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MasterChef’s Jonathan and Donna-Marie

Her son faced ill health from a young age but she's always by his side.
MasterChef's Jonathan and Donna-Marie

When former MasterChef New Zealand contestant Jonathan Odering suffered a stroke at the age of nine, doctors weren’t sure if he was going to live, let alone lead a normal life.

Now 26, Jon has defied the odds. Although his mum and MasterChef teammate Donna-Marie Sullivan (49) and the family worried about the impact the TV One show could have on his health, the Queenstown chef, who has permanent brain damage, says entering the show was the best decision he has ever made.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anyone else except Mum.”

When Jon was six months old, a cyst that had formed inside his head near his ear burst, leaking acid into the skull, which ate away at the bone.

After countless surgeries, an incident when Jon was nine resulted in blood clots, causing a stroke, as well as permanent brain damage.

“If you look at clips from the show, you can see one side of my head is quite curved in,” explains Jon.

The health effects Jon suffers include partial deafness and a “lag” between hearing and understanding information.

While life has been tough for both of them, Donna-Marie and Jon have a strong bond.

While Jon refuses to let his health issues hold him back, mum Donna-Marie, a Dunedin beauty therapist, admits that it made her think twice about entering the competition.

“He’s still quite vulnerable in certain aspects, but he’s mentally strong too. I was just worried how he’d handle it health-wise.”

The pair managed most challenges the gruelling show threw at them, but Donna-Marie had to repeat instructions the judges issued so Jon could remember them.

“I have to tell him everything again – that’s probably the thing that disturbs me the most,” she says. “I don’t think the public or even the other contestants know about that.”

“I can forget what I’m talking about sometimes and there’s that delay between hearing and understanding,” adds Jon. “It takes me a minute to recalibrate information.”

The very first challenge pushed Jon and Donna-Marie to their limits, when they were separated and had to perform one half each of Donna Hay’s baking challenge.

“I panicked,” Donna-Marie says. “I was thinking, ‘How’s he going to handle this? No-one is there to repeat what’s been said!’ But he was fine. [Fellow contestant] Jordan was like a big sister to him. She looked after him when I wasn’t there.”

Their relationship, while close before the start of the show, has strengthened even more.

“We’ve learnt to work better as a team,” says Jon. “It has made us appreciate the awesome relationship we’ve got. I’m definitely a mummy’s boy – I was pretty sure that would be quite noticeable!”

For Donna-Marie, working with Jon on MasterChef has made her realise how much her son has grown and how determined he is to always do his best.

“I didn’t actually realise how tired he can get,” she says. “But he’s so strong, he doesn’t want to let it affect him. Our relationship is changing as he gets older. We’re closer in a different way. It’s more of a friendship now, which is lovely.”

Entering MasterChef was a natural decision for the pair, who have shared a love of cooking for more than 20 years.

MasterChef’s Jonathan and Donna-Marie

“Mum saw the ad about entering on the same day I saw it online,” says Jon. “The next day, she texted me and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve entered us in MasterChef.’ I couldn’t believe it! There was no-one else that I wanted to enter with. So it all fell into place quite easily.”

The pair has the full support of Jon’s siblings – Benjamin (30), Adam (28) and Amanda, his twin sister who has had identical health problems to her brother.

“It’s funny, Amanda is the complete opposite to Jon,” says Donna-Marie. “She’s not much of a cook. But all the family thought it was amazing, though they have worried a little about Jon’s health.”

While it is natural for Donna-Marie and the rest of the family to feel protective of Jon, she says competing on the show has given her youngest son a good dose of life experience.

“I just hoped he would get something out of it – not necessarily a job or anything, but to get out into the world. “He’s been quite sheltered before this, because of his health issues. Now, he’s a lovely young man who has just blossomed.”

“She’s been amazing. We are good mates, very close. She’s made me who I am today,” says Jon.

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