High above Auckland city, with bright lights twinkling beneath them and an incredible selection of food in front of them, MasterChef 2014 winners Kasey and Karena Bird still can’t quite believe their new life.
It’s one day after New Zealand saw the much-loved Maketu sisters snatch the MasterChef title from Arrowtown’s Jaimie Stodler and Bec Stanley. As they unwind, 53 floors up in the Sky Tower’s Sugar Club restaurant, they can barely find time to enjoy the delicious food chef Peter Gordon has served them.
A steady stream of admirers approach the table, asking for photos and autographs and offering congratulations. One (slightly tipsy) man extends a warm offer to cook them “the perfect pork and prunes” if they’re ever in Wellington, and an elderly lady beams as she tells the sisters how well they’ve done. Even the sous chefs venture away from their stoves to meet the girls.
It’s as if everyone knows them – and, as a slightly overwhelmed Karena (25) points out, everyone does. “What we were like on TV is exactly what we’re like all the time, so people do know the real us,” she says.
“We were on people’s screens three days a week for three months. It’s like the whole country has some kind of ownership over us. They want to see us do well. We read people’s lovely messages and try not to cry.”
From their always immaculate make-up to their ability to laugh at themselves, Kasey and Karena, despite their age and inexperience, were fan favourites from the start.
But a case of severe homesickness near the end of the gruelling competition almost derailed their chances of winning, reveals Kasey (23).
“It was when we were in Bali, and we’d just made the top three,” she explains quietly. “It wasn’t so much that we wanted to go home, it was that we wished our family was there with us, experiencing the awesome things that we were. We were quite deflated.”
But, Karena says, “We got back to the house, and we were like, ‘No, we’re going to harden up and get over this.’ “We told ourselves to pull it together and suck it up; we were so close to winning and there was no way in hell we were giving up.”
Despite their now famed cool, calm and collected natures, the girls’ MasterChef journey was far from smooth, especially at the beginning. “No-one talked to us in the MasterChef house at the start,” Kasey says with a smile.
Karena agrees: “The first day in the house, we showed up in full make-up – I was wearing this fake-fur vest, heels and thigh-high stockings with a little black dress – and we came toddling in, all like, ‘Hi, guys!’ so I don’t think we were taken very seriously. It was only as the competition went on that people realised we had some substance, too.”
It’s this substance, as well as incredible poise under pressure, that have endeared the sisters to the entire country.
And despite suggestions from Jaimie and Bec in the grand final that their demeanour was a “strategy”, Kasey and Karena insist that’s what they’re like every day. “It’s just who we are,” says Kasey, who has just tucked into a plate of Peter’s paddle crab linguine – a dish the top three had to cook, and the one challenge where Kasey buckled under pressure.
“Oh, this is how it’s supposed to taste!” she suddenly exclaims. “Karena, try this. It’s nothing like the one we stuffed up!”
“Oh, that’s yum,” agrees Karena, before returning to the conversation. “Jaimie and Bec were so great,” she insists. “They are fantastic women. A lot of people have been really mean to them; there have been some horrible comments made, and that’s not cool.
“Mum always told us in every phone call we made to her when we were in the house: ‘Be quick, be clever, be smart, and respect your opponents,’ so that’s what we’ve done. Being humble and nice is the most important thing.”
These lessons from their beloved mum Atarangi and dad Kerry proved to be the girls’ strength during their time on MasterChef. Both admit they didn’t realise how much their parents had instilled in them before entering the show.
“They taught us how to manage so many different situations,” Kasey says. “To see them so proud of us is amazing. Dad even cried once, apparently. And he’s the least emotional man I’ve ever met!”
“He wasn’t that keen on us entering,” admits Karena. “He saw it as a risky move, taking three months off work, and for Kasey to take so much time out of her accounting studies. But we’ve since caught him re-watching episodes when he thinks no-one’s home, and he even got a Facebook page so he could follow our progress. He’s our biggest fan now!”
On the evening the final aired – Sunday, May 4 – Kerry, along with Atarangi, youngest sister Michaela (whom Kasey and Karena fondly call their “secret weapon” because of her amazing make-up skills) and their boyfriends Patuara and Horace, were on hand to witness the pair win the title.
Almost the entire Maketu community were at the local marae when New Zealand finally learned who’d snared $100,000 in prizes, including $15,000 worth of Countdown vouchers that the girls are gifting to various family members, and two identical black Skoda cars, which Kerry wants to customise with hot-pink tyre rims.
How will they tell the cars apart? “Mine will be the clean one,” laughs Karena, while Kasey retorts, “Just wait – Karena will put a dent in hers.”
The whole family travelled to Auckland for the filming of the grand final and, Karena grins, “When we saw them, they were all really slim, because we hadn’t been cooking for them. “My boyfriend lost 7kg while we were gone. Now he’s put it all back on!”
But the best thing, the pair say, is how their relationship has strengthened since MasterChef. “We understand each other more now,” Kasey says. “I think we complete each other; I’m quieter, Karena’s more extroverted. I rein her in and she helps me feel more confident.”
Though they had been sworn to secrecy since their big win, it didn’t stop the girls quietly working on their cookbook, and the ambitious pair have plenty of other projects in mind.
“I’d love to be on TV again,” says Karena. “Does that sound terrible? I just think it would be cool to take people on the next leg of our journey. We’re also keen to design a range of chef’s whites that are fashionable and feminine. Why do whites have to be so unflattering?”
With Kasey putting her accountancy degree on hold as both girls focus on their culinary careers, they smile as they consider the fact that the world is truly their oyster.
As they descend in the Sky Tower’s glass-bottomed elevator – ironically considering their dizzying rise to new-found fame, both sisters are terrified of heights – they check their phones to see hundreds of messages still pouring in from well-wishers across the country.
“This is just insane,” Karena says, shaking her head. “But it’s okay. Hopefully we’ll make everyone proud!” She needn’t worry – they already have.
About Kelly Bertrand
“I started at the Weekly after a two-week internship in 2011, which was part of my journalism studies. Basically, I hung around and annoyed people long enough to land a job as a staff writer, and I’ve been here ever since. I’m lucky enough to get to write stories ranging from the Kardashians through to the Queen, but my real passion is telling the stories of New Zealand’s sporting stars. Sometimes I can’t quite believe it’s my job to hang out with All Blacks and Silver Ferns! I absolutely love working at the Weekly, and feel really privileged to be part of this 83-year-old Kiwi institution. I’m also fond of Instagram, coffee and animals dressed as humans!”more of this author