TV

Snack Masters NZ star Jess Daniell is cooking up chaos

Top Kiwi cook Jess shares her behind-the-scenes battle and the secret to her success
With husband Jono and toddlers Charlie (left) and Micah.
Photography: Michelle Hyslop

Foodie, cookbook author and businesswoman Jess Daniell was halfway through two tricky days filming the reality series Snack Masters NZ when life got just that little bit more difficult – her two young children decided they didn’t want to sleep.

She’s astonished she survived the blur of exhaustion while trying to recreate one of the nation’s most iconic snacks on camera.

“But as women, we just persevere, don’t we?” laughs Jess, 39. Her son Micah was only five months old and daughter Charlie was two when the new season of the TVNZ 2 show was shot.

“Charlie was going through a sleep regression and the baby wasn’t sleeping either. Although my husband and I were tag-teaming, I got a grand total of 45 minutes of sleep in between two days of filming. I don’t know how I got through. I needed toothpicks to hold my eyes open and I was sponsored by caffeine that second day!”

Now that her kids are a little older, Jess – the founder of successful ready-made meal company Jess’s Underground Kitchen (JUK) – says they’ve settled into better sleep routines, but life is still a perpetual juggle with two toddlers and running a thriving business.

“As females these days, we’re expected to be great mums and have a traditional housewife role in the home, but also be smashing it in the workplace and contributing to the family income. Then we’re expected to do self-care and look after ourselves too! It’s such a struggle and we put all this pressure on ourselves to try to do it all. We prioritise ourselves right at the bottom.”

JUK was first set up in 2013, in the kitchen of a pink house in Auckland suburb Ponsonby. The same suburb Jess and her social worker husband, Jono Brooker, were living after moving home from the UK.

A talented cook but with an English degree instead of formal chef’s training, Jess impressed friends with her dinners made from scratch. Then one mate told her she’d love to pay Jess to cook her meals during the week.

Jess had just lost her contract as a food writer. So, she decided to take up her pal Kirsty’s challenge and make it into something bigger.

“My friends and family have always told me I was destined to have my own business,” she says. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, but this never started as a business idea – I was just unemployed!”

As news spread by word of mouth, then social media, demand for Jess’ meals surged and she moved into a commercial kitchen she could hire by the hour.

“It was a journey of perseverance and learning as I went,” she recalls. “I knew nothing about the kettles that cook giant batches of food. I had seven fry pans on the go browning mince for lasagne because I was simply scaling up the way I cooked at home.”

Jess was surprised by who was ordering her freshly cooked meals. “It was designed to feed my friends and their friends, who were busy professionals. I hadn’t thought about the young families or retired couples who are our customers now.

Ready to impress co-hosts Kim Crossman and Tom Sainsbury (right).

“We’re now making thousands of meals a day. Every dish is cooked from scratch, layered with flavour and plated by hand. That’s our point of difference – it’s made with love and care.”

The JUK team quickly expanded to run five stores and cater weddings. “We were just so busy. We had a joke in the office, ‘Jess says yes,’ and then I’d work out how to do it!”

But in 2022, she decided to close the stores to focus on having JUK meals in supermarkets nationwide and served in hospitals.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned in business is that it’s OK to change and adapt,” tells Jess. “It’s meant I have more time at home with my kids. Otherwise, I’d still be making sandwiches at a café at 4am.”

Jess still has a passion for cooking at home every night. As a strong believer in always making extra, she jam-packs her freezer with yummy leftovers.

It helps that Charlie and Micah are adventurous with food. “But we still have some battles at the table,” Jess admits, adding that her daughter loves helping her at the kitchen bench.

“She’s definitely interested in my knives!” she laughs. “She loves cracking eggs and making anything that benefits her – smoothies and baking are high on her list. Meanwhile, my one-year-old will eat absolutely anything, from pickles to every vegetable or carb!”

Snack Masters NZ premieres 7.30pm Thursday on TVNZ 2.

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