Celebrity News

Simon Gault: high flyer

The celebrity chef is taking his love of drama to new heights.

He’s best known for his culinary expertise, but MasterChef judge Simon Gault has a secret passion. When the chef’s whites come off, on goes a different kind of uniform, because the TV star, New Zealand Woman’s Weekly columnist and restaurant owner is an expert aerobatic, competition and display pilot, who is currently in training to perform for the crowds at the hugely popular Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow this Easter.

“My dad was a pilot. I was two weeks old when I took my first trip in a private plane – I was put in the baggage compartment, as it was the only place I’d fit!” laughs Simon (48) who started flying gliders at 16, before being taught by his father Bryan to fly powered planes a few years later. “It’s my passion – truly. It’s a toss-up which I love most – flying or cooking.”

But just as Simon is on a constant quest to find “that five percent magic” when he’s creating new dishes in the kitchen, his piloting skills aren’t limited to a gentle jaunt over the countryside – far from it. “I’ve done competition flying just like I’ve done competition cooking.

I’ve represented New Zealand twice in precision flying and won gold medals on both occasions,” he says from the Ardmore hangar which houses the high-performance Thunder Mustang which he co-owns with Bryan and two fellow pilots.

“To me, competition and display fl ying is the ultimate challenge. It’s hugely rewarding,” explains Simon who will fly solo every day at the worldrenowned air show. “Like cooking, it is all about precision and discipline. It takes a lot of practice to get right.

But it’s awesome. To be able to display in front of thousands of people, flying like your hair’s on fire at hundreds of kilometres per hour, is pretty neat. It’s rock ‘n’ roll. These things are fast, man. This is the fastest piston aeroplane in New Zealand.”

The perfect machine, then, for self-confessed show-off and adrenaline junkie Simon. “It’s a pretty hot aeroplane, right?” he grins. “I guess that like cooking, this appeals to my sense of drama. If people say they love your food, it’s a great feeling. It’s the same when I’m displaying.

Seeing people’s faces, seeing them clapping and cheering as I shoot past after flying upside down, doing loops, doing a roll past the crowd – it’s pretty awesome.” The aeroplane – a replica of a World War II P51 Mustang called Tiger’s Blood that started its life in South Africa – is clearly Simon’s pride and joy.

It even warranted a mention at his wedding in September 2010, when he married hairdresser Katrina Van Dam. “In our wedding vows, she said she’d never stop me fl ying on Sundays – and she only has a couple of times,” smiles Simon, who first took Katrina in the plane when they began dating.

“I think the first time I said I’d take her for a fly she thought we were going to take a lovely trip on a commercial plane. When she came out here and saw this plane, she was a bit taken aback at how small it is.” But like any clever wife, rather than stop Simon from pursuing his passion, Katrina chooses to join in – on occasion.

“She’s been in the plane a few times – she’s even had a little go at fl ying it,” says Simon, explaining that the plane’s dual controls mean guests in the two-seater can try their hand at flying, while he remains in control. “She loves it when we go away for a weekend and she sees the traffic all banked up on the ground beneath us!  She’s not keen on aerobatics though.”

Despite the obvious dangers to Simon’s daredevil hobby, the exuberant chef insists that as long as the rules are followed, his hobby isn’t that risky. “You’re more likely to be hurt crossing the road than you are to be hurt in an aeroplane,” insists Simon.

“My dad taught me a lot of the things you have to know to keep yourself alive, like looking ahead at weather.” But while he reckons anyone can fly a plane, he admits not everyone could afford it. “That’s why I have partners in this plane – I can’t afford to do this by myself,” he says.

“But you should do the things you love while you’re young enough to enjoy them.”

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