We talked to “Beauty and the Beast” aka Tracey and Neil from My Kitchen Rules New Zealand about cyberbullies called Doreen, experiencing the perfect chip and just giving everything a bloody shot. //
I met Tracey and Neil on a sunny Ponsonby afternoon. Neil arrived bang on time, a vision in bright blue from his Kathmandu polar fleece to the iridescent gleam on the lenses of his Dirty Dogs. Tracey arrived in a flurry 20 minutes later, wearing a blindingly crimson dress. They laughed when they saw each other, “look! we’re still Fire and Ice!” It was joyous to see such a colour co-ordinated commitment to their onscreen personae, a week after they had been eliminated from MKRNZ and months after they had actually wrapped shooting the show.
Meeting some of the contestants in real life was a godsend. In recent weeks I had become so immersed in the MKRNZ world that I could comfortably deliver a TedX talk about the perils of cauliflower purée despite never having touched a cauliflower in my life (that’s what she said). But it didn’t really feel like anyone was listening – apart from my Dad. This interview felt like maybe, finally, all my late nights falling asleep whilst photo-shopping a judge wig onto Ben Bayly’s head were being affirmed. This show mattered. At least for right now. At least to the three of us.
Before we got to talking about the show, Tracey was distracted at-length by a group of elderly women milling around Ponsonby Central: “she looks like one of those hoity-toity Smith and Caughey types. I probably modelled for her in the 80s!” Tracey had been a model for Sale of the Century and starred in many beauty pageants, including “Miss Mother and Miss Daughter World” in 1988. She mulled over the identity of the old woman for a few minutes to no avail, and then we got started on what would turn out to be a three hour long exploration of the My Kitchen Rules universe. Oh man, what am I doing.
How did you get involved in the show?
Neil: It was always my favourite show for about four years. I used to watch the Australian show religiously, but my all-time favourite show was Big Brother. I knew there was no way I would ever get on Big Brother, so I thought MKR was the closest thing.
Tracey: Oh, of course you’d get on, look at you! You’d be the love of everybody’s life!
Neil: When I saw it online, I asked four different people (one of which was Neil’s partner). Tracey was the one that came through.
Tracey: Oh, it would have murdered your relationship. Tell you what, working with your partner would be the hardest thing ever but the couples on the show seem to be handling it really well.
Well, did you watch it last night? Dan and Christie seemed particularly strained.
Neil: I did see that, they were fighting weren’t they? Did you see them make a dig at our parsley and orange salad?
Tracey: What did they say?
They had 20 minutes left and only two components on the plate, so Dan suggested making up a quick herb salad. And she jibed back “oh, you mean like a parsley and orange salad?” It was a definite neg at you guys.
Tracey: Oh, well that’s all good. Any publicity is good publicity.
Exactly, you are gone but not forgotten. So, just to clarify, you two aren’t together are you?
Tracey: No we aren’t. Everybody thinks that we are because we are relaxed with each other. We wanted to put up a front of togetherness. What we do reflects on each other. But we’re not together.
Neil: Everyone on the internet thinks we are. There’s this one woman on Facebook called Doreen, who is really horrible. She hates us…
[Tracey interrupts to point out the MKRNZ ad on a passing bus, “look there’s us!”]
Neil: …she writes nasty stuff like “I feel so sorry for Tracey’s husband, poor Tracey” But I wrote back to her and suddenly she realised there is a person on the other end and toned down the rudeness. I write back to everyone, I’m all over Facebook.
So you got Tracey on board, what happened next?
Neil: Tracey was the only one with the courage to say yes.
Tracey: I was familiar with the concept, but the show didn’t really matter, it was just a bit of a challenge. I’m a real “Nancy Drew – we’ll get through!” type of person.
Totally, just give it a shot right? [even after googling it, I still have no idea what that Nancy Drew thing meant]
Neil: We sent in a video to the show with a little photo shoot that we did on the beach and were basically in straight away. I think we filled that mid-40s demographic really well.
Did they give you the “Beauty and the Beast” persona? Were you happy with that?
Tracey: God yeah, it was better than “Rumpelstiltskin and God-Knows Who”
Neil: Or “Dumb and Dumber” I liked it actually – it was quite apt. And it gave me a role to play. I tried to be beastly but it didn’t really work.
Tracey: Likewise, I would play up that role of “Oh where’s Tracey?” “Oh she’s just putting her makeup on.” I was trying to be a desperate housewife.
Personally, you guys were two of my favourites and I think the show is hurting without you.
Tracey: We tried to just offer ourselves, we were just the home Mums and Dads who are just great mates and like to have fun and play.
Neil: You’ve got to remember as well that we had a good 20 years on most of the people at the table so we knew how these things work. We knew we’d be at the hands of the editor.
Tracey: We could just be ourselves. We knew they were going to tweak whatever, so we just went with anything. That’s why, at the end, they made us out to look quite mean when we gave out that “5” to Steve and Maura’s ragu.
Was scoring difficult at the beginning?
Neil: It was, because it was hard to gauge the standard. Everyone was very nice at the first few, we gave Neena and Belinda a high score. But I don’t actually really like fancy food. I remember Sam and Dan scoring Neena and Belinda very low, I think it’s cool that they did that.
Tracey: They wouldn’t have been into that little tart and all of that anyway. The difference in our headspace from the other teams was that we weren’t hooked up in the scoring hype. We just wanted to be friends with everyone. Even now, I would love to have a reunion. If Jetstar would fly everyone.
Did you meet the others before the instant restaurant?
Neil: We just turned up, were put in separate cars and turned up as you saw it on the first episode. I think we were pigeonholed immediately, everyone thought I was a real dork and she was the cougar. The Bogans and the Hippies took on their role straight away.
Tracey: Nobody was really talking, so I got the ball rolling like an old professional. I sort of said “well, hello I’m Tracey”. I told Gareth that he looked very nice, he looked uncomfortable.
[please note this is not the first time Tracey has made a judge uncomfortable]
It seemed like some of the teams weren’t given strong roles to play, for example “The Newlyweds”.
Tracey: I think their role was just to be nice. I don’t know, what do newlyweds do? We didn’t see any “ba-donk-a-donk”, there weren’t any bedroom outtakes or anything.
Neil: Belinda and Neena aren’t also the staunch hippies they’re made out to be.
Tracey: I guess we don’t know the story behind a lot of the contestants, I mean the Maori Cooks* – are they actually Maori?
Neil: The teams in Group Two are way too nice to each other. And the public love them
Tracey: We tried to just say things how it is, Neil is quite harsh and I just say whatever.
Where did your Fire and Ice instant restaurant idea come from?
Neil: I thought it was glamorous because Revlon have a Fire and Ice ball every year in New York. But they have a $3million budget, so I started thinking that we could bring in ice sculptures and all the rest of it. I rang up and they cost $600 each. So we went to the $2 shop instead.
Tracey: I wanted to get something flaming. I wanted to have a row of ten flaming vodka shots.
Does the filming of the restaurant take hours?
Neil: You start at 9am and you go shopping for three hours. You get three hours for prep, and the cooking starts at 4. And then the only time you interact with the table is when you serve the courses and they give you their cryptic feedback.
These judges are particularly good at that, was it nerve-wracking getting the feedback?
Tracey: Yes because Gareth always has his little smiley eyes on. You don’t know if you’re going to get a four or a ten.
Neil: He would always look at me and have a smirk on. They’re getting better and better as well now that they are in HQ, getting more comfortable with chatting normally to the contestants.
So you had to wait till the judges gave feedback till you could eat. Was the food actually enjoyable or was it stone cold?
Tracey: It wasn’t hot, but good food will stand up at room temperature.
Neil: It was bearable – it’s all just part of it. I was more interested to see what the different teams would produce, and how everyone would mark accordingly. Like I thought Sam and Dan’s steak and chips was really good, but they didn’t score that high.
Tracey: Oh! Those chips! They were the chips of the show.
I must say I’ve never seen chips cooked so many times.
Tracey: And their dessert was amazing. Dessert of the show.
Neil: I still think our first dessert was very very good, our White Chocolate Mountain. I still have a bit of beef about this. It’s my Dad’s recipe, and it was bloody good. But the judges were like “what is it?” and we were all like “it’s a white chocolate mountain!” I think people were expecting some sort of volcano.
Tracey: Which it was! I said it look a lot like a little volcano!
Neil: We only got 4s and 5s for that. If we had scored higher we might have made it into the 60s, and then maybe, well, who knows?
Tracey: Maybe everyone was just jealous of my outfit.
Was it difficult going back in for the second round of instant restaurants? Seemed like there was a lot of pressure to up your game.
Tracey: I think we chose a tricky menu that was complicated to plate up, like there’s no way to make a salad look good.
Neil: We had no time to assemble it, we had just found out we were in the second round and we had to get the menu to them the next day. I wasn’t actually that concerned about getting to Kitchen HQ. For me, it was amazing enough to get into the second round.
Tracey: I wanted the prestige of Kitchen HQ. But we did okay, considering how many people went for it. We still beat 2,500 people so, kudos.
Neil: We thought we would just kick back and enjoy it. My only regret is not giving Dai and Dal a ten. I loved what they did.
Tracey: We would have given them a ten if they had more spunk in their own presentation. And I don’t mean just using a banana leaf because that’s normal – they’ve been rolling out that banana leaf since they were four years old. If they had come out and done a little dance, or just dressed up a bit. The showmanship was lacking. I wanted a fortune cookie or something**.
What were the best and worst things you ate on the show?
Tracey: I was disappointed in my lamb shank. I had imagined it as something glossy and saucy. So that was the worst. By far the best dish was Dai and Dal’s sticky rice and pork. And Dan’s chips.
[not the first time Tracey has had a tense run-in with a piece of meat]
Neil: My worst would be Dan and Christie’s ceviché and Steve and Maura’s carpaccio.
Tracey: It’s no reflection on their cooking – he just doesn’t like raw fish or raw meat. We had to be a little careful with people getting offended. Some of them take our feedback very seriously, and sometimes my foot talks before my mouth.
I was hoping you guys would get super tactical towards the end and vote all the teams a ‘1’.
Neil: That happened once on the Australian one, I think we would have been hated by all of New Zealand. And that wasn’t what we wanted. But we knew the axe was coming, so we thought we vote fight back a little bit.
Tracey: We just wanted to play and have fun with it. We are just old teenagers. Just give everything a go for god’s sake. You can’t sit there and analyse everything. You know, people are so frightened of doing stuff. You see thirty-year olds out there who have already thrown in the towel and are tired by midnight! Just live a little!
Seems like a nice note to end on, anything else you want to add?
Tracey: I think the winner should use the prize money to throw a big party. And invite us.
After the interview, I was left amazed by their ability to recall the critiques and scores that almost every dish on MKRNZ received. From Steve and Maura’s ragu to Dai and Dal’s pork larb, it was clearly all still festering in a way that made me feel better about obsessing over the show. I wasn’t the only one. The pair maintained that they were just on the show for a laugh, but I could tell that Neil still remained slightly irked and defensive about their low-scoring white chocolate dessert.
If Tracey and Neil have taught us anything, it’s something along the lines of having fun and letting go. Don’t listen to the haters, and don’t make a white chocolate mountain out of a molehill.
PS: Neil messaged me this tribute video a few minutes ago – he put it together himself. I challenge you to not be moved by their journey:
*They are called The Polynesian Cooks, coming from a Cook Island and Maori background.
** Fortune cookies are Chinese, not Laoatian