Since bursting onto the New Zealand culinary scene back in 2012 as Series 3 Masterchef winner, Chelsea Winter has cemented herself as food royalty with her style of accessible and tasty recipes that even people who consider themselves “eggs in the kitchen” can tackle. And while there might be a laid back approach in terms of the complexity of her recipes, there has been nothing laid back about her work ethic. We talk to Chelsea about her sixth cookbook, the plant-based Supergood, and the evolution of food.
Photography by Tam West
You’re about to release your sixth cook book and you mentioned in your gratitude section that it was a big juggle, but you pulled it off. Are there any lessons you can draw from that?
It’s funny, I was actually just reading that before you called. At the time, it was just what I had to do, but looking back, I can’t believe I actually managed to do that, but I had a lot of support. Douglas, my partner, is at home with me and my son Sky, so we’re a bit of a unit.
We’re a pretty solid team. He helps with Sky on an hour to hour basis and he’s got a really great palette, so the book really felt like a team effort in that respect. I knew it was the right time to do the book, even though it seemed like it would be a bit of a juggle.
It’s been three years since I brought a book out, so it just felt like it was the right time. I felt like I was ready to share this amazing new way we’re eating, I think the world is really for it. I’m a big believer in things happening at the right time. I don’t believe in just continuing to hammer out content just for the sake of it, which is why I took such a break.
Other people in the industry might say leaving three years between doing a book is not going to be good, but that sort of stuff doesn’t bother me, I just do what feels good and this book really felt good. It was definitely worth the struggle.
If it feels good in your heart and it feels good doing it and you feel like you’re living with some purpose, do it, but also take the time to relax in the down moments and just be present with your everyday life so that you can get some balance in there.
There must’ve been times where you just had to push yourself. How do you pull that drive into things?
The book itself was just an epic roller coaster. There’d be times when I was just so tired because I was getting up two or three times in the night for Sky. Then I’d be cooking all the next day or shooting if it was shoot time and you just do it, you just get it done.
I also have to say that we pretty much live a plant-based diet and I found I had so much more energy and so much more clarity just in general with that. I think it actually helped a lot, which is good.
There were some times where I would just curl up crying and just say, ‘I can’t do this.’ I’d just had a baby six months ago and so I was still right in the thick of being a first time mum and there are hormones and emotions and you’re trying to reconcile that part of your life. There’s all this pressure and 90 recipes to write and test and it’s huge, it’s massive. I don’t know if I’d recommend it to anybody else.
After all that hard work, what does it feel like when it’s done? Are you sitting there waiting for the feedback or are you just thinking about the next book?
I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so up until the very last second I was allowed to make changes to recipes, I was making changes to recipes. And then my publisher was just like, ‘Okay, if we don’t stop now, we’re not going to have a book.’
When I’m not allowed to do anymore, then it’s like, ‘Oh my God.’ So I was able to just come out of cortisol mode and get back into a more relaxed daily routine. I was able to get back into a little bit of meditation and just not always think about recipes. That was my life for six months.
You mentioned the team effort involved and you get a real sense of that in the book with the beautiful family shots interweaved with the recipes. Was that a conscious effort to capture a moment? Is there an element of legacy in that?
I want my books to be as authentic as possible. This one especially is really just an extension of my life and who I am. Tam West is the photographer, she photographs the food and she photographs us.
She’s done all six of my books. She’s very sensitive and she’s got a real way of capturing authenticity and just going about life without looking staged. I think she’s done a really beautiful job. I just wanted to share a little bit of our life with people because this is who I am and this is what we do.
For many, it’s been one of those years where there’s so much going on, but people have started to become a little more conscious of what they’re doing and what their purpose is. Can you sum up yours?
My journey into this way of cooking and this lifestyle, I didn’t just flick a switch one day and now I’m eating predominantly a plant-based diet. It’s been a slow evolution. What I eat and what I cook has evolved as I have evolved.
Over the past few years, I have become more conscious of what I’m doing and what I’m eating and being aware of where that food is coming from and the cost to the food sitting on your plate. What is that cost? The more conscious and more aware you get, the harder it is to just continue with that disconnect between the food and the truth behind it.
My past books, I feel I have been creating recipes that empower people in their kitchens again, because when I first started writing cookbooks, I even myself just felt like the food world was this too cool for school club, which I didn’t really fit into and you had to be real fancy and buy all the coolest ingredients.
My approach to recipes is that everyone can cook delicious food with normal everyday ingredients that tastes good and that you can make yourself and it comes out like the picture and you’re a rock star in your own kitchen. That’s been my journey up to this book.
With this book, I really feel like the world has reached a critical point where the status quo is failing and we all need to start making some changes. I feel we can make a meaningful difference just by eating more plant-based meals.
I really feel like this book is a really great way for people to start experimenting with that. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but some changes are going to have to be made if we want humanity to keep being able to live on this planet and it’s that simple.
I’m also thinking about Sky and his children and his children’s children. I want him to have a clean ocean with fish in it. I want them to have clean air. It’s more than just a cookbook, I’m sharing the fact that I have just fallen in love with a lifestyle that allows for a more sustainable life.
There’s this real accessibility with your recipes. Does that translate over to plant-based cooking? You’ve spoken about it yourself, there are so many mixed messages around this. Can you take that accessibility over into this conversation as well?
That’s really been my big goal for this book. The people that have come to trust me and my recipes and my way of cooking can pick up this book and have the same experience, even though it’s all plant-based. If you didn’t know that Supergood was plant-based and you just rifled through it, you would never be able to tell.
That is how I’ve consciously created this book; the recipes are approachable, all the ingredients I use in the book I got at my local supermarket and it’s hearty, delicious, comforting food. It’s food for everyone. It’s not scary, it’s not radical. It’s just bloody delicious food. The only thing that’s changed is a couple of new ingredients and leaving out a few ingredients.
Looking through the recipes, there’s no sense of giving up anything or compromising. This year, we’ve seen the impact that a little bit of positivity can make in terms of the accessibility. Do you feel like there is a shift that is happening here?
Absolutely, there is a huge shift that’s happened and this is why things like the timing is just perfect, because people are realising that we can actually make a difference. It’s not just, ‘Oh, this is too big for me. What can I do? I’m just one person.’
I think we’re going through a global awakening right now. Lots of people are becoming more conscious and aware. We’re being inspired to start making some changes and people’s perspectives are definitely starting to shift hugely. It’s a very exciting time, actually. It’s a very dark time in a lot of ways, but I think from this some pretty incredible changes are going to happen.
Have you experienced resistance with it?
I’ll be honest, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little worried about how it would be received at first. Up until the point when I was writing the book, I actually was just going to make it a vegetarian cookbook, but when I was about halfway through I realised that 98 percent of the recipes were actually plant-based.
I said to myself, ‘Why am I actually doing this? Because I’m scared of upsetting people.’ That’s not a way to write a book, I just have to write a book the way it needs to be for me. So I changed it over to plant-based and I thought, ‘You know what? This is just what I have to do and if some people aren’t happy about it, well, I can’t go around living my life trying to make everyone else happy.’
However, it turns out that this has been by far the most popular book so far, based on my pre-sales. I would say possibly doubly as popular as Eat, which was the best selling book in 2017. So, it just goes to show, it really does.
There’s definitely been a few negative comments and I knew there would be, but that’s okay. 10 years ago, I probably would’ve been the one making the negative comments. I have total compassion and understanding of people that aren’t quite ready yet.
10 years ago, I literally was the biggest carnivore you’d meet. I ate meat three times a day at least, so looking back is interesting.
I totally get it. I’m not trying to tell people what to do. I’m not trying to tell them what to eat or to stop eating anything. I’m just sharing my own personal experience and my love for plant-based food.
When we’re talking about some of the changes in the world and with social media as well, people like yourself are so exposed to the world, for good or bad. Do you pay attention to that side of things?
To be honest, for some reason I haven’t really ever been the subject of much negativity with what I’ve been doing. I’ve been a bit lucky in that sense. My Facebook following is almost up to half a million now and it’s more of a community, we’re really there to support each other and the vibes are generally quite good. I think it’s a bit of an anomaly in terms of Facebook, to be honest.
Of course, there are going to be a few negative Nancys every now and then, but I’ve got to an age in my life where I realised, and it’s been quite big for me actually, because for a long time for me, I felt like maybe I was a bit of a pleaser archetype. I really didn’t like to be criticised and think that people were mad at me, but I’ve just got to the point where I’m like, ‘You know what? People’s opinions of me and what I’m doing really are none of my business.’ That’s their prerogative to think what they want, so I try not to take anything personally.
If we look at this year, it has been a bit of a roller coaster and there’s been some really interesting psychology around supermarket habits and people making their own sourdough. Has that influenced some of the content that you’ve put out this year?
Not really. During lockdown, I think it was fantastic because people were literally forced to start cooking more. Only good can come of that in my opinion, because homemade food is generally always going to be better because of the energy that goes into it.
I think a lot of people reignited a passion for cooking or at least just had to get a bit better at it. I bought out a Lockdown Loaf during that time and it went kind of viral. It was a specific lockdown recipe, which I put out there along with an aioli, which is just something simple people can make at home with basic ingredients because they can’t go to the supermarket and buy a loaf of bread.
It was really amazing to see how popular that was. You could see people losing their minds like, ‘Oh my God, I just made a loaf of bread without yeast.’ You could almost feel the energy radiating out of these thousands and thousands of people that were making the bread. It was a pretty cool moment for me to be honest, it was really powerful.
You can get the sense of empowerment that comes from being able to do something like that at home and being able to break away from relying on the supermarket.
It’s very cool. I live sort of rurally now and I used to buy everything I ate, but now we actually make a lot. I make my own bread, I make my own pesto, I make my own butter, I make my own cheese and muesli and chia pudding. I’ve got a whole section in the book dedicated to that kind of thing.
A lot of people just don’t have the time to do that sort of thing, but for those that do, it’s just like such a cool way to live, to make as much of what you eat as possible.
When you’re putting together something like this, how many potential recipes do you have to deal with? How many do you start with? How many are left on the chopping block?
With this book, it was more of an organic process. I just started and created the recipes as I went and the list compiled itself. I didn’t even have a full list when I started, I just knew in my head around the kind of recipes that I wanted and then just started the testing.
Have you got some gateway recipes for people trying to enter the plant-based world?
Yes. One of the staples of plant-based cooking in our family is the ten second aioli. It literally goes on just about everything and you don’t even register it’s plant-based. It just tastes like aioli, it’s amazing.
All of a sudden you’ve got something to go on your Mexican food. You’ve got something to go with your roast potatoes, you’ve got something to go on your sandwiches and wraps. You can make a potato salad with it. It’s just incredible.
In terms of meals, there’s a recipe called Macho Nachos, and there’s just a touch of irony in that, because there’s this misconception that you need to eat meat to be manly. It is just the most delicious nacho sauce ever, but without mince. You make it with corn chips and aioli and some amazing guacamole, sweet chili sauce and some fresh lime wedges and some chopped coriander and it is just so good.
I have had a lot of people message me after I shared the recipe and say that it was better than the meat version. That is exactly the kind of feedback that I’m looking for. I think that could be a good place to start.
Children can be very tricky when it comes to meal times. How have you found it in terms of the plant-based side? Is it as intimidating as many people might think it is?
For me, at the start it was because I’d just had no experience cooking plant-based meals at all three years ago. I think that’s the big problem or at least a bit of a hindrance when it comes to people trying plant-based food. I was just like, ‘I have no idea how to put a meal together without a big piece of meat in the middle of it.’
It’s been a really interesting journey for me discovering this whole new way of putting ingredients together and creating a meal that’s balanced and delicious. I worked really, really, really hard at it, but I’m really picky.
I only like eating the most delicious food. I’ve got to the point now where my palette’s a certain way. I don’t like things that are bland and I don’t like things that are just mediocre and just passable. Everything that we eat has to be epic. I’ve been very discerning with these recipes and they are all really delicious.
It was daunting at the start, but the whole point was I’d gone through this huge cooking evolution and created Supergood so that everyone else doesn’t have to.
Here’s a whole book of recipes that are really amazing that you’re going to love and you don’t even have to do any research, just make them.
Does this evolution into plant-based eating feel like a revolution and that this is going to accelerate and become more mainstream and more accessible?
Yeah, I think it’s going to become a lot more normal to eat plant-based food. It’s not going to be an extreme way of eating.
I think that evolution/revolution goes hand in hand, it’s one in the same thing. It’s happening really quickly. Things are moving at a cracking pace, which is fantastic.