Nadia Lim's Italian escape: 'I got my mojo back'

''I love adventure. I love removing myself from my usual environment and being put in another one – although, adventure is a little different when you have two kids!''

By Kelly Bertrand
Nadia Lim has been a woman in demand ever since she claimed the coveted MasterChef winner's trophy in 2011.
But on the day the Weekly calls to catch up, even she has to admit that things may have got away on her just a little.
"Sorry, hang on a minute," she yells down the phone as she tries to distract sons Bodhi (3) and River (1) for a few minutes so we can chat.
"It's just me and the kids here, and Bodhi's got hold of the vacuum cleaner – I mean, great, he wants to vacuum – and five minutes before you called they broke the child security gate at the top of the stairs.
"Bodhi," she calls out, "can you go and vacuum the bedroom? Thanks, man!
"Okay," she says, returning to the call. "We're good!"
It's actually a wonder we've managed to fit in this interview at all.
Between Nadia's nationwide tour to promote her new vege cookbook Vegful, Christmas preparations for her always-busy My Food Bag meal-kit delivery service, adopting two orphaned lambs, and looking after the kids, we've had to reschedule a couple of times.
But far from being exhausted, Nadia is revitalised, re-energised and raring to go after a much-needed change of scenery – a trip to central Italy.
"I've got my mojo back," she declares.
"We packed up the kids and spent seven weeks in a little village in Umbria, the heart of Italy. I wouldn't call it a holiday, really. [My husband] Carlos and I were still working throughout – we'd do a few hours in the morning to catch the end of the New Zealand workday, and then again at night.
"But it was such a great break from the norm. I've always found that a change of scenery inspires me and I get that creativity back."
Nadia (pictured with husband Carlos) has just returned from an inspiring working holiday in the gorgeous Italian countryside.
The little family spent a blissful couple of months exploring the countryside, meeting the locals and, of course, eating and cooking Mediterranean cuisine.
"I love adventure,' she says. 'I love removing myself from my usual environment and being put in another one – although, adventure is a little different when you have two kids!
"But it was great for the boys – they spent so much time together that they usually wouldn't have, with Bodhi being at preschool. They definitely bonded a lot more, which was so lovely to witness."
While the brothers have always enjoyed a mostly convivial relationship, Nadia (33) says the time they spent together as a family under the hot Italian sun was amazing for the entire family.
"Well, mostly," she adds with a laugh.
"Watching them full time for the whole day and trying to fit in work had its challenges! But Bodhi loved it. He's like me – he loves meeting people and communicating, and he even learnt a bit of Italian, which was a surprise. I was really impressed! Now he's always saying 'buongiorno' to people – it's very sweet."
River is also growing into a rambunctious wee lad.
"He definitely won't be a pushover!" his mum reckons.
"They're not too dissimilar," she says thoughtfully of her two sons.
"But looks-wise, they're very different. When Bodhi popped out, I thought, 'Yeah, you're from my stables.' He's my little mini-me – even he thinks that! He says, 'Mummy, we have the same eyes!'
"I kind of assumed that River would be the same – I don't know why – and when he popped out, I was like, 'Huh?' He looked like Carlos' side, and he's grown into a little fair blondie, with dark-green eyes."
Little River takes after his dad while his big brother Bodhi is the spitting image of Nadia.
While their Italian surroundings were picturesque, there was just one problem when they arrived at their rented villa – they had no air conditioning, in 42°C heat.
"'Jeepers,' I said to Carlos on the second or third day, 'We're going to have to do something – either go and buy some type of AC, or relocate.'"
"It was unbearable, the kids couldn't sleep. We had to put them in the car and drive around with the air con on just so they could nap!"
Mercifully, after a few days the temperature dropped to the slightly more comfortable mid-30s, and Nadia set about learning as much about Italian food as she could, making sure she soaked up the serenity before returning to New Zealand to launch her new book.
Nadia, her husband Carlos Bagrie and their adorable boys escaped to Italy for seven blissful weeks.
After almost a decade of recipe writing and development, Nadia admits there are always peaks and troughs when it comes to creativity in the kitchen, but she says working on Vegful, her first vegetarian and vegan collection, has given her an inspiration boost.
"This has probably been my favourite book to write. When you're doing recipe development all the time, and it's on repeat, you do start to lose a bit of inspiration.
"But this one was almost a challenge. I had to change my mindset slightly. As Kiwis, we've grown up basing a meal around the question, 'What should we have tonight – chicken, steak or fish?' For me, that became, 'Should we have eggplant, courgette, kuˉmara or potato?' And I would base the meal around the vegetables instead. It made me become a lot more creative with vegetables."
And for a nation of meat lovers, New Zealanders have responded enthusiastically to the book, which has sat at the top of the charts since its launch.
That comes as no surprise to Nadia, however – as an omnivore, she's felt the urge to eat more plant-based meals over recent years, and she knew many Kiwis felt the same.
"The response has been amazing. It's mostly from people who aren't vegan or vegetarian but just want more vege-based meals, and want to know where to start."
As she's done with her last few books, Nadia has self-published Vegful, which has more than 100 recipes, and is doing her own publicity, which has seen her travel around the country for book signings and cooking demonstrations.
Her creations include a Kūmara , chickpea and mushroom burger (which graces the book's cover), a beetroot, chocolate and orange cake, and a creamy asparagus, spinach, herb and goat's cheese tart.
"I like trying new things," she says of her new role as her own publicity manager.
"What I've learnt over the years is that whatever I'm doing, I have to genuinely enjoy it. If I don't, it's probably better not to do it."
The time alone – just her, her car and the open road – has been marvellous, she says.
"I hardly ever have time by myself – actually, I never do!
"It's been great fun. I've loved this tour and getting out into the regions. It's a beautiful way to see the country. I get to drive any time I like, so I'm seeing the most amazing sunrises, and driving down the coast, and I'll stop and go for a little walk down the beach. It's bliss! And of course I'm meeting all these lovely people at my events."
For the next leg, the entire family will pile in the car and join Nadia for a tour around the bottom of the South Island.
The Mainland has a definite pull, Nadia says, adding that the family plan to relocate from Auckland one day.
Until then, road trips will have to do – when she's not wrestling vacuum cleaners from a determined boy.
"Jeepers!" she suddenly exclaims.
"Sorry – I've just looked out the window and there's two rabbits right by my vege garden! There are so many distractions today. Just an average day in the life now, I guess!"

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