Nici Wickes feels like an old chum from the first minute we sit down to talk. With a warm and vivacious personality, it's no wonder she's made firm friends around the globe as part of her new television show World Kitchen. From the street markets of Asia to Michelin star restaurants in Europe, her passion for food and life has seen her connect with fellow foodies, share recipes and cooking traditions, and bring it all together in a refreshing new format cooking show.
"Travel and food", she laughs with a wide smile. "I know, I really do have the dream job."
Wickes has seemingly come out of nowhere to enter the high-profile world of celebrity chef, but her CV is impressive - if not unusual for the role. A former employer of Gosling Chapman, she now runs her own company, Conscious Consulting, which sees her working throughout New Zealand and Australia as a leadership consultant and business growth advisor to people in business and management teams. A person who lives life to the full she balances the dry world of high business with a catering company and a cooking school for teenagers "Cooking For Confidence" which she runs in the school holidays.
"I love inspiring these kids to become passionate about food. It all started when a young girl at my supermarket checkout didn't know what parsley was. I was amazed and realised that teenagers are really losing touch with what cooking is all about. When I was growing up my mother really encouraged us to get in the kitchen, to be involved in the whole food process. That's probably why we're all such good eaters. On the course, the kids cook for three days and then we put on a massive big dinner which we sell tickets for. It's then the penny really drops for them because they can see that people really appreciate it. It's fantastic."
But now Wickes has another string to her bow - television presenter. "I was so amazed when I got the job," she enthuses. "I've always been waiting for something like this. I used to play at being a chef on TV as a kid.
"I had a quiet moment of freaking out - what do I know about TV? But then I thought I know an awful lot about eating and cooking, and I am very curious about people."
World Kitchen is a hip and funky show which each week sees up-for-anything Wickes travel to different countries, hang out with the locals - be it surfing in Bali or cooking paella on a rooftop in Barcelona - pick up inspiring cooking ideas and then bring them back to her kitchen at home where she recreates them.
"The first place we went to was France. Which was my dream. I love French food and trained in that style of cooking. We went to Lyon and to a Michelin three-star restaurant, where I ate my way through about $800 worth of food. Amazing. I met Paul Bocuse, and was just going 'wow, this is pretty cool'. I cried in Dijon eating Coq au Vin. My mother has been making this since her seventies dinner parties, and to be eating it in France was a dream.
"An unexpected highlight for me was Italy. I'm getting emotional just talking about it," she laughs. "I just couldn't believe how into their food they were, how simple yet amazing it was. I was just blown away. We hear all about the French masters etc, but in Italy it was incredible cuisine made out of flour, water, tomatoes, olive oil, maybe some eggs - and suddenly you have all these amazing different dishes. And people never got sick of talking about food, which I loved - to me that's just glorious. Everyone is into it. If you go to the market and you want to buy tomatoes, they ask what are they for? A sauce, a salad, a pizza...
"In Asia, what I really found was that in just about all the countries there's a fantastic balance of flavours: the sweet, the sour, the chilli, the acidic flavour of limes... And by just tipping the balance a little bit you'll get something quite different. They are clean, fragrant, take-you-to-another-world flavours. You could say in Europe the food is very grounded while in Asia it's very light, spiritual maybe?"
Wickes' fresh enthusiasm and passion for what she is doing shines through on the programme. It's contagious.
"I've always loved trying new things and pushing the boundaries a bit, whether it's snowboarding, surfing, mountain-biking, in business even - and I think that really shows through in the programme.
"We didn't want the show to have any barriers - like where you have to have huge long lists of ingredients that are hard to find. I think you can really get daunted by that and all the different steps and terminology. I try and keep it simple so you can just get on with it."
And that's exactly what I'm going to do. After an hour of Wickes' passionate talk of mouthwatering flavours and menu ideas, I'm off to buy the ingredients for the tapas she cooks on the Barcelona segment of World Kitchen.
* World Kitchen is on Saturdays 7.30pm, TV3.