Chelsea Winter: Shining Bright

Photography Monty Adams

Chelsea Winter shares why she’s feeling super good about everything and how becoming plant-based has changed her life.

Chelsea Winter hasn’t done a major media interview in a year and that’s been a conscious choice for the best-selling cookbook author, who won the hearts of New Zealanders when she won Masterchef in 2012. Two years ago, Winter, 37, became mum to her son Sky. That was a catalyst for some big lifestyle changes for both herself and her partner Douglas Renall, including the adoption of a plant-based diet and taking time out for her family and mental health.

Today, Winter is positively radiant with wellbeing and admits she’s never felt better – mentally, spiritually and physically.

Her journey to wellness began before Sky was conceived, when she was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome and told there wasn’t a cure. “I went on the pill as a teenager because of my skin and I was basically too scared to come off it, and I regret that now,” Winter says. “I came off it after 15 years when I felt ready to have a baby but I didn’t really have a period for a couple of years. “I tried acupuncture and herbs. I went to naturopaths. I got told to eat more eggs and put on weight. And after a while I thought ‘how can there be no cure for this?’”

She began doing her own research and read that the female reproduction system runs off the sugars in fruit. So she ramped up her fruit uptake and stopped eating eggs (the last animal product to go before cheese). “Five years ago, I didn’t eat any fruit.

All I ate was meat, cheese and dairy. I’m just telling the truth. In my weekly shop, there was no fruit, maybe some bananas,” she admits. “So, I ate all this fruit and honestly, within a few months, probably six months, I had a bang on 28 day cycle with a full healthy flow. And for me that’s all the evidence I need that you can heal yourself from a lot of things. I’ve gone on to have a child, a very healthy pregnancy and a really quick home birth and honestly I really think my diet has a huge part to play in all that.”

Becoming plant-based

Living the good life in the Bay of Plenty, Winter and Renall have embraced plant-based eating and reduced their alcohol intake to practically nil.

Since the switch Winter says she feels better on a holistic level. And that inspired her to produce her seventh cookbook, Supergood, which is also her first plant-based cookbook. While one might wager that the queen of comfort food is just jumping on the plant-based bandwagon, the complete opposite is true.

Winter’s conversion to plant-based eating has been gradual and she admits that she never dreamed that she would adopt a plant-based diet. “There was never even a blip on my radar before. I just started to become more aware,” she explains. “My journey to a plant-based diet was slow and filled with potholes. I didn’t put too much pressure on myself because knew the direction I was going in and I was determined to go at my own pace.

“The thing I kept in mind was that it’s progress, not perfection, that ultimately leads to where you want to go. I knew in my heart where I wanted to end up – in other words stop eating animal products – but there was still a lifetime of societal conditioning, industry programming (brainwashing more like) and ingrained eating and cooking habits to peel away. That doesn’t happen overnight and you’ll fail if you think it can. I had a whole lot to learn about a new way of nourishing myself.”

Plant-based cookbook

Winter was justifiably fearful that people wouldn’t embrace her first plant-based cookbook and was prepared for some backlash. However, she’s glad she was brave and stuck to her convictions.

“When I first started writing it, it was only going to be a vegetarian book as a soft transition but I just got to a point where my intuition was screaming at me, going, ‘why are you doing this? You don’t even eat this stuff. Who are you trying to please?’ And I was like, ‘you know what, Chelsea, you’re right!’”

And she was. Supergood was the top selling title across all local and international book categories in 2020. It has since gone on to have the most appearances of any other book in the number one spot for the first half of 2021, and is also the number one non-fiction title (at the time of publication) for 2021, as well. While there has been some negative feedback, there was always going to be, says Winter.

And she’s okay with that “because I have come from a place where once upon a time I would sneer at a plant-based cookbook. I would be like, ‘what is this person doing? You are dead to me’”. “Members of my own family are still sceptical of my new way of living and don’t approve. And that’s okay. A powerful lesson for me over the past few years has been that I do not need to live my life trying to make other people happy. No one should. I knew I’d lose fans over this but I also knew in my heart it was what I needed to do. God, a few years ago I probably would have unfollowed me too – I was so obsessed with meat and cheese.”

On the flipside, just as many people love her new direction and are embracing plant-based eating. “What I’m actually seeing is for every fan that drops off, someone jumps on. I didn’t plan it like that, and I’m not really worried about it because this isn’t a business plan for me, it’s my life! It’s just interesting to witness. It shows me that the world is becoming more aware day by day, and that gives me so much hope for the future.”

Bloody yum

Supergood is especially suited to people who believe ‘it’s not a real meal without meat’ and is filled with delicious comforting recipes for dishes like lasagne and chocolate cheesecake. “Your palate has to get used to eating food that isn’t so incredibly hyper-stimulating to the body,” she explains.

“If you’re eating meat, cheese and eggs all day every day and you suddenly try flipping it and living on salads and veges, you’re not going to feel satisfied, your brain will be like ‘what the hell is this?’ Even though your body will be rejoicing.

“That’s why I wrote Supergood, to help people realise they could eat with compassion and for better health and not feel like they were missing out on anything. The recipes are bloody yum. And convince the super sceptics of the family, too.

“Over time it’s easy to retrain yourself to appreciate the food our bodies were actually designed to eat, as you gradually eat fewer animal products. Suddenly you realise the perfection of a crisp, ripe apple when you feel like something sweet. Or if it’s a cold winter night, a warming, creamy coconut curry with golden cubes of fried tofu, toasted cashews and chopped fresh aromatic herbs is all you need to feel comforted.

“I don’t feel like I miss anything – I feel like I’m living my best life, in alignment with my core values and morals. I feel like I have the freedom to live and speak my truth authentically without fear. Does it get any better than that?”

Post-traumatic stress and finding calm

Doing the recipe development and testing for Supergood while also being mum to a baby proved to be incredibly stressful. Chelsea was new to motherhood and it was a completely different way of cooking – and the pressure she put on herself at this time caused post-traumatic stress which she’s spent the last year processing.

“Every time Sky was napping, I was in the kitchen testing recipes and then if he’d wake up from his nap early I was freaking out rather than just enjoying the process,” she says. “I was trying to do two big things at once and it was hard.”

Meditation has become the most powerful tool for Winter to find calm. For someone who has a tendency to just “go go go”, it’s taken her a few years to get to a point where she feels she can get into a really good space pretty quickly.

Over the last few years, she’s delved into various modalities and integrated practices into her daily practice such as meditation, breath work and chanting – with yoga next on the list.

Journaling has also proved to be a great tool for working through emotions and letting them out in a way which isn’t screaming at your partner. “Just becoming more conscious of what’s coming up rather than trying to squash stuff down, and asking ‘why am I feeling like this? Okay, well let’s journal it’.”

It was practically impossible to do with a newborn, but now that Sky is older, and with Renall also at home, they’ve constructed a morning routine to support and tag-team each other, which enables Winter to have an hour to herself each morning to do her daily practice. “And once you’ve done that, it doesn’t matter what the day throws at you and often the day throws quite a lot at you. Having Douglas home with me sharing the parenting every day is an absolute blessing, for me and especially for Sky.”

Love and relationships

school but it wasn’t until a few years ago that they reconnected and became a couple. “We both knew at that time that we were meant to be together. It happened fast and we jumped in the deep end and it’s been a really amazing journey,” she says.

Winter feels like she’s matured a lot in this relationship and come a long way as a person. “I’ve really had to face myself and my shadows, and some parts of it haven’t been that nice to face but that is life,” she explains. “The sooner you can work through it, move on and forgive, the better your life is going to be.”

It’s the first relationship where she feels “self-aware” and admits at times it was “a bit explosive because [we] held mirrors up to each other”.

“We have got to a point where we can give each other a safe space to grow. We know we are on a journey to heal and evolve together, and we feel pretty safe to say what we think, feel and need, like whether it be emotionally, spiritually or physically, without worrying about being judged or them thinking you’re nuts. Most of us are carrying around baggage and trauma from our childhoods, so facing that together and understanding each other’s wounds and triggers is massive, and it’s been the kicker for us. We’ve learned to be more conscious, and we’ve gone deep into it.”

She’s also reading a book about the five love languages and describes it as a revelation to realise that we all feel loved and express love in different ways and that learning your partner’s love language is so critically important. “I wish they taught it at school! I’ve never been at a point where I’ve been mature enough or ready to face this stuff before, I always kind of just coasted along in life and hoped for the best,” says Winter. “It’s work, but boy does it pay off.”

“Also a big one for me is that you can’t just expect someone to meet all your needs and make you happy. That’s what romcoms, novels and love songs have taught us to expect, but it’s an illusion. No one else can make you happy; true happiness comes from within, and you can’t feel it until you’ve learned to love yourself, exactly as you are, right in this moment. Being in a relationship with more realistic expectations is empowering.”

Let’s talk about alcohol

Renall, a former winemaker, recently posted on Instagram about New Zealand’s binge drinking culture and the negative impact it has had on him. Winter respects him for starting a conversation because drinking is something she thinks we’re not talking about as a nation enough.

Both Winter and Renall have now really pulled back from the drink and only bring out a bottle on very special occasions. They don’t want Sky to grow up in a house where drinking, especially binge drinking, is normalised.

“I literally have had enough alcohol in my life that if I never drank again, I’d still have had way more than my quota,” says Winter. “We’ve both had our relationship with alcohol in the past. Mine certainly hasn’t been very healthy. And as Douglas said in his post, when he was a teenager, he got sucked into the whole binge drinking culture.”

“It’s a rite of passage. When our kids turn 21, what do we do? We shove a yard glass down their throats. It’s just wild. I remember always thinking ‘oh well, in France, they give their kids wine when they’re really young and they drink every day’. And this was what I was telling myself to validate my own issues when I was drinking way too much back in my 20s. But when I visited Europe I realised they might nurse a small glass of wine with the meal and that’s it. For us in New Zealand, drinking is an activity in itself. In Europe they don’t just drink.

“Yes, alcohol can be such a beautiful part of a culture if revered and respected and not abused, but in New Zealand, it’s just like, let’s get together and get pissed. And not only is that accepted but it’s encouraged and applauded. And then when you get really pissed, it’s funny, like ‘oh my God, you’re so pissed’. How are we ever supposed to get out of this crazy cycle?”

Winter admits that in her 20s there was no way she’d be able to nurse just one glass of wine over a meal, it was more like a whole bottle. After she turned 30 she stopped drinking for almost three years. “I got to a point where I thought, if I keep going like I’m going, something very bad is going happen,” she says.

“I’d won Masterchef and I’d put together one or two books and felt like my life was going in this amazing direction. But alcohol was just always there, nagging away at me and slowing me down. I thought ‘I just have to stop’.

And I did, just like that, which is amazing because I never, ever thought I could do that – I was seriously addicted. I honestly feel like I received a divine kind of guidance, as if I was being supported by my highest self or my guides or something, because it was so easy to do and it was just so right.”

Over that time she learned how to function again without alcohol as a crutch – without spending all her time thinking about drinking, drinking or recovering from drinking. Winter realised everything she did socially revolved around alcohol and “there was no space or mindfulness – just a permanent hangover, so I just cut it out”. That’s also when she started becoming more aware of what she was eating.

“After that, I would drink a little bit here and there, but I could always feel that little gremlin trying to get its little hook back in me again, and I’m just like, ‘oh man, you’re such a dangerous drug. You are so sneaky’. So for me it just feels great not drinking. I just feel like a liberated woman where literally nothing can hold me back.”

Living in the spotlight

Since winning Masterchef, Winter has had to endure life in the spotlight and that hasn’t always been comfortable – such as when she went through a painful marriage breakup in the public eye. Over the past few years she’s said no to most media opportunities and “really pulled back for [my] family and mental health”. The only public portal has been her own social media, which she can control.

She has also put parameters around the amount of time she spends on social media. “It can be a bit of a vortex, you can lose hours and hours without even realising it. I’m so grateful that it can connect me to so many people but my time is so precious now we have Sky, so for now, I limit my social to a couple of times a week. It’s incredibly addictive, so disconnecting for a few days at a time is a very powerful way to help bring myself back to my centre and find perspective.”

Empowering others

She also uses her platform to shout out to other women experiencing success, including fellow plant-based advocates Sophie Steevens (Raw + Free) and Buffy Ellen, a Kiwi plant-based nutritionist.

“I read a really cool quote years ago, which said ‘Her success doesn’t equal my failure’, and it really resonated with me. If someone is doing good and amazing things and I admire them for it, I’m going to shout it out because the world needs more of that.

We need to stop pitting people against people, especially women against women, because it’s not working. And the more I began to do that the more I realised how great it felt. There’s more than enough for everybody in this world.” One woman who has championed Winter since she was born is her mum Annemieke, who instilled a deep belief in Winter that anything is possible.

“Affirmations are so powerful and having those spoken to you every day, you soak that up when you’re a kid. That was a huge gift,” says Winter. She also uses her merchandise to spread good vibes. Her new ‘Shine Your Light’ mugs feature gold mandala prints and positive messaging.

“I’ve read that the number one cause of so much unhappiness in people is the feeling that ‘I’m not enough. I’m not good enough, I don’t do enough, I don’t have enough’. I just want to remind everyone that they are so beautiful, so unique, so worthy of love, so perfect just the way they are,” Winter says.

“We all need to be reminded of this, all the time. Because society is constantly telling us the opposite and it’s a load of crap. Hollywood movies and beauty magazines and the high fashion world has a lot to answer for. The advertising world has a lot to answer for. Creating a feeling of lack that we try to fill with stuff. Then we wonder why we still feel empty? It’s a crock of shit.”

Life at The Mount

Since moving to The Mount from Auckland six years ago, Winter can’t imagine ever going back to city living, though it served her in her 20s. Growing up on a lifestyle block in Waikato, then Kumeu, it is perhaps not surprising she loves the lifestyle and being closer to family.

Winter loves to walk on the beach and up The Mount. “I can be feeling really rotten and after a long walk in the fresh air, I’m bursting with good vibes again,” she says. Being close to the beach means she can also work on improving her surfing technique. A few years ago the self-confessed “water baby and bodyboarder” attended a week-long surf retreat in Bali where she learned the basics.

She’s hoping that in a few years she’ll be one of those people who can just go out and catch a few waves. “I feel fully reconnected to nature when I’m out in the ocean. I just feel like that water with its magic energy cleanses and revives my mind, body and soul. You could literally take a whole pharmacy-load of supplements, pills and potions and never get close to the feeling after a good swim or surf.”

Conscious living

Since becoming a mum, she has become more conscious of not only where food comes from but also environmental issues. Plastic features as little as possible at home. She wishes she could live a plastic-free life, but does the best she can, with the aim of always doing better. Winter is very aware of what goes into her rubbish bin and has an “epic compost heap” in the garden for food scraps.

“I shudder to think of them just producing methane in the landfill. When I lived in the city we had one of those Hungry Bins and I was obsessed. It made the best plant fertiliser ever and those worms chomped through a lot of compost.”

She also consciously consumes less and no longer buys new clothes every season. Winter believes we’ve reached a critical point for our planet where if we don’t change a lot, and quickly, we’re going to really mess things up. “The Earth will correct itself if it needs to, which won’t be pretty for humanity. She will pull through but we might not, but I honestly think we’re in a good position to reverse things right now,” she says.

She believes the main thing is awareness through educating ourselves and then that change comes down to individual choices that are made daily. “I think it will happen because this next generation that’s coming through are going to be so much more conscious than we were. And even just the increasing consciousness of the current generations.

There’s a massive global awakening going on right now and that is the key. We can have hope because of the way things are going and all the information we have at hand. We just need to all take responsibility, and not fall into the trap of ‘well, what can I do? I’m just one person’.”

Future Sky

She dreams of a world for Sky where love and compassion triumph over fear and anger. A world where we humans have remembered our connection to nature and our own bodies. Where everyone feels beautiful, empowered and worthy of love. Where success isn’t what you have, but how you feel and how you make others feel, and the goodness you put into the world.

And where people realise they have the power to create change – because they do. Following and promoting a plant-based diet is Winter’s way of making a difference. Her rationale for choosing a plant-based diet is three-pronged – health and wellbeing (she’s just completed a certificate in plant-based nutrition through Cornell University), environmental and animal welfare.

Facing up to the ethical side of it rather than continuing to turn a blind eye was a personal “boom” moment. She realised she couldn’t keep being an animal lover and wanting to live a life of compassion and then turn around and eat animal products which cause so much misery and suffering.

If Winter had her way, every packet of eggs or chicken at the supermarket would have images of day-old chicks being gassed or ground up in a macerator – which is what happens to around 4 million male chicks each year in New Zealand as a by-product of the hatcheries. “Nobody knows that. And I really don’t think a lot of people would want to support it if they did,” she says.

“There’s a huge disconnect between what’s on the supermarket shelf and what’s on your plate, but it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore that as we move into an age where there’s just so much information everywhere and you just can’t hide these atrocities anymore that are happening. So it’s kind of exciting in a way.”

Despite being plant-based, Winter doesn’t label herself as vegan. She still owns a couple of leather items and eats honey. But she won’t be buying meat, eggs, dairy or fish from the shops again, nor will she be writing recipes which contain them.

Where to start with plant-based food?

In Supergood, Winter provides a list of plantbased pantry staples she calls “new friends”. Her top five ingredients include nutritional yeast flakes, stock powder, a good dairy-free chocolate (Whittaker’s 50% is her go-to), a good plant-based milk (creamy soy is her favourite) and deodorised coconut oil for when you don’t want that coconut flavour.

She is realistic that most people won’t suddenly swap to eating solely plant-based and says Meat-free Mondays are a great place to start. Her Macho Nachos are a dish that her family enjoys weekly and a firm favourite with fans, who’ve also written in to say The Beast Mode Lasagne fooled the meat lovers. Supergood also features a hearty cottage pie, a creamy pasta made with cashews, plenty of luscious curries and a banoffee pie so good it should be illegal.

If you are catering for a crowd, Winter recommends her lasagne or margherita pizza with a salad, plus one of her cheesecakes for dessert, which can sit in the fridge for a day or two. “For me it would be something I could make in advance. I don’t really want to be cooking when I have people over. I always get really stressed out,” she laughs.

“People don’t expect fine dining when they come to my house. It’s just whatever’s easy and then you get to spend quality time with the guests, which really is what it’s about.”

Passion and purpose

Producing a plant-based cookbook has definitely felt purposeful for Winter. After her fifth book she was starting to question, “What am I really doing here? Am I actually helping anything?”, whereas with Supergood, she felt like she was actually creating something worthwhile.

And for it to be the bestselling book of the year has made her realise “that people are open and they’re ready to be inspired and on some deep level, they know that the way we eat as a nation has to change”.

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