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Life lessons: Brett McGregor's new philosophy

The Masterchef winner is taking this show on the road

"There’s a new catchphrase in our family,” says former MasterChef winner turned professional foodie Brett McGregor, as he, wife Tracey and teenage son Jack prepare for our photoshoot in the lounge of their West Auckland home.
“Our family motto is 'Life is for creating memories.' We learned it from Tracey’s mum Maryann. It’s an amazing thing for someone to say...”
Sadly, Maryann passed away in Christchurch in March, just months after being diagnosed with terminal cancer – with Tracey (41) and Jack (13) spending much of her final months by her side, and Brett visiting whenever he could.
“She was always vivacious,” recalls Tracey, “and in her last months, she said, ‘Tracey and Brett, promise me that you’ll spend your life creating memories because it’s all you have. I can‘t take any of my stuff with me so all I have is the memories I have made.’”
“She changed us in so many ways,” adds Brett (43). “She put life into perspective and showed us the value of family and time. Money was irrelevant – it was all about the kids.”
For the former Christchurch deputy principal and his family, that means travelling the globe, tasting new food and enjoying new experiences – including an upcoming motorhome tour of the US.
Without wanderlust, Brett might never have met Tracey, although the two Kiwis had similar friendship groups.
“Despite both being from New Zealand, we met in London,” tells Tracey. “We were halfway around the world and Brett thought he was going to meet some lovely, exotic
European – and so did I – but we met through mutual friends at a party and that was it!”
Even back then, Brett, who was labouring for a living, was a passionate nomad. “I was always heading off!” he grins. “I did a lot of work in Germany, building silos. Then I’d travel for as long as I could.”
“Everyone was amazed at how long Brett would travel for,” laughs Tracey. “He went to India for nine months!” The globe-trotting couple settled in Hong Kong for a few years before coming back to New Zealand. But Brett’s love of Asia means he has spent much of the past three years in the continent in search of the perfect recipes to bring back home to tantalise Kiwi palates.
Despite both being from New Zealand, this globe-trotting pair met in London while both on their big OEs.
Among the favourites are a double-cooked pork belly, which Jack enthusiastically pronounces “the best”. It is among the mouth-watering recipes featured in the passionate foodie’s latest cookbook Chop Chop.
“I think it’s my favourite too,” says Brett. “It’s slow-cooked for four hours, then rolled and deep fried. It’s crispy on the outside and served in a chilli caramel which is slightly spicy but sweet. It’s a play between Chinese and Vietnamese.
“Another of my favourites I discovered when I was in Malaysia is curried fish and bamboo,” he adds. “You just cut out a bit of bamboo and throw it on the fire, and once the moisture stops coming out, it’s ready to go.”
Brett’s growing cooking empire is a family affair these days, with Jack recently appointed video guru and former accountant Tracey taking on the managerial side of things.
But there’s one thing his finance whiz wife can’t help with – tasting the food! Bizarrely, Tracey lost her sense of smell after Jack’s birth – a condition called anosmia – and for most of the past 12 years, it has remained AWOL and affected her taste buds too.
“I’ve been to the doctor so many times and they don’t know why,” she laments. “Apparently, it happens when someone whacks their head, but to my knowledge, I didn’t hit mine!”
Though curiously, just a couple of weeks before our shoot, her sense of smell briefly returned. “I was so excited,” she smiles. “Mind you, there were definitely good and bad things. I walked into Jack’s room and thought, ‘Oooh... is that what your room smells like?’
Soaking up the sights in Thailand with Jack.
“Brett was cooking garlic and bacon, and it smelled amazing! And everything tasted so much better. I could smell that it was going to rain, I could smell the grass, I went to the gas station and I could even smell the petrol! It was really overwhelming. And then,” she says, “just like that, it disappeared again. I think Brett was more traumatised about it than I was.”
“Yep – can’t taste, can’t smell,” says Brett ruefully. Still, that didn’t stop the accountant from getting involved in the tasting for Chop Chop. And while the family loves food – and a good glass of wine or two – health is important. So much so, that together with Jack they are training for a half-marathon in Queenstown in November.
“We had better start training,” laughs Brett as Jack grimaces. “We’re doing it as a family, but I’ve gotta cross the line first – even if it’s only one step! I’ll sprint at the end. We’ll start together but whether we also finish together remains to be seen.”
Shockingly, Tracey lost her sense of smell and taste 12 years ago.
A competitive streak could well run in the family if Brett’s mum Annette is anything to go by. A couple of years ago, the keen baker, known as “Queen of the Scones” in the small town of Eltham, in Taranaki, managed the impressive feat of making the biggest scone in the world, weighing in at a hefty 122kg!
“She was baking scones for the local Four Square and they were selling loads. A new owner took over and decided to get scones out of a packet. So she said, ‘No worries.’ She bought the place next door and started selling thousands of scones.
“I had some of the world’s biggest scone in my freezer for ages,” he laughs. “It’s not the best she’s ever baked, but it was a record breaker.” Does she have a special ingredient? “Love, she’d say,” smiles Brett. And judging by his thriving family business, it’s Brett’s secret ingredient too!
Chop Chop by Brett McGregor, Random House Books, RRP $45, is available now.

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