As the executive chef at one of the country's top restaurants and a judge on MasterChef NZ, it's not often that Vaughan Mabee gets to enjoy a holiday. But in a rare treat, when the Weekly catches up with him, the 41-year-old is sitting at the airport on the way home from a well-earned vacation in Fiji with his fiancée Julia.
"Generally speaking, I'm always working, so we don't get to travel very much unless it's home to the Bay of Islands for Christmas," he explains.
Vaughan and Julia, who is a part-time model, first met when she worked as a waitress at his restaurant Amisfield, which is a Queenstown institution, for the summer. But it wasn't until three years later, in 2019, when they crossed paths again that sparks flew. Julia says when they reconnected, there was an instant mutual attraction.
"She's just an amazing person," tells Vaughan.
Not long into their relationship, Julia, 24, moved in with Vaughan and his son Milton, five, at their beautiful home, the oldest log cabin in Central Otago, in Ben Lomond, just outside Queenstown. While Vaughan is the hunter of the family, regularly making meals for the family out of food he has killed, Julia has cultivated the land, setting up a lush vegetable garden and sunflower crop.In August last year, Vaughan decided to make things official and whisked Julia off to Rarotonga for a romantic beach-front proposal, with his grandmother's wedding ring. Once he'd safely got it to the Cook Islands, he placed it inside a hibiscus, Julia's favourite flower, and got down on one knee.
"I proposed next to the lagoon on the beach," shares Vaughan. "She was absolutely shocked – she didn't see it coming. But lucky for me, she said yes."
The happy couple are planning a summer wedding on a private beach near Wānaka early next year and preparations are well underway. Not surprisingly, Vaughan and his team at Amisfield will be in charge of the food, but he says he's leaving the rest of the planning up to Julia.
"For me, food is the easy part of it – it's all the other bits and bobs that I'm confused about, so Julia's taking care of that side of things."
Two people who will definitely be on the invite list are Vaughan's fellow MasterChef judges Nadia Lim, who convinced him to sign on to the show, and Michael Dearth, who Vaughan says has become a lifelong friend after bonding while filming.
That friendship almost didn't happen as Vaughan, who has just been nominated to join the list of top 100 chefs in the world, which will be presented at The Best Chef Awards in Spain later this year, says he almost turned down the chance to be a part of Three's revamped version of the hit cooking series.
"When they first asked me, I thought, 'No way.' I'm a hermit usually, I like to stay inside my kitchen and I'm quite picky about the things I do because I like to do things that I'm confident in. But then I had this annoying friend called Nadia who convinced me to do it," Vaughan jokes.
Vaughan and Nadia became fast friends after the former MasterChef champion relocated down south with her family. Vaughan's son and Nadia's eldest boy Bodhi are the same age, and have become inseparable, and Nadia's farm provides lambs to Amisfield.
"I've gone on a few trips with Nadia's husband Carlos down to their farm and they come over for dinner with the kids," tells Vaughan. "The boys are pretty cute together."
Watching MasterChef has become a weekly tradition for Vaughan's small family and while Julia finds the show emotional, Milton has taken inspiration and is ready to one day take on the challenge.
"He told me that when he grows up, he wants to be the new MasterChef and he wants to be better than me," laughs Vaughan. "He's only young but he was very serious."
And while Vaughan has no doubt Milton has the skills to make it to the top of the culinary world one day, the three-hat chef admits he doesn't think he wants his son to follow in his footsteps.
"Being a chef is quite a brutal occupation," he explains. "It's quite hard to get to where you want to be and there's a lot of luck involved. It's a crazy job. If he wants to do it, I'm sure he can, but I'm hoping that he does something less stressful that makes more money."
MasterChef NZ screens 7pm on Sundays, and Mondays and Tuesdays at 7.30pm on Three.
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