“When My Kitchen Rules came up our parents said, ‘If you don’t apply this time we are giving up on you’,” Aaron remembers.
The popular Pacific duo Aaron and Heather Freeman, the ‘Polynesian Cooks’, made it to the final of the show last year, nearly taking out the competition.
Even before what the pair describe as the whirlwind that was My Kitchen Rules, cooking exceptional food had been in their blood. More so for Aaron, who had always dreamed of cooking competitively.
“Heather was always a consideration as a partner for the show, but I didn’t want to leave both of our kids at home without Mum and Dad. I initially applied with a friend because I thought a boy duo team would be refreshing, but he had been a chef for fifteen years previously so was ineligible.
“I got a call from the My Kitchen Rules team saying that they really liked my story and wanted me on the show, so I had seventy-two hours to find a replacement, which isn’t usually done. It was a stressful three days but it came back to Heather.”
With no luck in finding a replacement, Heather recalls slamming her car door and saying, “FINE, I’LL DO IT!”.
When filming came around, the two struggled with being away from home for long periods of time. “The cameras on us and the cooking was fine, it was easy. The hardest thing ever was being away from our kids. The reality was we started in June last year and it went through to October.”
Things got off to a rocky start for the team. “I struggled with the competition. I couldn’t understand the concept; that it wasn’t a cooking show, it was more a reality TV show, because I just wanted to cook,” Aaron remembers.
Heather agrees that behind the scenes was not what you would expect. “Your success hinged on whether you were dramatic or whether you had a big personality. So we learnt quite a lot along the way in order to preserve our longevity throughout the competition. I think the hardest thing for us was getting the judges to understand us.”
If it weren’t for people interrupting us on the street today, saying how much they enjoyed us, we would just be in the corner and it would have been all for nothing.
This misunderstanding was resolved dramatically in the semi-finals, where Aaron and Heather had the chance to channel their Pacific Islander heritage in their food. “It was the first time we actually got to prepare Pacific cuisine, which I had been busting to do,” Aaron remembers. “It was quite refreshing because we were finally able to express ourselves. To get such great feedback from the guest judges in that semi-final still makes me wake up and smile about it today.”
Heather agrees. “It was the first point in the competition where we had got that validation, we belonged where we were and had a chance at taking out the competition.”
But much of this validation came from the fans and viewers from across the country who supported the duo from day one. “People would always comment on how nice we were. We thought New Zealand was going to hate us, but it was edited so well and what you saw on the show was just us, we didn’t manufacture anything.
“If it weren’t for people interrupting us on the street today, saying how much they enjoyed us, we would just be in the corner and it would have been for nothing.”
The final of My Kitchen Rules, which aired in October 2014, was a bittersweet pill for both Aaron and Heather to swallow. “I’m still hurt, it hurts that we didn’t win. The final would have been the perfect ending for us because it was so hard to break through to the judges, to show them who we were and the food we wanted to cook.
“What was made tougher was the fact that they filmed a double ending where we either lost by two points or won by one point. So we had to find out with the rest of New Zealand. For six weeks we didn’t know, and the day after we got home we were just meant to deal with it all.
“I’m gutted we lost because I am a competitive person, but it just came down to reality TV time pressure at the end of the day,” Aaron believes.
When My Kitchen Rules came up our parents said, ‘If you don’t apply this time we are giving up on you’
Both Aaron and Heather have never lost sight of what matters most, however. “We have always had a respect for the competition,” says Aaron. “We didn’t lose in a way because we never lost the support. It is almost a blessing in disguise because all I really ever wanted was the title of winning My Kitchen Rules. I didn’t care about the grand prize because if we had won we would have been contractually bound. Since the final ended it has made me so focused because we have won everything that the winners won, the rest of the prize was just stuff.”
Today, Aaron and Heather have exciting new things in motion. Launching their new Pacific cuisine brand, Tatou, for catering and functions is one of their sources of pride. “I always saw having a brand in the future and it fitted the approach that we have to food because it means ‘us’, quite literally.”
Most importantly, their two children are still big fans of their parents’ food. “They are two of our harshest food critics. A lot of people used to comment on us when we received harsh feedback: ‘Why do you just look at the judges like it doesn’t even faze you?’. We’ve heard worse mate, we live with a two-year-old who is very honest,” they laugh.
The future is bright for the duo, who are planning to build their brand even further. “I believe in the people in Manawatu, otherwise I wouldn’t still be living here. Those who spend their hard-earned money deserve to be fed well, so I want to raise that standard and showcase what New Zealand and Pacific food can be.
“The whole thing has just consumed our lives, but that’s our choice. It’s an exciting time, putting ourselves in a position where we aren’t just doing nine to five.”