The MasterChef NZ contestant-turned-judge dishes Kim Knight a reality check on life on the farm.
At first, she thought they were bath toys. Tiny pink plastic pigs, abandoned by her kids on the pantry floor. Then she heard her mother scream:
"It's moving! It's alive!"
Nadia Lim quickly assessed the situation. Bald, writhing baby mice. She scooped them up in a paper towel - and stomped.
"I had to. I had to do it really fast. I didn't want them to be in any pain and you're not going to save them. I couldn't just chuck them out in the freezing cold to fend for themselves. That would have been so cruel. They would have frozen to death."
The thing that shocked her the most?
"How easily I could do it. That I had gone from being this city girl who would see a dead bird and have to find a burial spot for it under a quiet, shady tree, to just being, like 'death is part of every day'. I see death every day and it doesn't bother me at all now."
Interviewer: "When Simon Henry reads this, he's going to understand things a lot better … "
In 2011, Lim won the second season of MasterChef New Zealand, competing against Jax Hamilton in the final. On the night, it was Lim's macaron tower that lasted the distance - and kickstarted a new food career for the qualified dietitian.
"I entered, to test myself. Did I love food as much as I thought I did? Was I willing to take this massive chance, and put myself out there?"
As a 12-year-old, Lim was inspired by Jamie Oliver, the so-called "Naked Chef". Her own philosophy, she would explain to her mother as she sat up at the breakfast bar watching her cook, was "food in the nude". Not, Lim hastens to add, cooking unclothed - but recipes and dishes, stripped down to bare basics "and not dressed up in fancy packages and additives". A large part of the MasterChef NZ allure, she admits, was the cookbook deal that came with the prize package; a fast track to the nude-food ambition.
"I'm very lucky and grateful for being able to do what I dreamed of much, much earlier than I anticipated. I imagined I'd write my first cookbook when I'd had kids and they'd grown up . . . "
Post-MasterChef, Lim co-founded My Food Bag, became a brand in her own right and, most recently, bought and moved to a nearly 500ha farm in Central Otago with husband Carlos Bagrie and their two sons. She remains a My Food Bag ambassador - and a headline maker.
Simon Henry? He's the founder of DGL group, and the man who recently and inexplicably described Lim as a "little bit of Eurasian fluff". His comments came after a photograph of Lim barbecuing a chicken was printed in a My Food Bag prospectus. According to Henry, she was a "TV celebrity showing off her sensuality" - and cleavage. Everyone from radio talkback callers to the Prime Minister waded in with their disgust while Lim, who initially declined interviews, told the New Zealand Herald "leaders should use their influence to celebrate diversity". Meanwhile, Henry's company share prices took a dive, his board announced a cultural review and he, eventually, emailed an apology.
MasterChef put Lim in the spotlight, but she remembers feeling "horrendously terrified" when the reality television cooking competition first went to air.
"I had no idea what to expect or how I would come across. I loathed watching it. I haven't, to this day, watched the entire thing. Maybe it would be different now, but in the past, the emotion has still felt quite raw. You feel suddenly thrown back into that state. I remember how I felt and it was terrifying. I was quite a timid thing. I was 24, and I was pretty timid."
Can she imagine her old self dealing with Henry's comments?
"No. I can't actually. I think she would have crumbled."
Lim is speaking to the Herald on Sunday from her farm on the Crown Terrace above Arrowtown. It's 7.30pm and her sons are just finishing dinner. Her newest book Yum! has just hit the shelves - it focuses on family nutrition, from newborns up. What's on her own family menu tonight?
"The boys are eating lemon souffle pudding. I couldn't be bothered doing dinner tonight, so I went straight to dessert, which they were very happy about . . . my biggest piece of advice, if anyone is asking, is not to stress about it too much. Pudding for dinner some nights is absolutely fine. Don't worry about it whatsoever!"
The lemons were not grown by Lim.
"They don't like the hard frost. I've only got one tree and I've only managed to get maybe 20 lemons off it. Lemons are one thing, along with citrus, avocados, bananas and milk, that I still buy."
The Herald on Sunday has asked Lim to 'fess up. To dish the dirt on what it's really like to uproot your city life and reinvent yourself in the country. Once, she lived in a loft apartment above Parnell's Cibo restaurant. Now, she can't buy takeaways without a drive and some forward planning. Lim says (family aside) there's not much she misses about her old life.
"I'm one of those people who could quite easily become a recluse. I don't need to see humans. I could easily potter away for months and months without seeing a single human other than my immediate family and it wouldn't bother me one bit."
Farming is not a 9-5 occupation. Throw in a bout of Covid, filming for two television shows (Nadia's Farm releases later this year) and the Henry furore - and an admission that she literally forgot she also had a new book launching this month becomes completely believable.
There is, says Lim, a "certain amount of romanticism" attached to the idea of living in the country.
"You have this idea that life will be perfect and glorious. You see pictures of someone in their vegetable garden, wandering around and gathering stuff for dinner. That picture does not tell the rest of the story. I don't want to sound like a spoiled brat by saying that it's stressful, but it's not exactly relaxing.
"It's actually quite full-on, the pressure to harvest things on time. Like the cauliflower in my vegetable garden at the moment. There is so much blimmin' cauliflower everywhere and I can't deal with it. It's just starting to flower and then it's gone past its best; I pick it, and there's so much in the fridge that it puts me off cooking it, but I know I've got to cook it, because I don't want to waste all the effort I put into growing it . . . I used to think, 'oh, how lovely it will be wandering around thinking about what to make for dinner'. I've actually found it quite intense."
Exhibit A: Four massive baskets of apples, currently sitting outside her front door.
"I've literally got 400-500 apples. Yesterday, we had people over and instead of giving them tea or coffee, I juiced 30 apples and made an apple cinnamon hot toddy thing, because I'm trying to get rid of all the apples."
Isn't that a good problem to have?
"True. But you can't control when you have it. In two months, we won't have any apples and then we won't be able to eat them again for eight months, because I'm not going to go and buy any. No way."
Lim's home vegetable garden measures around 100sq m; a full 8ha of the farm has been set aside for a commercial market garden but, so far, only 1.5ha has been planted.
"And I think, based on how it's going at the moment, we're going to stop right there! The truth is, we're basically subsidising the Wakatipu Basin with really delicious, organically grown vegetables. I haven't figured out how to actually make it profitable!"
The garden supplies around 40 local restaurants and cafes, but the learning curve has been steep. Thousands of garlic bulbs were overrun by couch grass. Tomatoes went into the glasshouse six weeks too late and had to be harvested green to beat the cold and the shortened, southern growing season. On the plus side, says Lim, the freezing temperatures tend to kill insect pests. The couple also appear to be finally getting on top of a resident rabbit population - now, if Carlos heads out to hunt for dinner, it can take up to an hour to find one.
"In the city, you've got consistency, convenience and control," says Lim. "When we lived in Auckland, we got My Food Bag delivered, or you could pop out to the shops and get something when you felt like it and very quickly. Down here, it's the complete opposite. Nature dictates when you're going to have it and how much you are going to have. There isn't any consistency. You just have to work with what you've got."
And if someone demanded she relocate back to Auckland tomorrow? "I'd ask them why. God forbid, if Mum or someone was sick, then, of course, I would move there in a heartbeat, but other than that, I can't see any other reason why. And I don't think I could."
Lim says her senses are now attuned to country life.
"When we first moved, it was so eerily quiet. No neighbours and it's pitch black outside at night. No street lights. No cars, no signs of humans. All you hear is a creepy possum in one of the fruit trees or scattering across your roof and that freaks you out. Those noises, when you first move into the wops, actually scare you a bit. A morepork, or scurrying rats . . . but now, I'm just so used to it. I think nothing of walking in the dark and suddenly seeing a possum's eyes flash up. I don't think anything of hearing rats or mice in the walls. It's normal."
Lim and Carlos Bagrie met at Otago University. From the beginning, she says he made it clear that if they stayed together, one day they'd live on a farm.
"He's from an unbroken line of farmers. He's the only one who broke the line, and now he's put it back together. I didn't necessarily want to be on a big farm, I would have been quite happy on a lifestyle block, but Carlos wanted to do the proper farming thing.
"And I always felt, more so probably in the past five years, this overwhelming sense of responsibility to not only be part of the process of preparing food - teaching people how to cook and use these ingredients - but to also be part of the process of how the ingredients get to your plate. How you grow your food, how you raise it . . . I want to complete the full cycle."
The biggest lesson from her life shift, she says, is that there is no single "right" way to farm.
"There is no black and white. I don't buy into the idea of people saying farmers should do things this way, or that way. There are far too many variables and there are pros and cons to all systems, whether they be conventional or organic or spray-free or regenerative.
"People watch documentaries or read an article, and of course humans like things to be made simple . . . I can 100 per cent put my heart on the line and tell you it's not."
Recently, Lim was stopped by a family of fans at a cafe in Arrowtown. They asked about her shift to farming and were delighted when she told them the traditional sheep - and barley-producing land now ran less stock and grew more crops.
"The father said 'my daughter will be so pleased, she's a real environmentalist and she's a vegan'. And I said, 'I hate to break it to you, but it's not that simple'."
Long story short, says Lim: "When it comes to growing food, to me it is the most simple, natural thing in the world - there is no such thing as an ecosystem that does not have plants AND animals in it. It's not as simple as 'livestock bad, plant good'. It comes down to who is helping curate the balance of the two."
Tonight, when season 7 of MasterChef New Zealand premieres on Three Now, Lim will go back to her future. The contestant is now a judge, filming the latest series in Queenstown, alongside Amisfield restaurant chef Vaughan Mabee and Michael Dearth, owner of Auckland's The Grove and Baduzzi restaurants.
"Back when I was on it, MasterChef was quite new, and there was a real surge in interest in restaurant cooking," says Lim.
"Doing fancy things like souffles and flambeing and using things like gels and foams. I don't know if there is a lot of that around these days or if people really care for it? I think maybe we've become more simple in our approach to food? That's definitely the case for myself. You can't actually get much more simple than what we have for dinner, to the point of it almost being boring a lot of the time! I think, in general, the trend is towards ingredients rather than fancy technique."
Lim says this season's contestants were very connected to where the food they cooked came from.
"We had people who had grown the food themselves, hunted it themselves, fished it themselves, and we really encouraged that idea of eating according to your landscape, really being resourceful with what is around you. It didn't always work - some contestants got that better than others."
Last week, ahead of tonight's season launch, Lim was in Auckland doing the pre-publicity rounds. The media meet-and-greets, the hair and makeup photoshoots were 1600km away from her Swanndri-clad life where her constant companion is now a goat called Milly. Is there anything she'll take home from her city visit?
"Probably just some socks and undies I left behind at Mum's last time!"
MasterChef NZ premieres at 8.30 tonight on Three Now.