Inside a nondescript house on a hill, with a view of a fat-bellied swell, are Maketu's most recognisable faces.

In matching black outfits with hair like obsidian, Kasey and Karena Bird finish each other's sentences and give each other a gentle ribbing.

The sisters, a year apart in age, are equal parts worldly and conventional.

They might be travelling the globe filming season two of TV series, Karena and Kasey's Kitchen Diplomacy, but their favourite place in the world is home town Maketu, population 1047.


Even with rainclouds rolling in, Maketu shines in dull light. It has distinctive historic charms, and is a faraway world from its bigger community neighbours. The Bird sisters love its silence and splendour.

These days, their calendar is booked up six months in advance, but even though they seldom get to spend more than a week at home, they won't move.

One day they plan to open a restaurant, and, when they do, it'll be close to Maketu.

"I think once we open a restaurant we'll be settled so we won't be jetting off, we'll be there cooking," says Karena, sipping on a hot drink, at Kasey's white dining table. The restaurant will be in the Bay, but not in Maketu.

"We wouldn't want to lose that feeling of driving into Maketu. All of your stresses go away."

She quips: "I don't want people to move to Maketu anyway! I drive down the highway and all the houses from Papamoa are getting closer. Next thing you know, there's a supermarket. I got back (from our last trip) and there was a footpath and a bus stop... it's too much."

Karena is the comic of the two, while Kasey, whose house is immaculate, modernly decorated and smells of scented oils, is softer and more serious. Their opposing personalities makes their partnership work.

"If you don't have that understanding, you couldn't get this far as a duo," Kasey believes.
It's "key" they're opposites, and that stretches to cooking. Kasey is safe and precise, Karena creative and a risk-taker.

They mesh impeccably, but it's important they can separate. They've been home for a total of two months since January, and when they unlock the doors to their houses they lose the glue. "We'll get home and whoosh," says Kasey, flying her hands in opposite directions.

The Bird family live in separate houses within a hop, skip and a jump of each other - Kasey and younger sister Michaela live directly across from their parents, Kerry and Atarangi Te Awa, and cousin Enoka, 11.

Kasey also lives with boyfriend, Patuara, who does excavating work in Tauriko. They have been together since Kasey was 18. She's now 27.

Karena, 28, lives just down the road and declines to say if she has a significant other.

When the sisters were at primary, they knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. Kasey, a chef; Karena, rich.

Winning MasterChef New Zealand in 2014 has been lucrative, but they spend as quick as they earn. Their vice? Food.

When they travel, they'll book tables at the best restaurants in that country throughout their filming week. "We'll just spend all of our money having the full experience, wine matching, whatever," says Kasey.

Karena photographs their meals for future inspiration. "I like to do fasting when I come back (to Maketu)."

There's not much they won't eat. They've tried deep fried silk worms in Vietnam and guinea pig in Peru. "We'll try everything twice. For what we do, we need to experience it all," says Kasey.

At high school, their "hobby" was to drive to Auckland with youngest sister turned makeup artist Michaela, to spend all their pocket money on fine-dining.

Even so, chefing was never seen as a serious career option. Karena was head girl at Te Puke High School and both sisters focused on academic subjects.

Multi-talented, they excelled in numerous sports, with Karena a world champion in taekwondo. At age 14 ("back in my prime") she won a gold medal at the Korean Open.

She doesn't do taekwondo any more but jokes: "Oh, I could still smash someone! Ha, ha. I can still protect myself really well, but I don't know if I could do the splits any more."

The sensation of her foot hitting someone's cheek is "amazing," prompting me to say that if she does have a boyfriend, I feel sorry for him.

"He's well behaved. Nah, kidding," she hoots.

Masterchef winners Karena Bird (left) and Kasey Bird. Photo/George Novak
Masterchef winners Karena Bird (left) and Kasey Bird. Photo/George Novak

Success hasn't changed the sisters. Kasey's favourite thing to do in Maketu is simply "walking around".

Karena says: "I'm obsessed with lighting my fire at the moment."

They love Maketu's seafood, especially the mussels (eaten raw) or other "interesting ingredients" locals bring them to try. Next on the list is truffles from a grower in Te Puke.
And of course, you're not from Maketu, unless you support Maketu Pies.

"I had one five days ago ... Actually I had two back to back," says Karena. "I had smoked fish and then I had mince ... I love Maketu Pies. "Same," Kasey agrees.

They'll head to Tauranga four to five times a week with friends. Often there's a stop at Kmart.

"I saw you on the Kmart website last night when we were driving back from Auckland," Karena teases Kasey.

"This year I made a (decision) I wanted to be more committed to doing stuff around the community."

Karena adds: "We've been planting native trees down by the Kaituna River."

Kasey: "I might join the Wetland Society."

Karena: "And I'll support her doing that. Ha, ha. I want her to join the council."

"One day ... maybe," Kasey muses.

Before MasterChef, Karena was working as a quality control co-ordinator at Poutiri Trust while saving up for culinary school in Sydney. Kasey was studying accounting at the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic thinking it a "safe" option.

Looking back, it's "so obvious" it was the wrong choice. Kasey loved cooking from a young age. Karena loved food but wasn't interested in cooking.

"I didn't care what mum was cooking but I'd judge it when it came to the table. It wasn't until my 20s I discovered I loved watching food shows on TV ... and I liked eating out a lot."

Karena was studying in Wellington and both sisters would save up so when Kasey visited they could dine out. "Yeah, all the fancy-as restaurants like Logan Brown. Like $200 degustation dinners. All my student friends thought I was absolutely ridiculous," Karena laughs.

The girls were raised to make independent decisions, however their dad, a chartered accountant, was initially against them signing up for Masterchef.

"So for us, we never saw (chefing) as an option, it's just the way it was," says Kasey. "Even going on MasterChef our dad was mortified."

He's since come around and is their "No 1" supporter. He encouraged them to self-publish. "After we went on the show I think it totally shifted him. You can do whatever you want ... But we still have to do it properly, whatever we do."

Their mum, a former teacher of Te Reo Maori at Waikato University, is a fantastic cook.

She worked up until Kasey's last year of college and would cook roasts in the staff kitchen at work, so dinner was ready when she returned from Tauranga to Maketu.

After she stopped working, she would drive to school with hot meals and drop them off at lunchtime. "So she'd bring in lasagne and minestrone soup ... pancakes," Kasey says.

Even if the sisters are impressing chefs all over the world, they don't want their mum to change. "When you come home you just want to eat your mum's classics ... chicken and stuffing," says Karena, who had spaghetti on toast for breakfast before our interview, and her mum's boiled cabbage and sausages the night before.

Living in Maketu, the sisters can't hide. They do grocery shopping in Te Puke and there will be peeks in their trollies: "What's for dinner?"

When their addresses used to be in the phone book, they had superfans drive from out of town and show up unannounced.

Does that bother them?

"I think sometimes," Kasey says. "This is our personal space. I think if someone rang you up and they wanted to meet you, you could organise that and be okay with that.

"For the most part, everyone is really lovely and friendly, but I think sometimes those boundaries are a bit blurred."

When interviewed, the girls had just returned from Ireland - the sixth stop of a 10-stop tour for season two of their show, where they take in the sights and flavours of different cuisines before cooking for the New Zealand ambassadors and their guests.

Prior to going to Ireland, they had been to Hawaii, Arizona, Peru, Argentina and Sri Lanka. Next will be Malaysia, Taiwan, Fiji and Thailand. Since winning Masterchef, they have been to 20 countries.

When they come home they are hosting events, demonstrations, or menu designing. Come summer, they want to do some of their own directed events in the Bay.

They have no current plans for a third cookbook after the success of their previous two. For The Love Of won top prize at the 2016 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. At the same awards this year, they won a special award for their TV show, and their second cookbook, Hungry, came third in photography.

Their ambition of opening a restaurant is something they'll work on soon. They're coy on details but say they haven't seen it elsewhere.

"It's just a unique eating experience that tells our story of New Zealand (as we are now). Including international influence," says Kasey.

When asked if they see children in their future, they tease each other saying now they're in their late 20s the "clock's ticking". "Getting on, girl," Karena gibes.

Karena: "My mum's just the best mum ever and I know that's the kind of standard I'll have to live up to. Kasey: "Yeah, thank you, mum! Why'd you have to drop us off hot food," she laughs.

Karena: "Nah, just get the dude to do it. Twenty-first century now, he can roast a chicken at work." The two erupt in laughter.

Neither sister has formal cooking training other than the three months they worked full-time - unpaid -before heading to the south of France for the filming of the first season of their show.

Is one sister a better cook than the other?

Karena: "We have different skill sets, but I think we're pretty even."

Of Karena, Kasey reckons her spirit animal would be the crow. "They're intelligent, like shiny things and are misunderstood."

If they had to be a vegetable, Kasey volunteers to be the potato - versatile "and humble", adds in her sister. Karena would be the radish - spicy, sweet, but not everyone likes them.
"But they're quite good looking."

What's the greatest lesson Kasey has taught Karena about life?

A long pause. "It's just hard because she's taught me so many good things in life." She clears her throat and throws a sideways glance at her sister.

"To just try and be a really good person, and to treat others the way you want to be treated."

Kasey: "You're getting emotional."

Karena: "Yeah. Lucky there's no camera or I would've cried."