As pans spat and food processors whirred at Wellington's Food Show, Brenton Thornton and Chelsea Winter cooked for their first live audience – leaving the crowd wondering if they were watching New Zealand's 2012 MasterChef.
Thornton, 24, and Winter, 27, have known since October who won the televised cooking challenge but they were both as tight as the lids on their boiling pots. They've lived in hiatus, returning to their normal lives – Thornton as a landscaper and Winter a marketing executive – since the cameras stopped rolling, or when they were evicted from the MasterChef mansion, where some of the contestants lived for up to two months.
Last night, both he and Winter made it through to the next round, so they're now up against two other contestants. And while they're bound by confidentiality agreements, Thornton says: "Everyone tries to catch you out. Friends and people you meet have quite creative ways of trying to find out."
When Life interviewed the pair before they cooked a 45-minute demonstration in the Electrolux cooking theatre on Friday, they had previously appeared on our screens cooking at Taupo's prestigious Huka Lodge. In that challenge, they were treated to a delicious six-course meal by the lodge's executive chef Michel Louws and each had to replicate a dish which was blind-tested by the judges. Winter came out in the bottom two, but it was Matt Gilray, of Christchurch, who was eliminated.
Thornton, whose on-air expletives caused his voice to be drowned out by bleeps, told Life that cooking the mushroom entree was his most stressful challenge so far.
"I was ready to throw in the towel," he says. "That was my worst moment so far. I wanted to volunteer myself out of the competition. But the whole show gets even more intense from now."
MasterChef is like a tight club and the competitive reality TV show has propelled several careers already, with 2011 winner Nadia Lim's cookbook still on the bestseller list.
Both Thornton and Winter would like to follow in her footsteps and launch cooking careers. Thornton has always loved cooking and his aunties, uncles and parents have always been keen cooks, with hangi typically served up. He is particularly drawn to seafood, catching his own kaimoana. Thornton's partner entered him in MasterChef and the experience has been life-changing.
During filming, the contestants became a tight-knit group.
"You're surrounded by these people who feel like brothers and sisters. But it was insane, cooking under pressure. It was crazy. The biggest thing I've learned is probably a controlled sense of urgency."
Describing himself as a creative cook who "throws it in and tastes it" rather than following a rigid recipe, Thornton cooked two dishes before the crowd - prawn wontons with a dipping sauce and a Mediterranean vege bake. His choice reflected his passion for Asian and Italian food.
Winter cooked Moroccan chicken thighs and a fried haloumi salad with honey coriander dressing. She has always been a keen cook and comes from a foodie family.
The highlight of her day is cooking the evening meal. "Cooking relaxes me and makes me happy."
But since she entered the show and was chosen as one of 16 contestants, the attractive blonde says her cooking repertoire has vastly expanded.
"What I enjoy cooking has increased so much since the show. Apparently the judges are interacting with the contestants a lot more this year and I've personally learned so much from the offhand things they say.
"I don't tend to follow recipes myself. I always like to try new things."
The pair are clearly crowd favourites to win MasterChef as they were chosen by the public to demonstrate at the Food Show Wellington, after the organisers asked for nominations on a Facebook page. Thornton has won three of the challenges and Winter one.
Says Winter: "Being on the show has cemented that this is what I love to do. If I can apply myself I can do what I like to do."
- © Fairfax NZ News
Have you read Kiwi author Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries?Related story: What now for Eleanor Catton?