In this interview NEXT magazine caught up with a heavily pregnant Chelsea Winter just a few weeks before she gave birth to her son, Sky.
Heavily pregnant and surrounded by unpacked boxes in an unfurnished house in the Bay of Plenty, you wouldn't necessarily expect Chelsea Winter to be a picture of contentment.Yet this is exactly how the bestselling cook-book author and former MasterChef NZ winner describes her state of mind since moving into her new home with partner and celebrated wine-maker Douglas Renall a few days before our interview.
"Sitting there together and gazing out at the Mount with this sense of peace all around us, we both feel like we've arrived at the start of a new adventure," she says.
Having already made herself at home in her spacious new kitchen – whose tranquil outlook is, like every other view in the house, as yet unobstructed by blinds – she's happily anticipating a not-too-distant future where the bulk of her days will be spent experimenting with new recipes and preparing home-cooked meals for her family. Never mind that at present, a lone Swiss ball provides a single, awkward place for visitors to perch, or that until a bed is purchased, she and Douglas are camping in the lounge on a mattress in front of the fireplace.
"If you can't see the perfection of the moment, you're standing too close," she says, her 'words to live by' seeming also to point to the low-lows and high-highs that made the past year the most challenging, yet rewarding, of her life.
It's fitting that Chelsea has flown up to Auckland for our cover shoot on the eve of her 35th birthday. Sat in the makeup chair and cradling the bump, which she may have just accidentally revealed to be housing a baby girl ("Those are both pretty names…" she thinks aloud at the mention of two female colleagues), one wonders whether, on her previous birthday, she could have imagined how much would have changed between then and now.
"No," she says after a thoughtful pause. "Douglas and I both talk about that, and we couldn't have imagined it, really."
A year and a half ago, Chelsea's life was totally different, after all. Married, and with her cookbook Eat having been named New Zealand's bestselling book of 2017, outwardly, she was winning. "But life doesn't always unfold how you plan it, no matter how real those plans are at the time," she says.
Referring to the end of her marriage, these words don't exactly fall from Chelsea's mouth. And as I gently ask her about the events of the past year, each response is as considered as the last – which is another way of saying we sat through some very long silences. No question is taken lightly; no throwaway answers are given. And though she is a picture of – dare I say – serenity, her voice isn't emotionless; slow, controlled breaths punctuate each sentence.
"I'm not the first person to have a kid. Or to go through a separation. Or to fall in love," she says. "But it's been hard and heart-breaking and raw and real. I've felt all the feelings, I've gone through all the emotions. And navigating all of this in the public eye… it's not easy. The intensity of the journey has been humbling."
Reflecting, however, on everything she's gained of late – including a new love, a new home, and a new sense of purpose – it's clear that the pain was worth it.
"It always is, eventually," she says. "At the end of the day, you're the only one that is living your life, so you have to do what feels right for you. And of course you try to do that in the most compassionate way you can. But I'm learning, too, that it's okay to trust yourself and not always do what other people expect of you."
At a time of significant upheaval, relocating to Mount Maunganui from Auckland brought Chelsea closer to her family, and allowed her the space she needed to mentally process the changes that were unfolding. "Walking on the beach for 40 minutes every day was my saviour," she says. "Having that fresh air and space was incredibly healing for me."
It was something of a serendipitous development reconnecting with her primary school sweetheart Douglas. The 35-year-old was finishing up a 10-year stint in Europe, based at a top chateau just outside of Bordeaux.
"I went over there and it was such a special time for us," says Chelsea, recalling the weeks they enjoyed in the French countryside, getting to know one another again after a 25-year hiatus. For Chelsea, who had been struggling with a creative block, it was also a game-changer being able to spend mornings sourcing ingredients from local villages, and afternoons holed up in the kitchen with no deadlines or external demands.
"There were five or six years where I was completely in flow; all I wanted to do was create recipes and write cookbooks," she explains. "But more recently, and for a long time, I wasn't in that space at all. I didn't really feel like being in the kitchen, it just wasn't a time of creation. And that's okay. That's life."
Stepping back from the chaos of modern life allowed her to recalibrate, she says. "Now I'm back doing things at my own pace, and it feels so good."
In her professional element again and wrapped up in a new romance, 2018 ended on a high when Chelsea discovered she was pregnant.
"It just obviously wanted to happen" she laughs, explaining that she and Douglas were thrilled by the news, and not overly fazed by the timing. "He's a great sensor of energy and he actually knew something was up before I even took the test," she remembers. "And I try to live very much by intuition, so I just had this sense of... well, this is meant to be."
Less than a week after move-in day it would appear that their lives have come full circle, with Chelsea saying that, for a pair of country kids from Kumeu, the return to a rural setting has been "like a homecoming in more ways than one".
"You remember what you were missing. Being out on the land, digging and planting and not having people crammed in on either side – it's huge for us. But I don't think I've been ready for it until now."
"Douglas is really interested in biodynamic winemaking and farming," Chelsea continues. "So at the moment he's learning about biodynamic composting, and he's got all these plans, like he wants to plant an olive grove up one hill, and create a campfire here, and plant an orchard down here… we've already started planting more fruit trees, and we've got a few paddocks that we're going to grow out, just let the grass grow super long."
A deep connection to the land isn't all that the pair has in common. Both being half Dutch, Chelsea says they share a serious work ethic. Add to that their respective passions for food and wine, and how they've turned these passions into a viable careers, with books and businesses to each of their names, and what you have is a recipe for joint success.
"I think that's a really exciting part of our future," says Chelsea of a potential collaboration. "We support each other hugely in what we do, and we are both very similar in our interests and passions, but also our values."
Insisting that she doesn't yet know what form it might take at first, she's certain that combining their talents won't be a one-time thing. "We both feel like there's some pretty exciting stuff on the horizon. But for now," she says, gazing down at her bump, "our focus is on this little collab."
The baby is due this winter. "Blessed" by an uncomplicated pregnancy, Chelsea has enjoyed every moment of the journey thus far, awed, she says, by her body's ability to "create a human life while I basically just go about my day". And not only is she incredibly excited for the next chapter to begin, she's not in the slightest bit fearful.
"I'm not nervous – am I supposed to be?" she laughs. "I'm clueless about all of this! I haven't gone off and read heaps of books, I'm not even sure about antenatal classes. I've read a few things that really resonated – Ina May's Guide to Childbirth, and Marie Mongan's HypnoBirthing and The Golden Month – and gone by the advice of women I trust, including my absolutely brilliant midwife Zoe, plus family and close friends.
"Other than that, I'm just trusting my body and my intuition. There seems to be a massive fear around being pregnant and giving birth like it's a sickness, or something to be afraid of, and I refuse to buy into that. Hello, how long have women been doing this? Our bodies are designed for it; they know what they're doing. And I trust mine implicitly."
Common sense also prevails, she says, which means she's being sensible about nurturing herself, eating mostly the right things ("and sometimes not – I think that's important too!") and staying relatively fit.
In accordance with a practice that many cultures refer to as 'the fourth trimester', she's also focusing on creating a peaceful and loving environment for the baby to be born into, and to remain "cocooned in" for the first 40 days post-birth, to promote rest and allow the baby to be strengthened by the energy of its parents.
"It might seem a bit hocus pocus to some, but it's just something that resonates with us. If you can imagine the energy of zooming around in a car or being in a supermarket with noise and bright lights… those things are pretty new in the scheme of human evolution and bloody intense for a baby. So we'll be at home for those 40 days, with just the core family unit visiting."
Beyond that, the parents-to-be aren't going overboard with the preparation. "What we've heard is that you can never really be prepared until you're there anyway," she says.
If there's anything Chelsea admits to being slightly apprehensive about, it's balancing work and family life after the baby comes.
"I think that's going to be an interesting one to navigate," she says. "For 35 years my life has been about me, me, me, what am I doing. And now my main priority won't be myself, it'll be caring for this little soul.
"I don't think it's going to be 'easy'. When I'm in work mode I get in the zone. I just go hard, and everything else comes second. The idea of having to wear two hats at the same time – being a mother and managing my business – I don't know exactly how that's going to work, and I don't think there are any clear answers yet. But I have a great support in Douglas, which will be huge. In some ways it's going to be a challenge," she pauses. "But I think it'll be really good for me."
With no illusions that parenting is going to be a cakewalk, so to speak, Chelsea says she and Douglas are actually looking forward to being "students of life" again.
"We're going to learn a lot – off each other, off our baby, off the people around us… Just when you think you've topped your game it's like nope, back to the bottom," she laughs.
"I mean, in some ways, Douglas and I are still getting to know one another. Our life isn't perfect, but why should it be? Relationships take work. We're going through the normal stuff couples go through but on a really fast track. And then we're adding a baby into the mix, so of course it's going to take patience and love and compassion."
One thing that isn't going to change, she says, is who she is and what she's about. In terms of her next cookbook, which she's working away at, this means not rushing to meet any kind of arbitrary deadline, or shoehorning in recipes that pander to popular food trends.
"The minute you go down that road, you've lost before you've even begun," she says, adding that the food philosophy she's built her empire upon – two key tenets being 'everything in moderation' and 'as much homemade food as possible' – is set in stone. As is the reasoning behind it.
"If you strip it right back, what I'm about is empowering people at home in their kitchens. I'm not here to preach at anyone, or to make them think they need to know how to create a…"
"Exactly. I'm not trying to get anyone to be part of some fancy, elite, foodie club. It's literally as simple as helping people to nourish their families and their friends and themselves. I think that's why people trust my recipes. So I'm not going to suddenly start deviating from that."
Watch: Chelsea Winter's refreshing approach to food and dieting. Article continues below.
Incredibly, not even her pregnancy cravings have undermined her 'brand', as it were. Save for a temporary aversion to kale, broccoli and mushrooms, wholesome and homemade has continued to dominate the menu, with classic combos like tea and toast, and mashed potatoes and cabbage all on high rotation.
"And fruit!" she says. "I can't get enough, and I feel amazing for it. There's scaremongering around fruit – the general feeling is that because there's sugar in it you shouldn't eat a lot of it. Not true. Our bodies love and need that kind of sugar. We don't eat enough of it. Likewise, I think it's sad potatoes get a bad rap and there's a belief that they'll make you fat. Potatoes are so bloody good for you!"
At a time when fake food news lurks behind every browser window, Chelsea's sensible, straightforward take is certainly refreshing. Her relatability seems also to resonate with her fan base – nearly 400,000 strong on Facebook alone – with Chelsea readily believing that the support she's been shown over the past year has come down to the fact that the journey she's on isn't unique to her.
"Most people know what I'm going through because they've been there themselves. They've understood, and I've felt massively supported," she says, explaining that any fears she's had around sharing the tough stuff have been trumped by the personal premium she has always placed on honesty and integrity and owning her choices.
"That's sometimes harder than it sounds because we all wear masks," she adds. "We all fear judgement, we want people to like us, we all want to come across as the best version of ourselves, at the risk, I think, of losing a bit of authenticity. I'm no different. To be honest, I feel pretty vulnerable doing this interview – it's a very personal story to be sharing. How will it come across? What will people think? At the end of the day I'm just a person like everyone else, doing the best I can in my life. Ultimately, it takes courage to follow your heart, but having faith in the universe and having faith in yourself are the two biggest things for me."
It's with this mantra in mind that she's happy to launch headfirst into whatever the future holds.
"I'm not a huge planner, and I don't have too many expectations, I just have a lot of faith that it's going to be awesome," she says. "And yes, there'll be more tough stuff. That's life. You can't be happy all the time. But right now? I am so very happy."
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