From the get-go, it’s clear who is the “Sugar” and who’s the “Spice” in Dai Phonevilay and Dal Philavong’s relationship. As they arrive at My Kitchen Rules tasting panel judge Sean Connolly’s Auckland restaurant, Gusto at the Grand, Dai – the “Sugar” – eagerly greets the Weekly for their photoshoot, while Dal is more reserved in her welcome.
It’s typical behaviour. Since first meeting as young Laos refugees in the 1980s, to their friendship and My Kitchen Rules New Zealand collaboration, Dal (35) was the “prickly customer”, so to speak, while sweet-natured Dai (33) just wanted to get along with everyone – including her best friend-to-be.
“We met when we were very young – in our primary school years,” recalls Dai, who was a personal banker before going on the show.
“Dal lived in Wainuiomata and I was in Porirua, so we would see each other at community parties and things. She’s got a big family and they were all so beautiful. I wanted to be her friend, but she was too cool!”
“I was,” Dal agrees, nodding her head. “Dai was too young. I always thought she was...”
“Be honest, I can take it,” Dai encourages her friend.
"Annoying!” Dal reveals, as the pair burst into laughter. “Always talking and trying to be everybody’s friend, so I stayed away.”
While the pair used to socialise in similar circles as teenagers, Dai didn’t crack Dal’s tough exterior until the younger woman’s 21st birthday.
“I asked Dal to help me pick out my outfit,” Dai explains.
Dal adds, “I was doing a fashion course at the time and was in the city. She rang me and asked me to take her shopping. I thought, ‘Why is she ringing me?’ But okay, we’ll go...”
Dai laughs at her friend’s recollection, “She’s harsh, right? I was begging her, ‘Can you help me, please?’ But we haven’t looked back since, and actually, she’s realised I’m not that bad.”
Their good-natured banter and candid honesty with one another is one of the reasons Dai and Dal have stayed strong over the years, despite being separated geographically for the duration of their friendship.
Dal still lives in Wainuiomata with her fiancé Seanghai Ching (34) and their children, daughters Pearl (14) and Ava (3), and son Taylor (9), where she works as the director of Seanghai’s plastering business.
Meanwhile, Dai left the country in 2007 to teach English in Korea before settling down with her fiancé, Source Chanpaseuth (35), in Melbourne in 2009.
Communicating via email and phone, and later through FaceTime and Skype, Dai says they burnt through their minutes and data to keep in touch.
“When I was on maternity leave, we were on the phone every day,” says Dai, who is mum to 19-month-old Journey. “Dal would be looking after her children and it was awesome.”
“When we talk, sometimes we’ll just have Skype on and I’ll be cleaning the house or making dinner,” Dal explains. “And we’ll yell out, ‘You still there?’ ‘Yep’, ‘Okay’ for hours.”
Living in different countries has meant they haven’t been able to cook together a lot, but both Dai and Dal knew there was no-one else they wanted” to do the TV One reality cooking show with – especially since neither of their fiancés can cook.
“Once, mine did bacon in the microwave,” Dal recalls in horror.
Determined to bring a strong mix of Laos flavours and Kiwi cuisine to their dishes, Dai and Dal say they easily slipped into particular roles in the kitchen to get the job done through both MKR’s instant kitchen rounds and the Kitchen HQ section.
“It sort of happens naturally,” says Dal of their on-screen dynamic. “We know what each other’s jobs are – she’ll do the Laos flavours, the sauces and I’ll do the protein – then we stay out of each other’s way. think we work well together.”
“I stress out more,” adds Dai. “When Dal’s stressed, she closes down. It’s internal, so even though I’m not that worried, it makes me look like the crazy one!”
After facing the pressure of doing the show, Dai and Dal’s friendship is stronger than ever.
“We’re still as close as we were going into the show. I’m getting emotional thinking about it,” Dai utters, tearfully.
“I have learnt so much about myself and about Dal – I wouldn’t have done it with anyone else.”
Dal couldn’t agree more. “Dai is the most amazing person. She’s the only best friend I have had for so long.”
“I’m special,” Dai adds with a smile, proving opposites truly do attract.
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