There are two very different Chelsea Winters, at least according to her husband. There is the one we all know – the wholesomely pretty MasterChef winner and successful cookbook author. That's the Auckland version of Chelsea Winter.
She lives in an airy modern townhouse filled with Scandi-style furniture and leafy pot plants, and the sorts of words you might use to describe her are clean-living, focused and hardworking. But come summer, as soon as she gets to her favourite beach on Great Barrier Island another Chelsea emerges. One she cheerfully admits is "rough-as-guts".
"Barrier Chelsea never washes her hair because she's in the sea all day and it goes crazy and dreadlocked. She's brown and she drifts around wearing bikinis and sarongs, and turns into a bit of an earth child," she says.
Husband Mike Bullot likes that version of her so much, they've invested in some land on the island and plan to spend lots of time camping there this summer to give Auckland Chelsea a break. Because while the past few years have been a dream run as far as her career goes, she's 33 now and her priorities are starting to shift.
Barrier Chelsea needs some time in the sun. She's produced five books in five years and her latest, Eat, dishes up more of what her thousands of fans love – tasty recipes using everyday ingredients and straight-forward techniques.
Never in her wildest dreams did Chelsea imagine she'd be where she is today. Neither did her family. As a child growing up in the Kiwi countryside, she never had a strong sense of the direction she was going to take in life.
"I'm sure for a while when I was younger my parents were just hoping I'd find what I wanted to do because I didn't follow the usual 'go to university' route," she says.
Chelsea did in fact go to Victoria University, but quit after a few weeks as she knew it wasn't what she wanted. Instead she started working her way up the corporate ladder in marketing – not an especially good fit either.
"I felt very stressed. It wasn't my dream job," she admits.
Food had always been a passion. She grew up learning to cook hearty meals from scratch the way her mum, Dutch-born Annemieke, always had. For an after- school snack Chelsea would whip up a bowl of pasta rather than smearing jam on bread like most kids. But food never seemed like something she could turn into a career. Then, in 2012, along came MasterChef.
"I never went into it thinking I was good enough to win," says Chelsea, although she admits to being the girly swot of the MasterChef house, seizing every chance to add to her knowledge about food.
"The person I was at the start was a completely different cook to when I came out. My family say they could see it happening throughout the filming. Mum even says there was a certain point in the show where she could tell I had the confidence to go all the way."
Victory turned out to be as disorienting as it was thrilling.
"There's no guidebook for winning a reality TV show and trying to make your way in life," says Chelsea.
"There's just all this pressure to do something and be someone so it's weird."
She was under no illusion that the win qualified her to become a chef or open her own restaurant.
"I just thought, 'I've got this opportunity to write a cookbook – because that was the prize – so let's put everything into it'. My intuition told me it was what I should be focusing on."
That first book, At My Table, spent 12 weeks on the bestseller list and has been reprinted numerous times. Opportunities started flooding in and for a while Chelsea struggled to say no to any of them.
"The first couple of years were quite intense," she says.
"I was trying to do it all and I got to the point where I wasn't enjoying it so much and thought I was burning out. So I sat down with Mike and said 'Okay, what do I love most about this?'"
They narrowed it down mainly to writing the cookbooks and having her fans on Facebook.
"Mike suggested rather than trying to do 10 million things I should cut it down to a few and do them really well," says Chelsea.
"From then on that's what I've been doing. I turn down an awful lot of stuff but I feel good about it because I know a work/life balance is going to be manageable."
Mike might not be much of an influence in the kitchen (he can cook but rarely gets the chance); still it's clear he's a strong force in the rest of Chelsea's life.
The pair met at high school where they were on each other's radar but never got together. "It would have been 10 years later, after we'd both been through other relationships, that we saw each other again at a weekend away with friends on Waiheke Island. Pretty much straight after that it was boom."
They've been married for four years, a period when they've both been intent on establishing their careers – Mike is an entrepreneurial businessman. Now they plan to ease into a change of pace. "We've knuckled down really hard and haven't done much travel together," says Chelsea.
"So we're thinking next year we'll go and do some."
She's not sure where they'll land, though Mike is a yachtie so she imagines it'll be somewhere sunny in Europe with a regatta involved and she'll end up cooking for him and the other sailors. Slowing down and spending more time together will hopefully lead to what the couple is hoping for most from the next stage of their life together.
"We'd love to have a family," says Chelsea.
"Mike is very excited about the prospect of children, as am I. I'm 33 and obviously I don't have a whole lot longer so we're hoping we can try and make it happen some time in the near future."
The tricky part for women is their most fertile years fall at exactly the same time they're trying to build a career.
"I've got to the point where I've achieved a whole lot I'm really proud of and now seems like the perfect time. Before I was always thinking about the next book and what I'd got on but that's changed in the past year. If I had a baby that would be amazing; everything else can fit in around it."
Chelsea says she's pretty much the last of all her friends to have kids and that's given her some idea of what to expect from motherhood.
"So we'll just see how it goes. I have this philosophy in life that everything will work out the way it's meant to."
Ideally there'll also be a move from Auckland to somewhere rural or beachy in the not-too-distant future.
"I'm not a city girl. It's been great for what we've needed to be doing but we're definitely in a place now where we're going, 'Let's get out of here'. Pretty much all of my family is down at the Mount and Mum's in Cambridge so if we're going to have kids it would be great to be where everyone else is so they can run round on the beach or on the farm."
She'd like to replicate the happy memories of her own upbringing.
"I was always out playing in the mud, hanging with the chickens or making tree houses so I'd love that for my kids. And Mike's been sailing since he was four."
"My experience of being on the ocean is getting up at the crack of dawn and going fishing for as long as I can possibly wangle," Chelsea says.
"We've got a RHIB [rigid-hulled inflatable boat] and we go out in summer a lot now, just into the harbour. I've had to pull it back a bit because seven hours later I'll still be there, wanting to try one more spot. Mike's said in order for him to want to go out fishing with me I have to limit how long I go out."She loves everything about it – being outdoors, catching the fish, filleting them, and most of all the cooking and eating. It's fair to say Chelsea is in love with food. Whatever topic you're discussing the conversation somehow seems to wend its way back to things culinary and an impressive kitchen is very much at the centre of her house.
"I'm always swinging off the fridge door, looking inside wondering what I can make," she says. "It's my way of de-stressing and relaxing."
The cover of Eat shows her holding a plate of jammy, sugar-dusted cream doughnuts, sending a message that Chelsea isn't buying into any faddy food trends or self-denial.
There's butter, sugar and wheat in those recipes (though she does give options for anyone with intolerances), in keeping with her key food philosophy, 'everything in moderation'.
"I'm not afraid of carbs and potatoes," she says.
"My mother brought me up with a sensible, down-to-earth approach to eating, which is that as long as you stay away from the highly processed crap then you don't have to be concerned about the other so-called 'bad' things. On the whole you don't need to worry about any food if it's close to its natural state."
Ditching the stuff in jars or packets, and cooking from scratch is what she inspires her readers to do.
"When I first won MasterChef and put out a cookbook I didn't realise how much of an impact I was going to be having on people's lives. The reason I do the books now isn't just because I'm a food lover; it's because I'm helping thousands of people in the kitchen and the feedback I get is crazy. It's surreal sometimes how many people are making my recipes. They'll say I've changed the way they eat, that they're feeling confident in the kitchen now and they'll ask me please not to stop what I'm doing."
Little chance of that. The new book is only just on shelves and Chelsea is already jotting down ideas for another. It's an intensive process as, unlike some other successful foodie authors she doesn't have a team of assistants to help her conceive, write or test the recipes, or to manage her social media.
Her 350,000 plus Facebook followers know when they post shots of their attempts at the chocolate orange sherbert slice or the custardy hot cross pudding from Eat it will be Chelsea herself who sees them.
"It comes from here," she says, holding her hand over her heart.
"I think that's really important and it's another reason I don't say yes to everything, so I have time to do the basics properly and keep it real."
The way a recipe is written can make the difference between a success and a disaster so Chelsea spends a lot of time perfecting hers, ensuring her own voice comes through and readers can feel as if she's there with them in the kitchen.
It is a solitary job, particularly when Mike is away, but she has her dog Sprite to hang out with and besides she likes her own company.
"Mum says I've always been incredibly independent," says Chelsea, whose two siblings are much older.
"I could spend hours by myself as a child and I'm still like that now. I never feel lonely."
She feels fortunate to be in a position where she wakes up every day to a job she loves and isn't interested in dreaming up ambitious five- and 10-year plans. Right now a simple life over summer, camping on Great Barrier, is as far ahead as Chelsea's looking.
"I've never been one for goals," she says.
"That might sound a weird thing to say but I kind of drift through life taking opportunities as they come. I'm a big believer in trusting your gut. I feel I've been true to myself through this whole process and learned lots along the way and I don't know what's next; I really don't. But isn't that kind of cool? Life's full of surprises right? You never know what's round the corner."
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