke up in 2009 with Jonti’s mother after 12 years together.

“The same thing happened to me – people split, people divorce – but, for me, the first thing in my head was, [Jonti] is always going to have me, regardless.”

Manu and co-host Pete Evans have made MKR a ratings hit.

Manu’s dad, a chef, was largely absent during his childhood, but the pair became closer when Manu left school at 15 and started working for him. The teenager had been taking circus classes since the age of 13, but decided to settle for “the normal life” after dropping out of school.

“I wanted to be an entertainer, make people laugh, maybe be a comedian – cheffing was never on the table, ever, but I love food,” says Manu. “Mum didn’t know what to do with me and she said, ‘Why don’t you work with your dad for a year?’ It was the best thing that happened to me.”

After moving to London without any English at 17 and rising through the ranks there, Manu relocated to Australia in 1999, where he opened the kitchen of Bilson’s at The Radisson and first dipped a toe into TV on Ready Steady Cook in 2005. Since then he has married his passions for food and entertaining, winning Dancing With the Stars in 2011 and helping to make MKR a ratings winner.

Along the way, he has released cookbooks, walked the Kokoda Trail for cancer charity CanTeen, supported other charities including Plan International Australia in Africa, and made TV specials such as Around the World with Manu – the highlight of which was spruiking potato burgers on a chaotic passenger train in India.

“I don’t want to be bored,” says Manu, “and I don’t want to get old.”

With back-to-back work commitments, it’s no wonder he and Clarissa can’t find the time for a wedding. They have toyed with the idea of an island ceremony, perhaps in the Maldives, but nothing has been arranged yet.

When Manu proposed over dinner at a three Michelin-starred restaurant in Hong Kong three years ago, Clarissa was floored.

“It was such a beautiful gesture because marriage to us, it wasn’t ‘a piece of paper’,” she says.

“It was him saying, ‘I’d never thought about marrying anyone, but I want to make this special for us.’”

Unfazed by the paparazzi and ardent female fans, Clarissa is a good foil for her husband-to-be.

“He’s very flamboyant and okay with the limelight; I’m quite happy being in the background,” she says. “That’s the big difference between us and it works because I don’t think you can have two big personalities – it starts to [create] friction. And we’re so alike in other ways – we love food and travel.”

Says Manu, “We complete each other.”

In Dubai for the TV special, Around the World with Manu.

Clarissa is Buddhist and Manu isn’t religious, so they are not big on Christmas, but exchange presents and usually go on holiday overseas. Last year, they went skiing in Japan with Clarissa’s family, who live in Malaysia.

Manu has lived in Australia for 17 years, which must make him an honorary Aussie larrikin, but doesn’t he feel some pull to France? Isn’t France where he feels most at home?

“No way!” he shoots back. “I’m home here! I’ve been here as long as I lived in France. I don’t think in French, I don’t watch French news or French movies, I don’t hang out with many French people. I’ve got a French accent – but that pays the bills… I look at my life today and I feel bloody lucky.”

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