Life after MasterChef
Aaron Brunet makes amazingly good sourdough bread: gorgeous dark, crunchy, slightly caramelised crust on the outside; moist, soft, nutty on the inside. It is so good you want to beg him to open a bread shop. And you never know, he might one day, because his life has changed, and the IT consultant doesn't really know what's going to happen next.
Well, in a way he does, because one thing is certain - he'll be working with food, rather than computers. The 43-year-old is the latest winner of MasterChef New Zealand and his future is wide open.
One of the prizes, a brand-new Skoda Superb, is parked in the driveway, he's working on his cookbook for publishers Random House, and Aussie MasterChef judge George Calombaris has said there's a job for him in Melbourne if he wants it.
There are more goodies to come, including a new kitchen and a big food opportunity next month with MasterChef judge Simon Gault. Gault has offered Brunet a month-long gig at his prestigious Auckland Euro restaurant, where he'll put together two of his own five-course menus for guests, and cook them alongside Euro chefs. People will be able to buy the Brunet dinner on the GrabOne website, and they'll get to meet him and hear the stories behind his food.
He envisages one menu will be inspired by his family's Italian-Slovene cultural heritage; the other by some of his successful MasterChef dishes. He and Gault will also conduct a masterclass together.
At his Raglan home a month on from the MasterChef win, Brunet is modest as he talks about what is happening. He's seemingly as pleased by the praise of his excellent bread as he is by the opportunities on offer.
He was Mr Nice Guy on the show and he's the same in real life. There's no dissing of fellow contestants or judges.
He enjoyed them all and made new friends. He says it was very social in the shared MasterChef house, always with a big debrief - with wine in hand - after a challenge. The dishes were dissected. There might have been a few hangovers the next day when they all lined up to see who'd been eliminated.
It was a tough three months of competition, though, and he found it especially difficult to be away from his wife, Ani, and daughter, Ariana, 14. The rules were strict: no personal contact with family and friends - just phone calls. Brunet talked to Ani and Ariana every day: "They were my support team."
He remained focused, disciplined and self-contained throughout. He did yoga each day, practised and researched culinary techniques, gave up coffee because he had more energy without it, and he made sure he slept well.
"I've always been good at drawing inwards when I want to focus on things."
Brunet looked a winner from the start. There were a few wobbly moments with a dubious sponge cake, a controversial chicken-liver stuffing for a lamb fillet, and a corn entree that bombed in the grand final. But he didn't panic. He squeaked home to beat Paula Saengthian-ngam by a single point.
The conversation jumps from what happened on the show, to what happens next, to what he cooked for dinner last night. On dinner, it was a cheap cut of skirt steak butcher, rubbed and marinated with cumin, fennel, salt and pepper and mashed kiwifruit to tenderise it; served with a quick pickled vegetable salad, baby rocket and homemade pastries.
Right now it's lunchtime, and Brunet has prepared a simple repast for his visitors. We're greeted with lunch neatly laid out: the sturdy sourdough, sliced tomatoes, vintage cheddar, small bowls of freshly ground black pepper and Himalayan salt.
Hospitality is clearly important in this household. Ani Brunet is a yoga teacher who runs her classes at home, and sometimes serves bread and soup for class members, or cake and coffee.
Brunet would have loved to do something splendidly simple for the Last Supper challenge on MasterChef - maybe bread, wine and cheese. But it wouldn't have demonstrated enough technique. Instead, he drew on his family's European background and wove an emotional connection into the challenge. And it is probably in Europe that Brunet's food story starts.
His mother, Zora, was born in north Italy, near the border with Slovenia. Brunet's grandparents emigrated to New Zealand when Zora was about 8 years old. They brought their culinary heritage with them. Brunet says his love of food comes from his mother. He's been cooking with her from an early age. He loved his Nonna's food, too.
Some relatives remained in Europe and, with border changes, they now live in Slovenia. Some years ago, Brunet and his wife and daughter went to stay with them for six months and soaked up an appreciation for their cousins' food. They ate bowls of slow-cooked kidney beans, broths, slow-roasted goat meat, and desserts of plums wrapped in a gnocchi-style dough.
His Nonna's soup was the inspiration for the dish he cooked for the Last Supper. Called Yota, it is made from beans, sauerkraut and pork. He served it with crusty dark scones (no time to make bread) and homemade butter.
The Yota and other family recipes will be in his cookbook, which hasn't got a name yet, but is well under way. Brunet's computer is on a table at the entrance to his rustic wooden kitchen. There are open shelves displaying a mix of modern and vintage cooking utensils, among them Brunet's most faithful tool, a green Radiation NZ brand enamel-on-cast iron frying pan he bought for $20 at a Titirangi market about 20 years ago.
He moves between computer screen and kitchen bench as he puts his ideas together. Yesterday, he worked on apple fritters. He made them about five times, varying proportions, testing rigorously. it meets his approval.
His book will be simple things taken to a new level; dishes he has a special feeling for and can give his own spin. Another is his roast beef panzanella, a deconstructed roast beef sandwich served in a bowl.
"I'm self-taught," he says. "I'm curious about things. I play with things, thrash it, thrash it, make them special."
And, of course, there will be the bread, Brunet's great favourite, although there might be a separate book in that.
There will also be pizza somewhere in the mix. He has his own home-built pizza oven in the front yard.
But Brunet specially loves his dark-crusted sourdough, made by an overnight fermentation of dough using naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria. He celebrates the magic, the flavours and textures, the fact that you start with the simplest ingredients of flour, water and salt. "But it's what you do with it that makes it special".
The passion for sourdough seems to sum up the two sides of Brunet: the science of food and the art of it. When he did a computer science degree at the University of Otago, he studied music and design as well. Zora, who lives in Titirangi, makes artisan rainbow toys and Brunet does her business admin.
Brunet admires the skills of his food hero Chad Robertson, ofa San Francisco bakery Tartine. He has studied Robertson's book, Tartine Bread, learning all he could from this and other sources.
In true Brunet fashion, he pushed and pushed the ingredients and techniques until he got what he wanted.
-12He was like this with MasterChef. Last August, when he learnt he'd landed an audition, he spent about a month planning and working on his culinary skills. "I made a massive checklist of what I'd need to do, where the knowledge gaps were."
He wrangled things such as whole ducks, breaking them down, rendering the fat. He made French sauces and practised various meaty dishes and there were probably some gaps to be filled because of this.
Judge Ray McVinnie says he's never seen anyone as good as Brunet on the show. He had clever ideas, good techniques, and could cook under pressure. McVinnie also praises Brunet's sophistication and experience with food.
Brunet's succinct advice to the next intake of MasterChef candidates is to prepare well. They'll be working in teams of two for the series; he predicts there will be fights, "but make sure you are good at resolving them, maybe take it in turns to be the boss".
For him, the show has been life-changing. It's too soon to say whether he and the family will remain in Raglan. They've been there 4 1/2 years. They love the community, and have made good friends. Brunet sometimes trades bread for fresh fish; he likes to body surf; they're comfortable in their wooden home nestled among trees, with sea views.
You know, though, that whatever happens next it will be a thoughtful decision. Thoroughly tested, and thrashed out.
As we leave, Brunet packages up the remains of his sourdough loaf for us to take home. It's happily received. Bring on the Brunet Bakery.