They’ve gone from cooking chicken nuggets and Cheerios, to turduckenqua and quinoa. But MasterChef New Zealand contestants Kelly Kaihea, Paula Saengthian-Ngam and Vanessa Baxter’s biggest achievement isn’t appearing on the hit TV One show – it’s being a mum.
Taking a rare day off from both the kids and the kitchen, the three women chat to the Weekly about missing birthdays, Skyping and emergency surgery – and while the competitive trio all agree the show was an experience of a lifetime, it was no picnic.
Were you surprised at how hard it was to be away from your families during your time in the MasterChef house?
Kelly: Definitely. To be honest, I didn’t think I would be in the house for so long. Then we had to leave the country – you’re leaving your kids behind, you couldn’t tell them where you were going… it was a very weird feeling. It was really emotional, actually.
Vanessa: Yeah, you can’t explain it to them because you don’t know how long you’ll be gone for. When we first went into the MasterChef house, I made these calendars for my boys. I printed the template off the internet and wrote things in different-coloured pens for each day of the week, such as “Mummy loves you”, “Have a great day at sport”, “Don’t forget your school bag” – that kind of thing. I only did it for five weeks as I didn’t want to jinx myself and be the first one sent home! But I didn’t want my kids to think that I’d disappeared out of their lives completely.
What was the hardest part of that separation?
Paula: I missed both my sons’ birthdays. I felt terrible because I told them I would be there. I just didn’t think I would still be in the competition, but I sent them presents from the house so they were okay! We Skyped a lot.
Kelly: I couldn’t Skype – it was too hard. I tried it once, but as soon as I saw the girls I burst into tears. I couldn’t handle it. My girls were a little bit younger than the [other contestants’] kids and it really upset me that I was missing on all the growing up they were doing. I wasn’t prepared to be in the house for as long as I was.
Vanessa: Me too. I think that missing my kids really affected my performance, actually, and I felt guilty about leaving them behind. My husband said to me, “You should have let it go and focused on the competition.”
How did you manage to overcome that guilt?
Vanessa: I couldn’t do it. I’ve never been away from them before, ever. I never stopped to enjoy MasterChef. If I did for a second, I felt guilty. I felt like I had to be all-consumed by cook books because I had given up so much to be there.
Kelly: Yeah, watching it now, I should have made more of the opportunity at the time. I should have captured it more. But you had to have the support of your family – you couldn’t have done it otherwise. I’d call my husband in absolute tears and he’d tell me to harden up, saying, “You don’t cry at home!”
Paula: But the experience of the television show was amazing. I was quite an avid watcher of the programme before, but actually being in it was so cool.
Were there times when you thought the entire experience was too much?
Kelly: I almost quit. I had cut my hand [on the show] and the same day my husband broke his leg, which needed surgery.
He was refusing to have it so I said, ”Right, I’m quitting and I’ll be at the hospital as soon as I can.” That was a hard thing for me. As a mum, I think you’re more willing to give things up.
Paula: It was weird going from being a mother for so many years, and then all of a sudden not having to be one for a few months. I kept thinking, “Normally I’d be making lunches or doing a school run. Instead I’m in a mansion, studying cook books!”
Has life changed for your family since MasterChef?
Vanessa: Life revolves around it in our house at the moment. My passion for cooking has definitely rubbed off on the boys. Morgan told his dad he wanted to show him the new rugby field at school. Tim was chuffed, thinking he was turning into a good Kiwi lad, but it turns out Morgan wanted to show him the spot where he and his friends run a virtual cafe – the leaves are cakes, the twigs are brownies and apparently the other kids pay for all of it with grass. I think he was a bit gutted!
Paula: I had a kid come up to me in the street the other day and say, “You didn’t do very well on the show the other night!” Little brat. Ah well. At least kids are honest!
Photos: emma watson • hair & make-up: Natalie Clements and Kate Smith • Styling: Tamzyn Elliot