Ali Hitchcock, Polly Markus and Matt Reynecke (Photos: Supplied)
Ali Hitchcock, Polly Markus and Matt Reynecke (Photos: Supplied)

KaiSeptember 20, 2021

How the pandemic propelled these home cooks to social media stardom

Ali Hitchcock, Polly Markus and Matt Reynecke (Photos: Supplied)
Ali Hitchcock, Polly Markus and Matt Reynecke (Photos: Supplied)

Looking to spice up their weeknights, cooped-up New Zealanders have been seeking culinary inspiration on their phones, and these three clever cooks have capitalised. 

Greeting her 29,000 followers with a peppy “It’s Friday!”  Polly Markus, of Miss Polly’s Kitchen, gestures enthusiastically at the camera while explaining her latest creation.

Describing the meal, a crispy fish burger, as “seriously beautiful”, and giving the camera a chef’s kiss, Markus’s fun and fast-paced style is infectious. She implores her followers to choose a juicy cut of fish and whatever they do, not to let their oil burn. 

“Naughty,” she says, with a wag of her finger.

Polly Markus and some recent posts from @miss_pollys_kitchen on Instagram

The 31-year-old Aucklander, who is a commercial real estate agent by day, with a background working as a crew chef on a superyacht, is one of a new breed of chef. She’s built up a following on Instagram after launching her page in March last year, amid New Zealand’s first Covid-19 lockdown. 

As cooped-up New Zealanders looked to spice up their weeknights, a handful of culinary whizzes, like Markus, began sharing their expertise on Instagram, armed with a good iPhone camera and an even better recipe repertoire.

Miss Polly’s Kitchen came about after Markus was asked by a friend to do an Instagram takeover for Everybody Eats. Appearing as a guest chef on Everybody Eats’ lockdown series was daunting, she says, but gave her the confidence to build a brand for herself. 

“I guess the timing was just right,” Markus muses. “I always wanted to do it, I mean I literally had this Miss Polly’s Kitchen page with no one on it, just a few friends and family. I had posted once.”

Polly Markus joined the Dietary Requirements team in the studio to talk about the joys of home cooking. Listen below.

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As lockdown went on, then eventually ended in May 2020, Miss Polly’s Kitchen took off. Markus’s Instagram feed filled up with images of everything from a “Greek-ish salad” recipe to tom yum soup as she tapped into the culinary skill built over three years spent working as a crew chef on the superyachts, along with countless dinner parties. 

The style of her page evolved as she began to introduce video tutorials and time-lapse videos showing her measuring, dicing, searing and tossing, into her feed. The videos have helped boost engagement, she says, and make her recipes seem more accessible. 

“It takes away that first step where you might feel a little bit overwhelmed with how things are meant to be, if you didn’t understand it.”

While Markus has become known for her fresh, colourful creations, she says the recipes that had proved most popular – particularly during lockdown – were the ones that were “a little more stodgy”. 

“I’ve definitely noticed that people seem to want that comfort food a little bit more than having, like, a jazzy salad and some chicken,” she says.

The feedback Markus receives from people who cook her recipes is one of the best aspects of the page, she says, though it has caused the hours she spends on her phone to skyrocket.

“I looked at my screen time last week and I was like ‘holy, get off your phone!’”

Matt Reynecke and some recent posts from@kitchen_by_matt on TikTok

A spike in screen time is something that former pizza chef Matt Reynecke, of Kitchen by Matt, has likewise experienced, since quitting his job churning out woodfired pizzas in a beer garden to launch his own content creation brand.

Attending a pop-up business school had been a game-changer for the 24-year-old, inspiring him to go out on his own. He launched an Instagram page and a TikTok account two weeks after his resignation, with the aim of building up a profile before launching a venue of his own. 

Reynecke, who moved to New Zealand from South Africa when he was three, launched himself into TikTok at the perfect time. As Covid-19 lockdowns brought much of the world to a grinding halt, the video-sharing app boomed. 

While Reynecke boasts close to 5,000 Instagram followers, over on TikTok, the main hub of Kitchen by Matt, his followership is nearing 60,000. The content is the same on each platform; snappy videos typically spanning less than a minute, cutting between clips illustrating the steps of recipes ranging from birria tacos to parāoa parai – fry bread.

One such video, labelled “Gigi Hadid’s viral pasta w/ ya bois twist” sees the Upper Hutt local walk his followers through the dish, which the model famously videoed herself making during lockdown in 2020.

Wanting as many people to experience his recipes as possible, Reynecke is determined to make them attainable for all of his followers, both in terms of availability of ingredients and in budget.

“If I’m using, for example, a scotch fillet, not everyone is going to have enough money in their budget. So you’ve got to have the alternative.

“You’ve always got to improvise in the kitchen – always, always, always.”

With Covid-19 having prompted Reynecke to pivot from the original goal of opening his own eatery, he’s now focusing on building up his online presence, making a wage through sponsorships, partnerships and donations while supplementing his earnings with savings. 

He’s content with this for now but says there are definitely “a few things” he wants to achieve over the next five years. 

“Open a restaurant? We’ll see,” he says. “I’m just taking it one step at a time at this stage.”

Ali Hitchcock and some recent posts from @hitchcooks on Instagram

Hitch Cooks came about soon after the closure of restaurants in last year’s March lockdown, which prompted Ali Hitchcock to begin recreating the dishes he would typically order while dining out or ordering in. 

The Aucklander is currently riding out lockdown in an Eden Terrace flat with his wife Gracie, though he says “you wouldn’t know by the size of the meals that we cook that it’s just the two of us at the moment”.

With a background in media and a sizeable Instagram following, Gracie provided the expertise getting the page up and running, posting the first images and then plugging the account on her own Instagram page.

Much like Markus, Hitchcock soon discovered his followers wanted hearty, meaty, comforting meals, which luckily, are his trademark. His feed is filled with images of homemade pasta with ragu – beef, venison or ox, take your pick – and not one but three sets of videos documenting the 29-year-old perfecting the popular Chinese dish biang biang noodles.

“We were quite lucky last lockdown, Gracie’s family are from a farm down in Cambridge,” Hitchcock says of the enviable produce selection. “They sent us a big package of meat.”Like Markus and Reynecke, Hitchcock had secured a few collaborations with food companies; a handful of butcheries as well as the likes of Asahi beer and Puhoi Valley. 

Hitchcock doesn’t tend to follow any recipe to the letter; instead taking a couple of recipes that appeal and adding his own twist with different flavours. He operates on an ad-hoc basis with his process, sometimes pairing an image of the result and video of its creation with a full set of instructions, but often leaving people to contact him if they’re after the recipe.

“You get the engagement from people asking questions and sending messages to find out what went into it, so you can interact with them that way, which I actually quite like,” he says. You’re having a little chat with them and seeing that they’ve been inspired, it’s quite a nice way to do it.”

Hitchcock says he’s always been into feeding people and will “always want to have something to do with food”.

“Whether that’s just a little bar or something like that, in the future, or something else in hospitality,” he says. 

“Food just makes people happy, good food especially. It’s cool to see the joy that it can bring.”

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