They may have arrived at Auckland's picturesque harbour drinking Champagne on a flash yacht in the opening episode of My Kitchen Rules, but the TVNZ 2 show's judges Colin Fassnidge and Manu Feildel aren't here to play. They are here to find some of the nation's top cooks – and we've got all the ingredients.
"You have the best produce in the world," says Colin, 50. "We filmed MKR Australia straight after we finished filming MKR New Zealand, and I thought, 'We need to lift our game in Australia.' New Zealand is far ahead when it comes to being proud of their heritage and bringing their food to the table."
"There are some beautiful flavours in this country," agrees Manu, also 50. "New Zealand and Australia are often compared to each other, as both are seen as melting pots of the world when it comes to food. But how the two nations use and cook food are very different."
This season of MKR NZ started with Tauranga-based friends Nada and Pops serving up fresh seafood – exactly the kind of ingredients Manu and Colin love.
"I love New Zealand seafood – the clams, the pāua, kina, oysters, crayfish… You really do have it all," says Colin. "It comes from a different environment, different water – it tastes different. New Zealand seafood is unique."
However, they weren't so enamoured with Nada and Pops' kina mousse. "It's strange – nobody here wants to eat raw kina, but to us, it's one of the most delicious things on the planet," says Manu, adding kina – which is plentiful throughout New Zealand's coastline – is more often found in high-end restaurants than on Kiwi dinner plates.
The pair were impressed with another Kiwi favourite – venison. "The venison dish was amazing – absolutely melt-in-the-mouth, well-cooked, flavoursome… Venison is a very hard piece of meat to cook, but it was perfect."
Overall, the pair say they're enthusiastic with the level of cooking on the show. It's certainly better than anything going on in Colin's home kitchen.
"My kitchen's in the middle of a renovation," he groans. "So we're cooking on a little camp stove downstairs. My wife has a SodaStream – that she doesn't even use – on a plastic table in the middle of a building site. She's got an ice machine with no ice in it, so I start organising and building things. I'm like, 'I can't work like this.'"
Manu chuckles as his friend holds his head in his hands in mock frustration at his disorganised, unbuilt space.
"Don't you believe he's a tidy cook – he's rough as guts!" laughs Manu.
"I'd call it rustic," argues Colin good-naturedly.
"If you want a laugh, watch his stuff on TikTok," says Manu. "I just laugh my head off. He cooks like he's in a forest or something! There are no utensils – he just stirs things with his fingers."
"So what? I'm in my own home!" counters Colin.
"I don't cook with my finger when I'm at home," says Manu. "But Colin does cook really good food."
It's a wonderful moment between the two chefs who are clearly great mates and passionate chefs, as well as TV judges. The pair's easy friendship is very engaging – one of the many reasons MKR continues to be so popular.
"We've been working together 10 years – we're like brothers," says Manu. "I honestly wouldn't work with anyone else."
But despite the camaraderie, the culinary duo is serious about helping everyday Kiwis become good cooks – even in today's tough financial environment.
"The supermarkets have put their prices up by 20 percent – not just the produce, but their margin too," says Manu.
That's why the pair try so hard to help educate the contestants as well as critique them.
"I hope we bring some teaching to every episode," says Manu. "Critiquing a dish isn't criticising – it's pulling it apart and telling them what they've done right, and what they should have done if it wasn't right. We tell them, 'Just listen to our words because everything we say is a lesson about cooking.' We try to teach them something every time."
Adds Colin, "When we go into their kitchens, we know if there's something wrong immediately. We might say things like, 'Do you think there's enough salt in that?' The message is clear, but it's up to them whether they listen. Often they go in with a game plan, but on the day, it all goes out the window."
Agrees Manu, "We tell everyone to taste their food before serving it to us. And often they don't. We taste it, tell them there isn't enough salt and ask if they've tasted their dishes… And they say they didn't have time. Well, haven't we said that hundreds of times? Taste everything!"
Colin believes, however, that making mistakes at the beginning can be good sometimes.
"You meet someone who's had a shocker at the start, so you sort of give them a kick in the butt and you see a completely different team," he says. "So it's all good to make mistakes – just don't get yourself kicked out!"
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