Sister power – cooking duo on mission to feed New Zealand

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It might be a little tooearly to talk about an ‘empire’, but uber-talented cooking duo Karena and Kasey Bird are definitely aiming high in the culinary world. Four years into winning MasterChef New Zealand, they have already published two cookbooks and starred in their own travel-cooking show Karena and Kasey’s Kitchen Diplomacy. The next big step for the sisters from Maketu is The Creation Dinners – high-end pop-up events they arehosting all over the country. A trial event in Rotorua sold out in 24 hours!

focus chatted to Karena and Kasey before the ‘Beneath the Surface’ dinner at The Dry Dock Cafe in Tauranga on August, 30th.

What’s the idea behind The Creation Dinners?

It’s a multi-sensory dining experience. A seven course meal with world class wine, all wrapped together with sound, visuals, music and lighting to help share our favourite childhood legends. We wanted these dinners to feel intimate, to create special connections between the guests, so we only sit one table of 30.

The night starts with guests meeting at a bar for pre-drinks and then being transported to the mystery dining location. There they enjoy food that has been carefully created following the techniques and flavours we have learned on our extensive overseas travel. The whole experience lasts about four hours. One of the best things about the dinners is the team of strong women helping us to deliver this experience. The only thing better than having a job you love is being able to bring other people with you!

Any plans on hosting one in Tauranga?

We plan to bring The Creation Dinner to Tauranga for a weekend in November or December. It’s always nice to be close to home during the warmer months!

No matter how busy your schedule is, you have no intention of leaving your home town in the Bay of Plenty. What is it that you love so much about Maketu?

There are countless reasons why we will never leave our home town. Maketu is a place where everyone treats us the same as before we were on TV and it is our quiet place to create.

Our family is a huge part of our lives and we wouldn’t want to live far from them. All our favourite places here are somehow connected with our family: the cul de sac where our parents live, the beach where we take our dogs for daily walks, and the Marae – the hub of our community with one of the biggest and best kitchens around.

Maketu still is the quintessential Kiwi beach community – everyone knows each other and people drop the freshest fish right on our doorstep. We love living in the Bay of Plenty, one of the most popular holiday destinations in New Zealand. Why would anyone want to move?

Your love for food must also come from your family. What was always on your table, while growing up in Maketu?

We grew up wanting to sample every different dish at the potluck dinners we would go to. We were lucky that our grandparents and mum could cook really well. Our mum worked full time as a lecturer but still made time to come home and cook delicious dinners for us. A few of her well known classics include her perfect stuffing and roasted chicken, lamb shanks with prunes and kumara mash, and honey soy chicken and fried rice.

What’s the best town for foodies in New Zealand?

At the moment, it would have to be Auckland for us. From fine dining at The French Cafe to authentic Indian curry in Sandringham, to Korean BBQ, to classic sushi at Cocoro, to Italian comfort food at Coco’s Cantina. There are new places popping up all the time there and we love it!

You do everything together but who’s the boss in your team?

We are both the boss! We each have our own roles and responsibilities and we think we make a very good team. Our discussions are always very matter-of-fact as we both agree it is about getting the best outcome, not about who is right.

Creative people tend to not be very good at numbers but you two are an exception. Do you have anyone helping you with the business side of your projects?

We have been fortunate to have many very accomplished advisers in our family to give us guidance. And we both have had experience with business – Kasey was studying accounting before MasterChef and I was an auditor in Te Puke, so we weren’t green when it came to the number side of things. Since MasterChef we have been our own managers – we have self-published and marketed both of our cookbooks, made our own website, negotiated all of our own contracts and shaped and planned our careers in a very hands-on way. We are comfortable with all the aspects of our business but we’ve learned that there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done, so this year we brought our cousin Leanne into the fold to help with some of the projects. Leanne has been incredibly helpful and it has put us in a position where we can keep moving forwards and upwards.

It’s always exciting to talk about achievements and success, but could you share with us a ‘cooking disaster’?

In Karena and Kasey’s Kitchen Diplomacy, the last day in a country was always a huge cooking challenge. We needed to plan a menu based on the things we had learned only a few days prior, create recipes we had never practised before, go to the markets to buy ingredients we didn’t know for certain would be available, then cook in a kitchen we hadn’t seen before. There were times when we thought we had pushed ourselves too far. For example, in Peru, we had to cook for Diego Muñoz, who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu Institute in Canada and Paris, and is alumni of El Bulli and Mugaritz (both are ranked in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants), and while working in Australia at Bilson’s he was nominated for Chef of the Year 2011! We planned to cook a four-course meal – with potatoes in every course – for Chef Muñoz and three other accomplished Peruvian chefs. I remember the wafer-thin potatoes I had mandolin-sliced for my dessert being blown all over the inside of the oven from the fan! It was a very intense three and a half hour cook but, in the end, it was one of the most rewarding experiences. We pulled off our vision under difficult circumstances!

Can you give our readers some advice about following their passion and starting their own business?

Our advice is that you just have to start. Start writing your business plan instead of thinking about it! Start asking people about your business and what their opinions are, start researching and asking questions about the market you want to enter, start making the ‘thing’ it is that you want to make. You don’t need to quit your job straight away either. It might mean late nights working on your idea after working all day but if you are passionate and really want it, then you have to make time to start. It is now or never!

Where will we be able to see you in August/September?

We will be working on The Creation Dinners for the foreseeable future.We will be in Wellington on the 4th and 5th of August, then we plan on doing a South Island leg during September. If you want to try some of our food, we are usually at our local Maketu Markets running a food stall – these are held monthly. We post on our website where and when we will be cooking if you want to come and visit us.