Former MasterChef winner Aaron Brunet has traded fancy restaurant food for cooking workshops at a Far North whare kai.
The 2013 winner of MasterChef New Zealand was in his element on Wednesday, teaching a group of 16 local men and women how to rustle up some hearty plant-based food at Parawhenua Marae near Ōhaeawai.
On the menu was Italian lentil soup, salads with beetroot, mesclun greens and seeds, a Mexican dish and plenty of vegetables – a big change from the usual marae kai which can revolve around fatty boil-ups and lots of meat.
Manager of community outreach programme Te Mana o te Kai, Megan Hepi, said the idea of a workshop teaching healthy food cooking skills came about because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The purpose was "to build resilience in whānau at a time of adversity", Hepi said.
"Lots of organisations were dropping off food parcels, and people we were dealing with, some with underlying health conditions, were telling us they can't cook, they were too tired if they'd had Covid, or simply didn't know how to use the ingredients.
"It was better to drop off cooked meals, so we started cooking at the marae.
"We wrapped around in a whānau ora approach."
Brunet was crowned winner of MasterChef New Zealand 2013 when he outcooked runner up Paula Saengthian-Ngam by just one point in the grand final.
The former IT consultant from Raglan has lived in the Far North, on family land in Ōhaeawai, for the last two years.
Some of the produce at the one-day cooking workshop was from his mum's garden and the rest was sourced from the supermarket and local Indian dairy.
They kicked the day off by making a breakfast bowl, followed by lentil soup, a Mexican plate with coleslaw and salsa, and apple crumble slice.
The workshop also involved food preparation, with lessons on how best to cut cabbage, and how to create simple and tasty salad dressings.
None of the recipes contained refined sugars or flour, and ingredients for all meals for 16 participants came to just $180.
Brunet also created a booklet called Rongoā Kai, which listed the recipes and which participants got to take home.
Hepi said there will definitely be more workshops in future.
"His [Brunet's] plan is to use healthy vegetarian kai sourced locally and very cheap to inspire people to be creative in their cooking and take control of their health by eating the right foods," Hepi said.
Brunet said he was "trying to focus on affordable tasty food that tastes delicious".
"This is what I eat every day," he said.
"This to me is the food that can make a difference to people's wellbeing.
"That matters to me more than Masterchef which is a lot of fancy restaurant food.
"If you can eat this kind of food you can have lives that are long and healthy and people can be around for their grandchildren."
Shay Smith from Kaikohe said she attended the workshop to learn new skills and for the opportunity to cook with a Masterchef winner.
"It's awesome," she said.
"He's teaching us new ways to cook without lots of butter and without having to fry food."
Moe Hepi agreed, adding it was the first time cooking with only plant-based foods, which she now plans to introduce to her family.
"We've got to find different ways of cooking."