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Cooks on Fire Rotorua cooks tell ‘the tragedy that drives us’

These Cooks On Fire favourites share the family loss motivating them to win the battle of the barbecues

When Rotorua couple Alia and Shaun Branson heard they’d been accepted to compete in the new reality series Cooks On Fire, they couldn’t wait to make their family proud. But there was a special someone who particularly popped to mind.

Shaun’s late daughter Alisha was just 15 when she tragically passed away three years ago. Now, as they attempt to grill their way to winning a whopping $30,000 on the barbecue cooking show, the loving parents are using the teen’s memory as fuel.

“If I think about how she’d respond to us being on the show, it’d probably be the typical teenage response of embarrassment and excitement,” laughs grill guru Shaun, 40, who works in the automotive parts industry.

“But she’d be happy we’re doing something that makes us happy – she was a meat eater and loved Dad’s steaks!”

The couple lost Alisha to suicide just a few months after they married in 2019, leaving an unfillable hole in their family. Shaun still finds it hard to speak about his precious daughter, but describes her as a loving big sister to their other children, Oliver, 10, Zoe, eight, and Vincent, six.

A treasured last family celebration.

“Alisha was another horrible statistic in this country,” he says. “It does cause anxiety talking about it because then you worry that people will want to keep talking about it and it’ll continue to bring up the hard emotions. It’s still very fresh for us and so it’s raw.

“A big lesson from it has been that life’s short and to not take it for granted. It’s given us a bit of tenacity to say yes to things, have a crack at opportunities and to be brave. When we were offered a spot on the show, we said yes straightaway and sorted the details afterwards.”

For Alia, 38, creating a sustainable, organic “food forest” in their backyard was her way of starting to heal from the tragedy of losing her stepdaughter. Now they grow produce on 110m2 of land, with around 50 different fruit trees, vines, berries, root crops, herbs and mushrooms.

“Alisha was a beautiful girl, very kind-hearted and always a lot of fun,” tells Bay of Plenty business owner Alia. “Her siblings really enjoyed having her around and she raved about her dad’s barbecue any opportunity she got. After she passed, it helped to get my hands in the dirt and create something that was my own calm space.”

Their suburban backyard now has a beehive, chickens and a firepit, and the family spends about four nights a week cooking outside, using as much food from their forest as possible.

“We’re always barbecuing – I have to justify having 14 barbecues,” Shaun quips. “It’s funny to think back to 10 years ago, when I didn’t have a clue about grilling. The only thing I’d have on my steak was salt and more steak!”

Making happy new memories with kids Zoe and Vincent.

Alia recalls her husband cooking plain mince on toast when they first started dating a decade ago, while she had a largely plant-based diet, which she puts down to having never been exposed to beautifully cooked meat.

“At the beginning, we weren’t into barbecuing at all, so we’ve certainly changed a lot over the years,” enthuses Alia. “It started with a lot of trial and error!”

While Shaun confesses to a lot of late-night pizza orders and having to make two-minute noodles for the kids when things didn’t go to plan, he quickly fell in love with the art of grilling.

“There are a lot of resources online now to help, but back then, it was really just figuring it out yourself and I didn’t look back,” says Shaun, who enjoys taking part in barbecue competitions and even started catering as a side hustle last year.

“Now we’ve got a few pieces of silverware in the trophy cabinet from competing across the North Island. One day, we’d love to expand the business to have our own paddock-to-plate eatery focusing on grilling and smoking quality meat.”

If they win the prize money, the down-to-earth couple plans to take the honeymoon they never had. Their dream is to mix it up between a glamorous resort stay and an off-the-grid experience in Queenstown, including several steak dinners.

Alia and Shaun have found an outlet for their grief.

“The last thing on your mind after losing a child is going away on your honeymoon and it’s been a long time coming,” explains Alia. “Winning would be massive and life-changing.

“More than anything, we can’t wait to showcase what we can do on a grill, using all kinds of food, while having a great time doing what we love.”

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