For the love of kai

After overcoming personal crises together, Peter Gordon and Hinewehi Mohi focus their positivity on a new passion.

He’s an internationally renowned chef, famous for his unique fusion-style food. She is a New Zealand singing diva, whose rendition of the National Anthem only in te reo at a Rugby World Cup match in 1999 began the tradition of singing the verses in Maori and English.

But Peter Gordon and Hinewehi Mohi have more than a successful career in common.

After a chance meeting in 2005, they have become firm friends, helping each other through personal crises, and are now taking on the task of changing the flavour of Maori food in TV3’s Fusion Feasts.

“We’re cousins, in the loosest possible sense of the word!” explains Hinewehi (49), who first discovered she and Peter (50) hail from the same Wairarapa iwi while Googling him, after an initial encounter in San Francisco.

“He was cooking for the guests, I was singing, and we got on really well,” she says.

“So I looked him up, found out he was a Maori boy from my iwi and thought, ‘How cool’. I saw him again in Paris before the Rugby World Cup and told him we were cousins, and now he’s a big part of my life.”

While Peter and Hinewehi laugh easily and often, both have a troubled history.

In 1995, Peter famously donated his bone marrow to his sister Tracey, who suffered leukaemia. And he still carries the physical scars of a terrible childhood accident, when he slipped while his father was deep-frying fish and oysters at a barbecue. Instinctively, the then seven-year-old grabbed the pot handle to steady himself and poured boiling fat down the right side of his face, neck and arm, burning 15% of his body.

Hinewehi, meanwhile, set up the Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre almost 10 years ago to help her daughter Hineraukatauri, now 17, after she was born with cerebral palsy. And in 2011, Hinewehi was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer.

She underwent chemotherapy, which caused her hair to fall out, and had a double mastectomy and reconstruction. She is now a fervent campaigner for regular breast screening and has checks every six months to ensure the cancer hasn’t returned.

“One of the reasons Peter and I are the way we are is because we had really great childhoods,” explains Hinewehi.

“A good childhood kick-starts you into taking a positive approach to life. Adversity along the way is incredibly grounding, but how you deal with it is all part and parcel of the support group you have around you. Peter and I have had common experiences, and when that happens you are able to really connect and understand each other without having to always talk about it too much.”

“Big life events like these either destroy you or they make you,” says Peter.

“I have friends who have suffered illness or heartbreak and have been broken by it, but others rise to the occasion and say, ‘Okay, this is my life and I’ll make the most of it.’”

With both stars working to busy schedules – Hinewehi has just returned from a trip to the US, while Peter has both a British and a New Zealand phone so he can keep track of his diary and restaurants in each country – it can be hard for the friends to see each other.

So when Hinewehi suggested the idea of Fusion Feasts, where Peter becomes the guest chef at different iwis all over the country, the chef jumped at the chance.

“I am pretty busy – I don’t even know what I’m doing half the time,” laughs Peter, who plans to see in the New Year with his partner Alastair in the UK before returning home at the end of January.

“Although I have Maori heritage on my father’s side, I didn’t know anything about the food or culture – just as my mum’s side was Scottish and we didn’t grow up wearing kilts or playing the bagpipes. I was taught Esperanto and French at school because I was told Maori was a dying language. Making this show has been really interesting – it’s like finding a missing part of my family.”

While Peter is the food expert, it’s Hinewehi’s in-depth knowledge of tradition Maori culture and her ability to juggle the schedule at a moment’s notice that meant the new programme ever got made.

“I don’t always know when I’ll be in New Zealand, so Hinewehi and her husband George often have to change things at the last minute,” explains Peter, who filmed the show over a year.

“We ran the show on this tiny budget – you can see Hinewehi and George doing the dishes a lot of the time because we were the only ones there – but it was great fun.

“I learned a lot about myself, my Maori family, and the culture and politics that affect so many people in New Zealand.”

Although Peter’s reputation as a top-class chef is legendary, his attempt to inject new flavour and depth into marae food wasn’t always welcomed.

“One lady burst into tears because I was making something new with kina – she felt I was changing tradition,” says Peter.

“But just because something has always been done one way, it doesn’t mean it should stay like that.

“Although there will always be people who decide they don’t like my food, others may change their minds – even that lady admitted she loved the kina dip I made in the end.”

Hinewehi doesn’t remember the first time Peter cooked for her, but does recall the first time she cooked for him.

“I was freaking out. What do you cook for an international chef? I ended up doing a roast lamb from one of his books. But I buggered it up! Never mind – I can’t cook, he can’t sing.”

“I do sing!” retorts Peter with mock indignation, to which Hinewehi doesn’t miss a beat.

“I didn’t say you didn’t sing, darling – I said you couldn’t.”

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