Vanessa, who is sharing her recipes for junior cooks with Bite, is passionate about the importance of teaching cooking skills. She believes in fresh, real food cooked at home rather than talking about foods that are 'good' or 'bad'.
How would you describe your food style?
I love to cook and am equally passionate about eating. My favourite food occasions are with family or friends so the shared table of family friendly food bursting with flavour is my signature style.
What are you most enjoying cooking now?
I’m loving creating delicious salads, full of colour, texture and flavour that can be meals in themselves or wonderful additions to a barbecue feast.
We understand your first cookbook The Fearless Kitchen is due for release in July. That sounds very empowering. Tell us about it.
I immerse myself in cooking and reading cookbooks and always have. During the course of my life I have realised that not everyone does this! In fact I have discovered that there are people quite intimidated by the thought of cooking. I decided to create a book that will take the fear factor out of creating delicious yet simple food. It is about empowering others to thrive in the kitchen and to hopefully be able to enjoy the process.
How did The Fearless Kitchen brand come about?
Bringing people together around food extends beyond my book. Right now I create MasterChef style challenges for corporates as well as for school kids. The bespoke events are tailored to create an environment of fun, team work and confidence in the kitchen. I love to see people arriving a little grumpy and unwilling as a participant and leave feeling empowered with new techniques and skills, and usually wearing broad grins!
You are a former early childhood educator, tell us a little about your lessons for junior cooks.
I love to encourage children into the kitchen and cooking. My motto for this is “give them your rules and hand them the tools”. If you allow the kids to get involved and show them the dangers within the kitchen, they will take the task seriously and commit to doing it properly. I find children totally love the hands-on learning environment the kitchen can provide. From measuring, to the science of whisking an egg white, to reading through a recipe, or thickening a sauce, kids can be truly immersed in something that is creative, achievable, comes with a delicious outcome and an essential set of life skills.
Were you an adventurous eater when you were growing up? Any advice for parents of picky eaters?
I have been super lucky to have grown up in a family who were avid food lovers and I guess I have always loved trying new things. I held my first Italian dinner party when I was about 15 and remember making zabaglione - the other teens weren’t quite as taken with it as I was! My own boys [aged 14 and 15] have been brought up eating and trying food alongside us. I have never really cooked separate meals for them and as they grew up moving around South East Asia they were introduced to a variety of flavours, texture and spices so are very adaptable. I truly believe in presenting kids with food all together. Getting them to eat something that no one else is eating around them is not going to work. Constantly popping something on their plate and not giving up is important as kids need to see and try a new food a few times to really accept it. I also believe that empowering the kids to assist in the kitchen and letting them prepare fresh food is the easiest way to get them to try new things - who wouldn’t want to try something they just helped to create!
Australian-born, you learnt Italian and cooking in Siena, Italy, and you spent 14 years travelling throughout South East Asia before settling in New Zealand. So what’s your favourite cuisine?
Ooooo this is the trickiest of questions because I really do not have a favourite. I love Italian food completely, but then I love Vietnamese food too. There are days the clean and simple flavours of Japan are perfect, yet there are other days where I crave a spicy Malaysian Laksa.
What’s on the family’s weeknight dinner menu? Do your two boys help out in the kitchen?
There are times they choose to cook and, yes, they need to help out in the kitchen and are really capable. Weekday dinners are simple and practical because we have such a busy home and schedule between us. However, if my dinners get repetitive I hear complaints for more MasterChef effort to be put in!
What lessons did you learn from MasterChef? Would you be keen to repeat the experience?
I learned a lot about myself on MasterChef - and to be honest about other people too. It was a whirlwind of an adventure and most of it was spent being stressed and tired! However, I appreciate that without the journey of MasterChef I would not have the opportunity to work in the industry I am most passionate about. It has not been an easy ride but when you are working on something you love, then it is certainly worth the bumps along the way. I wouldn’t choose to repeat MasterChef but I am thankful for chances and introductions the experience has afforded me.
Do you have a speedy go-to dessert if you are expecting visitors but have little time?
I tend to make a tiramisu-style dessert when I am in a hurry. I use a traditional recipe that I learnt from my “mama” in Siena, Italy. I also play on it a little and you will find a lemon and blueberry version in my cookbook. I am always making savoury tarts with seasonal produce. It became a little joke with my friends when I was younger as apparently it had become such a habit that guests would all try to guess what type of tart I was likely to produce for a lunchtime get together!
What ingredients are must-haves in your kitchen?
I always have staples for an Asian and a European pantry - so things like soy sauce and fish sauce plus noodles and ginger, garlic and chilli. Then, on the other hand, you will also find tinned tomatoes, a good hunk of parmesan, extra virgin olive oil, basil, lemons, anchovies, capers and pasta. With all of that and some fresh picks from the garden, I can create a good few meals.
What do you usually eat for breakfast?
I am the most hopeless breakfast eater ever. I start the day with coffee and that is essential. Around mid-morning I start to get hungry so that’s when a brunch idea will tend to kick in. Probably my go-to at home is avocado and egg on sourdough. If I’m in a cafe I will deliberately choose something really unusual on the menu just to try it - though have to admit to loving black sticky rice with coconut as an option!
Who is your food hero
My Nana and Mum are my true food heroes. We were surrounded with food and it was always homemade. Both Nana and Mum believed in cooking and creating gorgeous homely food and understood that a laden table would draw people together. They both way over-catered and my mum still does - she will make 4-5 choices of dishes when people come around and we will all tell her she is crazy but she gets pleasure out of having people feel welcomed and nourished.
My local food hero is Peter Gordon. I studied his books sentence by sentence when I first moved to New Zealand and I love his whole philosophy around food. I am beyond excited to be interviewing him in February for my food for friends & family podcast. I am also a big fan of Ray McVinnie, I truly love his approach to lifelong learning and the acquisition of knowledge around food and culture. He has already been interviewed on my podcast!
Anything else you’d like to add?
I really believe in fresh, real food, cooked at home. I do not however like to talk too much with children about what is right or wrong to eat as I believe this can lead to obsessions that can ultimately become unhealthy. The importance from my perspective is to understand how certain foods can nourish us and how sharing in cooking and eating together can strengthen knowledge, skills and relationships with each other. My philosophy is not to ban foods but to teach about balance and pleasure. As a young woman I suffered from anorexia, so I know too well what a burden such an obsessive nature around food, health and weight can be. Nowadays, I strongly believe that cooking and learning the skills to enjoy cooking will benefit everyone in their desire to remain healthy and with a broad knowledge of food and cuisine.
See Vanessa's nutritious recipes for junior cooks