When the Weekly talks to Kiwi chef Jamie Hogg-Wharekawa, he is in the middle of a busy day prepping food for the upcoming holiday rush. While working as head chef at the iconic Oyster Inn on Waiheke Island under Michelin-starred Josh Emett is a dream job, Jamie admits there is still a part of him that wishes he was back in New York, in the little Italian bistro he sadly had to abandon when Covid hit.
"The thing I miss the most is that New York never sleeps, it never stops. There's always something to do and there are always people everywhere. If it wasn't for the pandemic, I would still be there now."
At the beginning of 2020, Jamie was living the life he had always dreamed of in the Big Apple – a city he'd wanted to visit since he was a child – as well as running his own restaurant, his wife Nadine had just given birth to their first child, a beautiful baby girl named Olive.
Then, the global pandemic hit and the world shut down. Jamie and his small family spent the next nine months in their apartment as the city of New York was devastated by Covid. At one point, the death toll in the city rose so rapidly that officials struggled to find space to store and bury the bodies of those who had died.
"Olive arrived in February when Covid had just hit New York, then by March the whole city shut down. It was quite scary watching the news and seeing the daily case numbers in the hundreds of thousands. We'd bring the shopping home and sanitise everything."
The silver lining was Jamie was able to spend quality time with Olive, which never would have happened if he'd been working.
"It was actually a blessing. I took a month off when she was born and that first week back at work I was thinking, 'Man, this is going to be hard. How am I going to do this?' So, it was amazing to have just us three, in the apartment, hanging out with a lot of time with the baby.
"She has developed pretty quickly. She's above her age in talking, counting and reading. I think it's because she was our project – we didn't have anything else to do," Jamie laughs.
At the end of 2020, after almost a year stuck in their apartment, Jamie and Nadine packed up their lives and came home to their families, who were desperate to have them back in the safety of Aotearoa and to meet their new grandchild.
"We were eventually planning on moving back when Olive was school age. Nadine and I both loved growing up in Auckland, so we just moved that plan forward."
This week, Jamie will show off his years of experience in the TVNZ 2 cooking competition Snack Masters NZ, which pits some of New Zealand's top chefs against each other to recreate classic Kiwi treats.
Jamie admits he was nervous going on the show after watching a few episodes of the British version and seeing what they had to make, but he adds that he had a secret weapon up his sleeve.
"One of my vices is I love junk food. A lot of chefs frown upon that kind of thing, but I love chocolate and burgers and all that kind of stuff."
Jamie has worked in some of the top kitchens all around the world, from Melbourne and Bali to New York, and says his interest in food began at home watching his dad, long-time Weekly columnist Colin Hogg, in the kitchen.
"I've always loved eating since I was small," the 35-year-old shares. "My dad used to cook a lot when I was growing up. He'd always have a few special dishes that he'd make. I was quite intrigued watching him in the kitchen, and how he got the timings of everything right would blow my mind."
Now that the family has returned to New Zealand, Jamie says he has loved seeing Colin's special bond with two-year-old Olive grow.
"He had an immediate connection with Olive. He's constantly asking, 'What are you guys doing? Bring Olive over.' He invites me over and organises these visits just so he can see her. He's obsessed with her."
And the feeling is mutual.
"Every time we go to the supermarket, I always buy the magazine, and Olive opens the page to his column and says, 'That's Koko!'"
Jamie and Nadine, 35, are also expecting the arrival of their second baby any day now. Olive is excited about the idea of a sibling, but Jamie tells he is unsure how long that feeling will last when she has to fight for Koko's attention.
"She's really excited. She talks to the baby all the time in Nadine's tummy and gives the baby kisses. But I'm not sure what she will be like after the baby arrives and the attention shifts."
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