Over some train tracks, down some tree-lined streets, past the sea and through the marae greeting posts lies the small seaside settlement of Maketu, where Karena and Kasey Bird are quietly building a business empire.
If you’ve heard of the Bay of Plenty village, it’s probably for the pies. Maketu Pies are a Kiwi favourite, a bite of foodie heaven in rural New Zealand. But Maketu is also the home and heart of the Bird sisters, the 2014 winners of MasterChef, who are not only aiming to change the face of Kiwi cooking but also tinkering with the idea of total world domination.
“Everyone’s like ‘Oh, you’re a girl, so this is where your dreams are,’” says Karena, the eldest of the sisters at 28, gesturing low to the ground.
“Then it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re young, so this is where you are,’” – she raises her hand slightly higher – “and then when you’re from a small town as well? They just try to stick you in one box. F**k boxes. You can be anything you want.”
Kasey, younger by one year, sends her a nervous glance at the swear word. The sisters, Karena in particular, have been warned numerous times by their father, Kerry Bird, to watch their language, given the number of beeps that scattered the candid dialogue of their TV 1 series Karena and Kasey’s Kitchen Diplomacy when it screened every Sunday night.
We’re sitting in the lounge of their parents’ house in Maketu at the dining table, which is currently covered with a page-by-page layout of their upcoming second cookbook. The walls are also covered in pages from the book: recipe pictures, stories, scrawled notes.
On a table under a window, in between the television and a stand filled with family photos and war medals, sit three large bowls. Their mother, Atarangi, has been making kombucha every week for years and is fastidious about ‘the atmosphere’ that surrounds the bowls of fermented tea: if there’s too much negative energy, the brew can become bitter. So every time the girls swear, they have to go over to the kombucha and apologise. But Karena has been drawn too far into her passionate diatribe to remember that.
“Gordon Ramsay swears all the time and just because he’s a man, it’s okay? F**k that. I hate that stuff.”
Good luck to the kombucha, that’s all I can say.
When the sisters were very young, they both had a clear idea of what they wanted to be when they grew up. Kasey wanted to be a chef, Karena wanted to be rich. The value of money had been passed down to them from their father, a chartered accountant.
“I would say to Dad, ‘Money doesn’t buy happiness!’ and he’d say, ‘Money can’t buy you happiness, but money gives you options, and options give you freedom, and freedom gives you happiness’,” says Karena.
The girls were raised to make their own decisions and stick to them.
“Our parents never chose anything for us, they always presented us with options,” Karena says. “And whether we made a mistake or whether it was a good decision, it was our decision.”
But each choice had to come with a solid argument; Kasey recalls the time when Karena decided she wanted to get a new mobile phone, so she created a PowerPoint presentation for her parents about why she needed it.
“She said to them, ‘Mum and Dad, I have something I’d like to present to you tonight at dinner… This is my proposal.’ She was about 13 at the time.”
The Bird family live in separate houses within a stone’s throw of each other in Maketu – Kasey and younger sister Michaela live directly across from their parents, with Karena just down the road.
The girls are a testament to their small-town upbringing and not in the cutesy, patronising way city folk can sometimes refer to rural New Zealand. They’re fiercely, unapologetically ambitious, and yet still consider the opinions of their parents to be the most important benchmark. They have wowed chefs and locals alike in Japan, France, China, and India while filming Kitchen Diplomacy, but the Maketu community remain the sisters’ biggest critics and cheerleaders.
“Everything we do, we think ‘would our parents be okay with this?’ Would we be able to show up at our house and say ‘we’ve made this decision’ and stand by it?” says Karena.
One of the biggest battles the pair have faced was arguing their case to appear on MasterChef at all. The sisters always had a passion for food.
At high school, their ‘hobby’ was making the three-hour drive to Auckland to spend all their pocket money on fine-dining restaurants, where they photographed the food and then recreated it in their parents’ kitchen, where they still do most of their cooking today.
After school, however, they picked ‘safe’ options for their careers and before MasterChef Karena was working as an auditor in Te Puke while saving up for culinary school in Sydney. Kasey was studying accounting, after briefly moving to Melbourne to do a fashion course.
They entered the competition on a whim while watching Ratatouille – the animated film about a rat who dreams of becoming a chef – and when they got the callback, their mum said yes but their dad said no. If they wanted to be chefs, he argued, they were to do it the proper way: start at the bottom and work their way up.
“He doesn’t believe in shortcuts,” says Kasey.
So the girls set about proving to their father how serious they were about competing. They wrote a list of all the gaps in their knowledge and worked hard to fill them, printing out full-colour butcher’s diagrams of cows, pigs and chickens, teaching themselves five dishes for every cut of meat, and studying cuisines they were unfamiliar with.
Already huge fans of the international incarnations of MasterChef, they went back and studied them religiously. They convinced their father and in turn the judges; Kasey says after only a few challenges, the pair had started to feel they could win the show.
This brief backstory is important: the mixture of self-belief and fastidious preparation is what sets the Bird sisters apart. You could mistake their confidence for Gen Y entitlement, until you see them in action.
During the whizzbang 30-minute episodes of Kitchen Diplomacy, they transform from bubbly, enthusiastic, always slightly overdressed 20-somethings to full-on kitchen professionals. This is not entitlement, this is talent, pure and simple – backed up by a lot of hard work.
So, when the MasterChef team told Kasey and Karena the cookbook they would create as part of their winner’s contract would follow the same format as the previous victors, they weren’t having it. They’d already started planning their first cookbook and, to put it simply, they weren’t going to be told how to do it.
“There was no wiggle room: [the publishers] had picked a designer, a photographer, and it had to be the same size and same paper quality as all of the other ones,” says Karena.
“It was a set format. We had a clear idea of what we wanted so we asked about making changes and they were like ‘No, this is the way it is,’” adds Kasey. “We were the fifth winners and it was a little like ‘Why does it have to be different for you?’”
In fairness, you can see the publisher’s point: the cookbooks from previous winners like Nadia Lim and Chelsea Winter had enjoyed huge success, and as the saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But it didn’t fit with the particular vision the girls had and they weren’t afraid to say so.
“We didn’t think there was anything wrong with it; we loved our entire MasterChef experience so much and we didn’t want any of those relationships to be broken down – but it wasn’t what we wanted to do,” says Kasey. “We started looking up all this information about self-publishing and it got to the point where it was like, actually we can do this.”
This kick-started a three-month negotiation process between the Birds and the publishers. It was also one of the only times the sisters disagreed. Kasey thought it would be easier to go along with the contract for the first book and hope for more creative control the next time around, but Karena was steadfast. Kasey recalls having to leave the room at times during the talks but they won out in the end.
The makers of the TV show called the girls in and told them they could do the first book themselves, but the show’s producers wanted the first option to make a TV series with them. Kasey and Karena couldn’t believe their luck; creative control and a future TV show all in one go. All they had to do was create a cookbook from scratch – how hard could that be?
“The best thing about the world today is Google,” says Karena. “You can figure out anything. We looked up a photographer, we found a designer we liked by looking at cookbooks we liked, and we looked at the inside of the cookbook to find the printers they used.”
They split the groundwork 50/50: Karena took control of art direction, plating the dishes, working with the photographer to get the shots right. Kasey did the cooking, then organised the press release, the media and the subsequent book tour during which the sisters covered 64 locations countrywide in one month.
One week after its release, their cookbook For The Love Of…, which the sisters had been told was ‘never going to sell for your audience’, hit number one.
Not only that, but when they entered it into the 2016 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, they scooped the top prize at the Shanghai ceremony, beating culinary great Rick Stein in the process.
“The awards were a blur,” recalls Kasey. “We got back to our hotel room and were in hysterical laughter, but crying at the same time.”
“It hit how much we had to go through to get this book,” adds Karena. “If you’re a young girl, it’s just assumed you don’t know what you’re doing. It was exhausting and risky and then to be recognised on a world stage for a book that we made here, in Maketu... I felt so empowered.”
The original concept for Karena and Kasey’s Kitchen Diplomacy was that the pair would travel around New Zealand and cook. Then the director suggested they ‘go big’ and do a world tour instead: 10 cities where the girls take in the sights and flavours of different cuisines before cooking for the New Zealand ambassadors and their high-falutin guests.
It would involve, by far, their most VIP audiences. So once again, they set about preparing for the challenge.
Kasey called My Kitchen Rules NZ judge Ben Bayly, head chef at two of Auckland’s most prestigious restaurants, to ask if the sisters could work in his kitchens to ensure their skills were up to scratch. For two months they worked full-time – unpaid – at The Grove and Baduzzi, before heading off to the south of France to repeat the process under Kiwi chef Nick Honeyman.
“If we were going to do it, we might as well go to the best chefs and the hardest kitchens,” Karena says. “We only had two months, we didn’t have years and years like everyone else.”
“Go hard or go home,” adds Kasey.
If the food they’re cooking is increasing in complexity, their high-school hobby of eating in fine-dining restaurants has ramped up a few notches as well.
The pair tick off ritzy restaurants they’ve visited on their recent travels: La Pergola, the only three-Michelin star restaurant in Rome; Ledoyen, one of the oldest restaurants in Paris; Ultraviolet in Shanghai, where just 10 guests are served 20 courses with complementary projections, smells and noises filling the room.
The sisters even flew on a whim to Copenhagen, on the back of another trip to Europe, to try to get a table at Noma, which has been voted best restaurant in the world four times and has a five-month waiting list of more than 20,000 hopeful foodies.
It’s the only time they’ve ever tried ‘Do you know who we are?’ – and it worked, the pair were granted a last-minute sitting the day they were due to fly out.
“It’s an expensive hobby,” laughs Kasey.
The title of the next cookbook – due to launch later this year and currently lining the inside of the Bird family home – is Hungry. It’s what the pair are, Kasey explains: hungry for “more experiences, more knowledge”.
While their first book was a love letter to their mother’s cooking and their MasterChef journey, Hungry is the story of what came next – an autobiography in recipes, if you like.
“We went right back in our calendar to when we published the first book, and wrote down all the significant events we had cooked for, all of which had a recipe that fit. We have recipes from the show, or from cooking at Taste Of Auckland, what we cook for Christmas, or our mum or dad’s birthday.”
These days, their calendar is booked up six months in advance, but even though they rarely get to spend more than two or three days at home, the pair are reluctant to move to Auckland, or anywhere else. The pull of Maketu and their family is too strong.
Instead of a fancy launch party for the premiere of their TV series in Auckland, the sisters opted for a more low-key get-together back home with family and friends. Karena smoked some chickens in the backyard, while Kasey made a pork roast with pickled apples. Despite all their globetrotting, Maketu remains their favourite place.
“We’ll be in the best restaurant in the world and then we get to come back here,” says Kasey. “It’s so calming. It’s good for keeping your feet on the ground and reminding you of what’s important.”
Tradition is very important to the sisters: all the amazing restaurants they’ve been to, they say, have one thing in common: a modern take on the food the chefs grew up with. For their next project, they want to compile a compendium of traditional Māori recipes, travelling the length of New Zealand to learn more.
“When people ask us, ‘What is New Zealand cuisine?’ it’s such a hard question to answer,” says Kasey. “It would be great to come up with an answer to that. Especially with Māori culture, a lot of those recipes are passed down through word of mouth. But that’s not happening as fast as it should; our elders are dying and that information is dying with them.”
If that weren’t enough, they also want to open a restaurant where they can celebrate their unique brand of Māori fusion cooking – a niche that earned them an invitation to China by NZ Trade & Enterprise to be the face of ‘Kiwi week’, creating a month-long menu for two Shanghai hotels.
“We’re taking our food to the world,” says Kasey.
There are plans for more books, more TV series, too, and the sisters would like to become fluent in Te Reo and possibly one other language.
“French would be useful for cooking,” muses Kasey.
Karena’s number one goal is still to be ‘super rich’, but only so their restaurant can reflect their creativity without having to be commercially viable.
Their plans are certainly ambitious, but considering just two-and-a-half years ago they were working in accounting and auditing and are now among the biggest names on New Zealand’s culinary scene, I wouldn’t bet against them achieving each and every goal.
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