Relationships

Kiwi chef Amber Rose on how she has overcome a very painful recent 18 months

She's cooked for some of the world’s most famous names, but there have been tough times, too.

By Emma Clifton
Chef Amber Rose on the beach at her Leigh property

On our day trip to visit Kiwi chef-to-the-stars Amber Rose, we're warned that the road down to the cottage she's living in is very steep. And it's no exaggeration. Our Auckland-only off-road vehicle groans as it nervously heads down, and at one stage starts beeping frantically for no reason. But we make it, and the pay-off is immense.

Close to the Leigh wharf, there's a little inlet with a small white cottage, where Amber lives. To add to this of-the-past feeling, four days before our photo shoot, a tree fell onto the lines that service the cottage and the power is still out. Oh and there's a hulking storm hanging over us, periodically battering the French doors with rain and hail. And it's about six degrees.

But soon, Amber, who is unfazed by such conditions, having grown up on a 160ha farm in Kaiwaka, has a fire roaring in the hearth and the cottage is warm and cosy.

It's small but beautifully decorated with evidence of a life lived well both here and abroad: a velvet throw from London; a colourful blanket from when she and her eldest child lived in India. Jars of preserved lemon and cauliflower line the kitchen. Behind a velvet curtain is the master bedroom, its whitewashed floors and walls dominated by a bath and a giant four-poster bed in lilac velvet that once belonged to the upmarket Auckland hotel Mollies.

"Beyoncé slept on that bed," Amber says offhandedly.

Between the picturesque location and the fact that Amber, 38, looks like, well, a 1960s supermodel, you'd be forgiven for thinking she and her children, Ollie, 13, and Frankie, 18 months, live the kind of well-curated life that pops up on Instagram. And in some respects they do: Amber really is that statuesque, the house really is that sumptuously decorated, and she really is someone who used to cook for the likes of Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow.

But Amber is also 18 months out of one of the most painful times in her life: the break-up of her relationship just weeks after giving birth to daughter Frankie, and battling a serious health condition.

This was also around the time her latest cookbook, Wild Delicious, was in production. It was always going to be her most personal work yet, taking readers back to her idyllic childhood in Kaiwaka. Amber and her three brothers lived off a sustainable, ahead-of-its-time, organic family farm, under the tutelage of their mother, Kay Baxter, one of the pioneers of organic gardening in New Zealand.

After almost 20 years abroad, Wild Delicious was Amber's love letter to food, the way she grew up with it. Titled 'From the Sea', 'From the Dairy', 'From the Garden', etc, the chapters are based around the origin of ingredients, rather than courses. And it's peppered with influences from her time in London, India, China and Melbourne. The book succeeds beautifully in its aim – miraculous, considering the, well, "absolute shit storm" it was written in.

"I barely held it together, to be honest," Amber says.

"But it's my creativity and passion, and keeping this book alive that was the light at the end of my tunnel. I didn't want to be another author that was like, 'Oh, look at my great life!' I wanted to be authentic and to say there are certain aspects of my life that are a real challenge, but holding onto yourself and your own journey is what can get you through it."

Amber's Free-Range upbringing

The farm Amber and her siblings grew up on was the model of self-sufficiency. They grew their own food; made their own bread, milk and butter; killed their own meat. Amber can still remember the dawning realisation that her family was not like other families. "Mum would send me to school with homemade sourdough sandwiches and I'd be too embarrassed to open my lunchbox," she laughs.

But as she grew up she realised both how special that upbringing was and how incredible her mother's breadth of knowledge about all things nature had become. Kay was named in the 2017 New Year Honours and is credited with saving the New Zealand heritage rare-seed collection, after co-founding the Koanga Institute with Bob Corker, Amber's stepdad.

Her mother's influence rubbed off on Amber from a young age.

"Mum used to have these big harvest open days and I can remember her putting me on the seed stand. I was like, 'Mum, I'm eight! Everyone is going to ask me questions and I'm not going to know what to say.' And Mum said, 'You'll be fine – you know more than you think you know.' And it was true. Growing up in that environment, you absorb things without realising."

Amber's first cooking memory is making pikelets out of the Edmond's Cookery Book and taking plates of them to the workers in her mum's nursery. Food was the consistent theme throughout her early adulthood years. The stepping stone from Auckland was two years in Melbourne when Amber was 18.

While there, she worked in the locally famous Russian café Babka, adding thick layers of ganache to the chocolate cakes and brûlée-ing the lemon tarts. One of the Russian cooks taught her how to make traditional piroshki dumplings, saying, "If you can make a good-looking dumpling, you get a good-looking husband." From there, Amber headed off to live with her dad in China where she started out teaching English then did a swift right-turn into starring in Chinese soap operas.

Then a job offer from a friend suddenly took the Kiwi country girl into the most A-list of environments, working as cook/home help for actor Jude Law, his then-wife Sadie Frost and their three children.

"I definitely felt a bit green stepping off the plane," Amber admits. "But weirdly, because I was 21, I don't remember ever feeling overwhelmed. I was very lucky because Sadie was so down-to-earth."

It was the early 2000s, when Jude's acting career had hit full speed following The Talented Mr Ripley, and Amber was often cooking for the likes of Paul McCartney or Kate Moss, as well as going on to become a personal chef for Gwyneth Paltrow. There was never time to get star-struck.

"They're in a very relaxed mode because they're at a friend's house, so you get to know the human behind the press. And you realise they're just people who happen to be super good at what they do."

It was at age 24, when Amber had her first child Ollie, that she stopped working for Jude and Sadie full-time. It was not an easy transition into motherhood, she says. Her relationship with Ollie's father broke down, she was plagued with breast-feeding issues and unsupported during the early stages of motherhood while living in London. It took her a long time to come to terms with the fact that she was going to be a solo parent.

But being so young was a blessing in some ways, she says.

"You sort of take things in your stride when you're that age."

It also helped to guide her down her next career path, working as a doula. A doula, according to Amber, is an emotional and practical support person to have with you before, during and after giving birth. In Amber's case, this also meant cooking for mums.

One of her clients, an interiors photographer, suggested Amber try food styling. Between cooking, styling and doula duties, Amber fashioned a career that balanced being a solo mother with paying the rent. But it wasn't easy.

"Some days I would send Ollie to school and not even know who was going to pick him up. It was madness. I couldn't always have the same person as the nanny, because when you're not working full-time, you can't afford to pay someone. So it was an extreme juggle, but somehow I managed to get through it."

Knitting that combination of careers together is also what led to Amber's first cookbook – another of her clients happened to work in publishing. So both the photographer and editor of her first book, Love, Bake, Nourish, were women who had had babies delivered by Amber. Safe to say, there was already a well-established level of trust between them.

That book came at a perfect time for Amber. After having a child, she was re-evaluating what she wanted to do with her career and what she wanted for Ollie's childhood. The book's success (it reached the Top 10 charts of Amazon UK) meant she had suddenly struck that rare balance: a career that was as successful as it was flexible. And she wanted to bring that work back down to New Zealand, to spend time with her family, write more New Zealand-focused work and give Ollie the Kiwi upbringing she herself had had.

And then things fell apart. Because it had been almost 20 years since Amber had lived in New Zealand, she wanted to reconnect with her family and went down to stay with her mum in 2015.

"In one sense, it felt like coming home, but because I'd been gone for so long, it was also like starting from scratch," Amber says. "But I felt confident because I had a career that I was bringing back with me and a project to get stuck into straightaway. It gave me a sense of security and purpose."

It was while staying with her mum that Amber reunited with a childhood sweetheart. Then she became pregnant. And, well, you know how this story ends.

With daughter Frankie
With daughter Frankie

Following the break-up, and Frankie's birth, Amber developed an auto-immune disease where "your tummy falls apart". But it gave her a chance to really put the theory behind her nourishing, nutritious style of cooking to the test.

By limiting her recovery diet to meat, vegetables and fermented foods (which is mostly what she ate anyway), Amber was able to manage her symptoms. However, it's fair to say that as far as productive conditions in which to write a book go, recovering from childbirth while nursing an autoimmune disease is not the recipe for success one might go looking for.

During this time, Amber's beloved mother also had a cancer scare, and the family waited weeks before the results came back giving her the all-clear.

"I really did have a sort of breakdown: my body packed up, I was in a bad way. But what really got me through were those little threads which were just me, which are what have got me through everything: my creativity."

Amber wants her to have the same free-range childhood she did growing up in rural Kaiwaka
Amber wants her to have the same free-range childhood she did growing up in rural Kaiwaka

Looking to the future with positivity

As she has slowly started emerging from the 18 months of extreme events, Amber has been looking for the "nugget of gold" these lessons have brought her.

"I think we, as a culture and as a society, need to try and understand the whole grieving process more. I was really heartbroken – sometimes it really was one day at a time, even one hour at a time. A lot of people don't allow themselves, or others, to go through that process, and it really is a process, but you do come out the other side. And now it feels like a massive personal accomplishment that I didn't let the situation beat me."

With the cookbook now in the world, her focus moving forward is shaping a life for herself and her kids in Matakana. She has been welcomed in by the community, who have helped her to make peace with being there. After the book, there's a line of products in the works, and she wants to help bring her mum's heritage seed expertise to the world.

But mainly, she wants to use her own journey to help other women with theirs.

"Life is tough. Work and career and relationships. We live quite stressful lives and I feel like any sort of help we can give each other is so worth it. It's really important to share what you've learned."

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