Former Masterchef New Zealand finalist and author of The Fearless Kitchen, Vanessa Baxter talks to Good‘s Natalie Cyra on her food philosophy, inspirations and why she’s educating street kids and youth in prisons, by teaching them how to cook.
You’ve travelled extensively around the world – what have been your favourite cuisine to eat and replicate, and why?
I have loved all the cuisines and cultures I have experienced for different reasons. I truly believe that food and culture are intrinsically interwoven and food is how I have made sense of the new countries I have visited and lived in. My most recent favourite would have to be Vietnam. Again, though this is because the food is fresh and delicious, and the culture of food is around a shared table, street dining and community. I love that you can make an instant friend over an iced coffee – even with the same language, that you can share a table for pho at lunchtime and eat at a communal table over the Vietnamese BBQ. The food is fragrant, filled with flavour and easy to replicate at home for the family.
Tell us about your experience on Masterchef New Zealand. How has that set you up for what you are doing today?
The MasterChef experience, the judgment, the intensity, the lack of personal space, culminated for me in a reminder of who I am. Ray McVinnie summed me up perfectly when he said “I don’t think she likes failure.” I am a driven person and if I do something I want to do it to the absolute best of my ability. It is my desire to always exceed expectations and to strive for personal goals and achievement. MasterChef was exhausting and exhilarating. It caught us and threw all of us outside our comfort zones. To experience this mid life is truly a gift because you have to make a decision – am I going to run with this and make it worth something or am I going to let it go. I decided to make it work. My boys had to live without me for weeks, they had to endure their Mum on TV (and not in the most glamorous of ways!) so for me, I wanted to show them that it was for a purpose, that it had enabled me to do things that are important for me and for the community.
Had you always wanted to become a chef when you were older?
I always loved to cook. From a young age, Mum and I used to create menu plans together for birthdays and dinner parties and I was captivated with the idea that gorgeous food could bring people together around a table. Then as a music and psychology student at Melbourne Uni, it was actually the food scene that caught my imagination and set me on the foodie path of my future.
You’re also involved with educating street kids and youth in prisons, by teaching them how to cook. How did this come about?
I have always wanted to be involved in supporting others. There have been times in my life where people have stepped up and really gone above and beyond to help me. This was my drive for paying it forward. My work with youth is empowering for me and hopefully for them too. I feel completely blessed to have found organisations who see this value in what I can offer, and are supportive of my involvement. Ronald McDonald House, KOTO and Bridge the Gap are all extraordinary organisations that are supportive of youth and family and I am impressed with each of their missions. I love that my focus on cooking and teaching a life skill, can be interwoven into the work already done by such amazing charitable causes.
What is your favourite meal to make?
I love to create things that surprise people, such as the pork stuffed squid in my recipe book. It is so easy to make, yet looks impressive and is loved by guests young and old.
And what about your family’s favourite meal courtesy of you?
My family totally love food – all food but as a family we tend to enjoy bowls of food – so a bowl of pasta with a rich sauce when in an Italian mood, to an Indonesian Soto Ayam when pining for something from Asia.
What do you like to do in your spare time? Spare time!! LOL. When I have a little time I hang out with my two doggies, Saffy and Poppy, if I can do that in the sun, and with a book and a coffee, then it is perfection!