In this Our People special Jill Nicholas takes MasterChef's newest winners out of the kitchen to discover why they regard themselves 'two of us'.

To most, they're the celebrity sisters from Maketu, the effervescent Karena and Kasey Bird, the culinary whizzes who blitzed formidable competition to win the 2014 MasterChef title.

Hold that thought about Maketu, they may live there and their mum, Atarangi (Ata) is Ngapuhi from the north, but Rotorua's where their paternal roots are embedded.

Historically it figures, let's not forget Maketu was the Arawa waka (canoe's) landing place and it was from there our earliest settlers migrated inland, the reason whanau (family) connections between the two areas are so tightly intertwined.

Jill Nicholas talks to popular MasterChef winners Karena and Kasey Bird. Here's a taster.

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On their father, Kerry Bird's, side, the girls have a multiplicity of links, the Tai Mitchell schoolboy rugby tournament's named after their great great grandfather, two of Te Ao Marama hall's windows are dedicated to their great grandparents Maurice and Mattie Bird, their grandfather, Peter Bird, ran Mitchells Clothing on Lake Rd, (Mattie was his mum and a Mitchell before her marriage), school holidays were generally spent with Ohinemutu aunties and their dad's a Rotorua-based CEO.

He's anxious we acknowledge the strong links the whanau also has with Murupara.

Irrefutable proof, we submit, that the Aussies have far lesser claim to inventing the pav than we do embracing these culinary queens as our people, they've no doubt about it: "that's why we really wanted to do this [interview]".

Mystery box

We learned a lot of this over pizzas at Capizzi Pizzeria, the girls chose the venue for two very good reasons: MasterChef judge, Ray McVinnie, highly recommended it and younger sister, Michaela, demanded they taste-test her favourite eatery for themselves. Their verdict: "10/10".

Michaela's the starter course they serve up from the hypothetical 'mystery box' they present us with when we quiz them about life pre-MasterChef.

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Tucked inside are layer upon layer of ingredients they're presenting for public consumption for the first time.

They're emphatic that at 21 and the youngest of the three sisters, make up artist Michaela's even more sought after than themselves.

It's Michaela who's been responsible for her siblings' immaculate on-and-off-screen grooming, although she's bluntly told them she can't fit them in any longer.

"She's been busy doing school balls, now she's booked up from October to February for the wedding season. She's so popular one lady changed her wedding date just so Michaela can do her face," Karena tells us.

Kasey's contribution is that of the trio Michaela's always been the one to 'walk to the beat of her own drum', revealing that's something she hasn't always found so easy.

Different directions

With only 18 months separating her from Karena, she admits while growing up she did tend to cling to her sister's coat tails. "I was quite quiet, did what she did, if she played netball I played netball, all that sort of thing."

To break the pattern she convinced her parents to send her to school in Auckland for a year "so I could learn to become my own person".

Out of school these two Birds flew in different directions, Karena to study business administration at Victoria University, but discovered food more appealing than bookwork.

"In Wellington I became obsessed with eating out, my sights were set on a A$30,000 ($31,904) Cordon Bleu course in Sydney."

To pay for it she came home, taking on three jobs; overseeing policy and procedures at Te Puke's Poutiri Trust by day, at night she crossed the Kaimais to Matamata, strapped on a head torch and picked white asparagus.

The chef in her analyses the taste of the sought-after delicacy as "alright, but I like green better".

Taking care of her boyfriend's kiwifruit orchard books topped up her savings.

Samoan, Horace Uelese, is that boyfriend; they've been an item since Karena developed a crush on him while Te Puke High's head girl.

"I texted him, asked if he wanted to go to a movie, I'm definitely not the sort to sit down and wait for things to happen."

They've been together since.

Sensible decision

Kasey left school unsure what she wanted to do, initially enrolling in Waikato University's business studies course but dropped out before it started. "I decided to take a year out, my parents were like 'what are you doing?', they weren't impressed.

Dad found me a job at the Colonial Tavern's wholesale department until I figured out what I wanted to do."

Fashion appealed, she spent a year at Melbourne's School of Fashion concentrating on buying and merchandising.

"I was terrible at sewing, whenever someone was looking for the unpicker the other students would say 'Kasey will have it'.

"I felt pretty inadequate, that I'd wasted almost two years of my life, pressured to make a sensible decision on my future."

She returned to her original business studies plan, enrolling at Bay of Plenty Polytech while supporting herself with two jobs.

"I was working seven days a week in BayFair clothing stores, the hours were horrible, dealing with the customers I had to pretend I was happy, I wasn't."

The man in her life, Patuara Biel, came on the scene in her final school year.

Then he was a boner at Rangiuru freezing works, now he's a youth worker.

The sisters and their partners live side-by-side, their parents are across the road, a mutually convenient arrangement.

Unbidden by them, former teacher Ata's become their housekeeper-cum-laundry maid.

Karena collapses in a fit of giggles when she says she doesn't lock her house to keep strangers out, but her mum. "My auntie saw her climbing in the window to tidy up."

Kasey's had a similar Ata experience. "Mum rearranged my bedroom, I couldn't find a thing."

Masterchef application

Regardless, a lot of time's spent at mum and dad's. They were 'veging out' there one Sunday when Kasey stumbled on a Facebook site calling for applications for the 2014 MasterChef series.

"I told my sister we should enter, we'd both been pursuing our interest in cooking, I'd taken part in a Tauranga mini MasterChef competition and won."

Karena interjects to say it was a fluke she was home on a Sunday.

"Normally I'm at the Samoan Assembly of God church with my boyfriend, his dad's the pastor, I'm in the band, but that day I hadn't gone."

Rehashing the outcome of that Facebook finding is stating the obvious. Rather, we back-track the conversation to Ohinemutu, remarking on the standing ovation they received when students of super chef Gordon recently cooked there for a St Faith's fundraiser.

"That was just so embarrassing, we felt pretty stink for Peter's students, we'd gone as normal citizens, bought our tickets to support the church because our whanau's always been so close to it."

More Ohinemutu memories boil over.

"As soon as we'd get there we'd run down to Tama [Tamatekapua meeting house] lie on the ground to feel the warmth, it was awesome, when we were kids we thought Nan's thermal bath was as big as a swimming pool."

Karena 'fesses up that her, Aunty Wai Morrison, still teases her about 'half the pa' turning out to see her have her first bath at her Aunt Mattie's. "I was our parents' first-born so all the cuzzies crowded in to see the baby."

It's Girls' High teacher Aunty Wai the girls salute for them being crowned MasterChef's champion sponge makers.

"She said to use the recipe on the cornflour packet and drop the tin on the floor before putting it in the oven."

Family secrets

Kasey confides she made a sneaky visit to Aunty Wai before the sisters were pitted against each other in a recent Sunday programme scone bakeoff.

"She told me not to play with the dough too much and if I didn't win I'd better uppercut myself."

It was a good incentive, Kasey won.

Recently she's begun spending a lot more time in Rotorua.

"Seeing Peter Gordon here made me realise how much I missed it, now my best, best friend, Nadia Rolleston, who we call her our fourth sister has moved back so I'm coming over lots, the other day I got her to take me to see my Nan's house, being back in Ohinemutu was pretty emotional."

Could the pull of the place where so many of their iwi have succeeded entice this pair to become Rotorua restaurateurs? They don't discount it but are realistic enough to accept the undertaking's 'huge'.

"Here, Maketu, Sydney who knows? MasterChef's given us plenty of options but at this stage they remain open."

And before any one asks if the country's newest superstars are every bit as nice as television- even this piece - portrays them, the answer's no, they're far, far nicer.


Born: Both: Tauranga, Karena 1988, Kasey 1990
Education: Both: Te Puke primary and high, Kasey: Year at Auckland's Strathallan College
Interests: Both: "Family, food, fashion, travel, our friends". Karena: Fitness "I fast two days a week and work out." Kasey: "Rotorua with all its activities."
On fame: "We certainly don't feel famous, we're just normal girls who do normal things but it was pretty mind-blowing when Piri Weepu asked if it was okay to get his picture with us."
Advice to young jobless: "Don't be lazy, hop on a course, it's not acceptable to do nothing."
Personal Philosophies: Karena: "Be a bit nuts about what you love." Kasey: "Be a good person.