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MKR NZ’s Latin lovebirds!

This vivacious MKR NZ guest judge introduces the special ingredient in her life.
MKR Grace&Antonio

They grew up three blocks away from each other in Caracas, Venezuela, attended the same high school and were both brought up in loud, happy families where life revolved around food and music.

By all logic, My Kitchen Rules NZ guest judge Grace Ramirez and her husband, Antonio Navas, should have crossed paths in their homeland. But it was only years later in New York that Grace and Antonio finally met through a mutual friend.

“It was meant to be – but not until then,” smiles Grace (33), who was once a contestant on MasterChef US.

“I remember the exact moment I fell for him. We were at a flamenco show when I leaned over to tell him something, and I smelt him. Honestly, that’s what it was!”

“I’ve worn that cologne ever since,” Antonio (51) grins.

“She just adds so much fun to my life,” says Antonio of his beautiful wife of three years.

In the couple’s eclectic and vibrant central Auckland home, where the white walls can barely be seen for their incredible art collection, Grace is bustling around her beautiful kitchen.

But curiously for a chef, the cupboards are empty.

“I’m sorry!” she wails. “I’ve been so busy with the show, I haven’t been to the supermarket in ages.” While not a big deal to most, feeding people is Grace’s passion. It’s why she became a chef in the first place.

“I started cooking when I went away to college in Miami,” she explains. “I was really lonely, so I decided I would cook to remind me of home. I’d ring my grandma and get the recipes.

I had no idea what I was doing at first, but I learnt from my mistakes and it became my life.”

Now, her culinary career has brought her to our television screens, joining Nadia Lim, Sean Connolly and Robert Oliver on the MKR tasting panel.

“I thought I had ruined my life after MasterChef,” Grace says. “I didn’t get very far and I’d given up my job as a production director at the Food Network to do it. I cried for a week. But it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Grace and fellow panellist Robert Oliver dish out their verdicts on MKR.

After being encouraged by MasterChef judge Gordon Ramsay to get professional training, Grace gained a scholarship at the prestigious French Culinary Institute in New York and became one of the city’s most exciting young chefs.

Though it’s Grace who will soon be a household name here, it was Antonio’s work – as an advertising executive who’s worked with stars such as Shakira and Fergie – that brought them to New Zealand in 2011.

“The whole universe conspired to bring us here,” nods Grace. “It was like a perfect storm. We were getting married; I’d just finished at culinary school, everything was in transition. So I said, ‘If we’re going to do it, it’s time.’”

Now, their lives couldn’t be more different. Their New York apartment has been traded in for a cute villa and the subway replaced by a car.

“Life here is amazing,” Grace sighs. “We fell in love with the land. It’s like there’s no religion here, but there’s nature, the sea, the fishing. It’s intoxicating how much freedom there is.”

Arriving in the middle of the Rugby World Cup meant Grace and Antonio have also fallen in love with rugby, and attend as many games as they can. “Go the All Blacks!” Grace giggles.

Art and culture are especially important for the pair – an interest that’s apparent when you look around their home.

Bold, Latin-inspired colours and prints are interspersed with Maori carvings and black and white photographs, with the couple’s only existing wedding photo taking pride of place.

“The photographer had a meltdown on the day,” recalls Grace, shaking her head. “But at least we have something!”

It’s true that drama always tends to follow these two.

“On our wedding day, my mum couldn’t make it because her visa was denied, and my grandfather got confused with times, so he never got on the plane. And Antonio’s ring didn’t fit, because the guy at the shop told him to get it tight. Even his proposal went wrong!”

Antonio and Grace’s art-filled Auckland villa is a far cry from the apartment they left behind in the Big Apple.

Despite numerous challenges over the years, it’s the pair’s ability to keep each other level that’s carried them through.

“He gets overwhelmed about certain things that don’t bother me, and vice versa,” says Grace.

“Antonio just opened up a whole new world to me. With art and advertising, you meet the most interesting people. And we laugh. A lot!”

“Yeah, we do,” agrees Antonio. “She just adds so much happiness and fun to my life.”

After coming full circle from MasterChef contestant to MKR judge, Grace feels privileged to be working alongside some of the country’s top names in food.

“I can’t believe where I am right now,” she says. “I’m very lucky and very honoured.”

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