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MasterChef NZ Rudi Hefer: 'How cooking saved my life'

The contestant’s traumatic childhood has seen him step up for his own kids

By Rebekah Hebenton
Whipping up delicious dishes on MasterChef NZ, Rudi Hefer has wowed Kiwi viewers with his impressive culinary skills. But the South African cook shares that his passion for food is about so much more than the flavours on the plate, as the kitchen became his escape after a difficult childhood.
"Every time things get hard or I'm in a dark place, when I'm with food or I'm preparing a meal for friends, everything just seems right," shares Rudi. "I love to watch people enjoying my food or seeing my kids' faces smothered in Bolognese sauce! That's where I draw my inspiration from."
Rudi's happy memories of food began with his parents and the joyful days of his early years in South Africa. His dad Johan was a wrestling promoter, who followed in the footsteps of his father, who was the person that brought international professional wrestling to South Africa.
Having fun in the kitchen with kids Ada and Ethan
Wrestling icons of the '80s like Hulk Hogan were regular guests at Rudi's home and most Sundays were spent hosting big barbecues for the visiting stars. To this day, he still uses the pizza sauce recipe that Australian wrestler Mario Milano gifted to the family.
But his charmed life changed in the blink of an eye when Rudi was eight and his father was diagnosed with throat cancer. Suddenly, the pillar of their family was battling a terrible disease and when he sadly passed away three years later, it was too much for Rudi's mother Mariaan.
"My mum went into a very dark place, and she kind of went off the rails and would disappear for months on end," he shares.
Rudi and his siblings needed someone to look after them, so they moved in with his grandparents. Over the next seven years, his mum would appear every few months and they would spend a few weeks sleeping in her car or on the floor of a friend's house before he would be returned to his grandparents.
'Sometimes there was only one meal a day, but Mum always provided'. Aged five with his siblings Johan and Delia
"She never thought very far in advance. She just wanted me because we had a really close bond," tells Rudi.
"Mum always made sure my priorities were put above her own. Sometimes there was only one meal a day, but she always provided. I think that's where some of my appreciation for food comes from. Whether it was a hot dog or some jam on bread, I was so thankful because I didn't know when the next meal would be coming."
When he turned 18, Rudi left his grandparents' house, where things were difficult for him, and moved in with his brother, who he describes as his idol, and set about building a life free from the pain of
his childhood.
"I look at that part of my life and who I am today is shaped by the fact that I don't want my kids to ever have to go through that," he asserts.
Sitting in his beautiful home in Auckland's Silverdale with his wife Kylie, 46, and their children Ethan, eight, and Ada, six, it is clear that the 43-year-old's hard work to create a better life for himself and his family has paid off.
Rudi and Kylie, a mental skills consultant who works with New Zealand's Olympic team, Blues Super Rugby Club and the Black Fern Sevens, met in 2011 on an online dating site. Both had just left long-term relationships – Rudi had recently separated from his wife of five years – and were ready to date again.
On his wedding day to Kylie on Waiheke Island in 2014
It was an instant connection and even though their busy careers meant they only saw each other for a total of five months the first year they dated, they knew it was meant to be. Kylie jokes that the key to their relationship is that "I like eating and he likes cooking!"
As he fulfils his years' long dream of competing on MasterChef NZ, Rudi says Kylie was his secret weapon in the competition. Not only did she help put him through rigorous training before the show, but her skills in coaching athletes in high-pressure situations were invaluable.
"My job was to – sometimes very bluntly – tell him to get a grip and remind him why he entered in the first place and to stay true to himself," tells Kylie.
Adds Rudi, "I lost my food identity while I was on the show, but Kylie reminded me that I just have to cook from the heart. I want to inspire other fathers to be better in the kitchen and show how it makes you a better parent."
MasterChef NZ screens 7pm on Sundays, and Mondays and Tuesdays at 7.30pm on Three.

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