MKR’s Piki and Michael share their behind-the-scenes heartbreak

Their TV experience was bittersweet for these Te Kūiti cousins, who suffered a tragic loss during filming

More like siblings than cousins, MKR New Zealand contestants Piki Knap and Michael Murray grew up together in rural Te Kūiti with Piki’s parents, brothers and sisters, but that’s not the most unusual thing about their childhood.

“We didn’t have any electricity or running water,” explains Piki, who is of Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti te Rangi and Ngāti Ranginui descent. “It was like living in a different era. All the baking and cooking was done on the coal range.”

Laughing, Michael, who also has Ngāti Maniapoto heritage, adds, “Having seven o’clock baths in the morning, 10 minutes before having to catch the bus, was not an easy thing. We had a small tub the size of a baby’s bathtub. We had to stand in that and then pour water over ourselves. That was life back then.”

With dad Glen Knap at their Te Kūiti homestead.

However, they say this old-fashioned approach only made them more creative. They’re now the talk of Te Kūiti’s township as they’re starring on TVNZ’s hit reality series MKR.

It’s a strange experience considering they didn’t grow up with a television, admits Piki, 48. She adds, “We’re not big TV watchers, probably because of our upbringing. I’ve always been a bookworm.”

Michael, 46, recalls, “Piki would be up all night reading with her candle.”

“And Michael was the card player,” adds Piki.

“I had fun,” he insists, giving Piki a playful nudge. “This one was a bit too serious!”

When they weren’t in school, much of their time was spent on the marae. This was where they were taught how to cook for more than 200 people.

“We learned the basics there,” says Piki. “It was industrial catering, really!”

Continues Michael, “We were pretty much the kitchen hands. Those basic skills we learned at the marae have definitely helped us in the outside world.”

Cooking for whānau at home in Hamilton.

Both developed a love for cooking, so when Piki saw that MKR was on the hunt for contestants, she didn’t need to twist Michael’s arm. Despite never watching TV, Michael is fairly comfortable in front
of the camera. He’s spent much of the past 12 years in Mexico. There, he worked on telenovela soap operas and did small stints on other shows. He only came home early because of the difficulties COVID placed on the industry.

“My background is modelling and acting,” he explains. “I was Mr New Zealand back in 2005, and that’s what took me overseas and eventually to Mexico. Obviously, I’m not Mexican, but they thought I was Latino! I did some great work there, then to come home and be a part of this whole journey with MKR is a blessing in disguise. I’ve always put my hand up to opportunity.”

Piki and Michael decided to host their MKR Restaurant Night at their aunt’s house in Raglan, however, the plan fell through when they discovered trucks couldn’t get up the driveway, so they ended up filming at another location nearby.

Then, on the day of filming, they discovered that the same aunt had received a terminal cancer diagnosis. Tragically, she passed away only a few months later.

Piki with her beloved aunt Marleina Te Kanawa.

“The news came through on the day of our cook, which was a bit stink, but we just carried on,” says Piki sadly. “She was told they couldn’t do anything for her and she just needed to live her best life. We had been living with her around then, so having to cook on the day we found out was really hard.”

Their theme for the night was “manaaki”, meaning to support and take care of.

Piki explains, “We thought it was fitting – to look after our visitors and do that through food. Seafood was the main focus. Going out to Raglan was a great way to reconnect with the beach, the land and the sea. It was a little bit of happiness.”

Michael, who had just returned to Aotearoa after 20 years abroad, seized the opportunity on MKR to reconnect with his cousins and bond with family and friends.

“This week, I went to the marae and planned on being there for four days,” says Michael. “I ended up spending seven days there. We had a wedding, the King Country poukai [a hui for the Kīngitanga movement] and a funeral all in the same week.”

Piki – who works in management services and does a lot of volunteer work for the local food bank – says their time on MKR has inspired them to work together on ideas for businesses that revolve around food and cooking.

Judges Manu Feildel and Colin Fassnidge.

It’s a far cry from their days cooking on the coal range with the whānau. However, the pair will never forget their roots.

“We’re grateful for all the support we’re getting from home,” says Piki. “Although we’ve had to disappoint everyone already – they want us to cook our Restaurant Night meal for them at the screening party. We’re like, ‘Do you know how much effort goes into cooking those things?!’ We’ve offered to do cheese and crackers instead.”

MKR New Zealand screens 7.30pm Tuesdays and Wednesdays on TVNZ 2.

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