Chelsea Winter says she isn’t a jewellery girl, but there’s a delicate silver chain with a cute acorn pendant dangling from her neck at our Woman’s Day photo shoot. It’s the same one she sports in the pages of her first two cookbooks and it appears in her latest one too.
“My bestie Andrea gave it to me when I came out of MasterChef,” the blonde beauty explains, playing with the charm. “She didn’t know I’d won the show, and I was paranoid about the news getting out before it aired, so I told her a porkie and said I didn’t do that well. She bought it for me because, as the saying goes, ‘Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.’ I love it because it reminds me how far I’ve come.”
Indeed, since winning the 2012 season of the reality cooking series, the former banking marketer has become one of the country’s most beloved chefs. She’s now a household name with two best selling books – her third, to be released this Friday, will surely achieve similar success – and more than 250,000 Facebook fans.
“But it hasn’t been easy,” insists Chelsea, 31. “I’ve worked my butt off the entire time.
It’s been a huge learning curve. After MasterChef finishes, you don’t have a career set in stone – there aren’t people running up to you to offer you this and that. I’d actually considered going back to my old job.”
The financial security was tempting, she says, but in the end, Chelsea quit the bank and threw herself wholeheartedly into creating her first cookbook.
“I was scared,” she confesses, "but I believed in my food and I had nothing to lose. Plus, my mum always ingrained in me that I could achieve anything, as long as I worked hard and did what I loved.
“I was worried people might snub their noses at the book and say the recipes were too simple, but it sold out so quickly, it had to be reprinted several times. I didn’t expect it to be that successful – I would have been pleased just to get published!”
The immense popularity of At My Table led to a follow-up, Everyday Delicious, which also sold like hotcakes. There were also lucrative ad campaigns and, until recently, a column in Woman’s Day. But Chelsea’s success took its toll.
“For the past two years, I’ve run myself into the ground trying to do too much,” she admits.
“I was stressed and didn’t feel balanced. I needed to simplify my life and focus on writing cookbooks, creating new recipes and connecting with my fans. It’s only now that I’ve found a nice balance of my work and home lives. I’m in the zone and loving what I’m doing.”
Yet the mighty oak still has her bad days. While testing recipes for her third cookbook, Homemade Happiness, Chelsea admits that she experienced several kitchen catastrophes.
“The date loaf!” she groans. “I had a vision about how I wanted it to look, taste and feel, but it took me quite a few times to get it absolutely perfect. One time, the oven was on the wrong setting and the top went all black. I looked at it, chucked it out the kitchen window and thought, ‘You suck, loaf, and you’re bad at this, Chels!’”
The loaf is now one of her favourite recipes, but there were other tough moments in the making of the book – and whenever Chelsea was feeling down about the task at hand, she’d go through her fan mail to be inspired all over again.
“I know it sounds corny, but sometimes I sit there and I have tears rolling down my face. Every single day people send me incredibly touching messages, saying I’ve given them back their mojo in the kitchen, or I’ve made their lives more delicious.”
Suddenly, Chelsea’s husband of two years, Mike Bullot, 31, pipes up. “You’re gonna get a big head!” he jokes.
“It’s not about that,” she laughs. “It’s about knowing I’m on the right track and making a real difference in people’s lives.”
Mike acted as chief taster for Homemade Happiness and each dish had to be marked at least nine out of 10 to be selected. The rest of her family and a few friends also helped with selecting and presenting the dishes, not to mention the cleaning up!
“My family inspired me to put the book together,” she smiles. “It’s an extension of me and as I’ve evolved, I’ve realised it’s my family that’s important. It’s an amazing feeling knowing the recipes they love will be shared with other Kiwi families.
“I’m very fortunate to be where I am. I often wake up and have to pinch myself, like, ‘Is this my life?’ Because I love it and I’m so incredibly happy.”