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Her work as a TV cook and traveller takes Nici Wickes around the world but her heart belongs to the small holiday township of Port Waikato

Words Yvonne van Dongen  Photos Tessa Chrisp  Related topics , , ,

Every summer for the last five years Nici Wickes has run three-day cooking courses for children at the community hall in Port Waikato. The local resident says the non-profit-making courses are her way of giving back to the community that has welcomed her so warmly. Besides, Nici loves children and loves teaching although her methods are a little unorthodox. If the dish works, she’ll praise the budding cook. But if it fails, she’ll not hold back. “Oh dear, those tarts don’t look too good, do they? Bit of a disaster.” To which the errant cook might mumble, “Yeah, I know. I burned them.” Nici is then likely to pat them on the arm and say cheerfully, “Oh well, no harm done. They’re only tarts. Let’s move on.”

It’s a technique the star of TV3’s World Kitchen calls “ruthless compassion”. When it comes down to it, she says, that’s really what she’s all about – ruthless compassion. This is clearly a fusion of opposites and may appear to be a paradox but in Nici Wickes’ case it rings true. The small, blonde, upbeat energy ball is the living embodiment of contradiction. For instance, she says she’d sooner step up to be Prime Minister than step up to a blind date. She has no trouble delivering a presentation to an audience of hundreds but she’s shy at parties. And although she has on occasion displayed the most breathtaking confidence, she’s not beyond bursting into floods of tears or being gripped by self-doubt at 3.00am. Just like the rest of us, she says. “I believe all human beings have the capacity for vulnerability and we all have to learn how to deal with it.”

Nici’s journey to becoming a celebrity chef is as much a journey of self-discovery as anything else and she is not afraid to talk about her growing pains. It’s a story that begins with the middle child of five girls, brought up in Auckland’s Kohimarama by a stay-at-home fabulous cook and gardener mother and a father who travelled the world as a management consultant. They encouraged their girls to be sporty, took them to Lake Taupo every summer and generally blessed them with plenty of happy memories. But most of all they instilled in them the value of experiences over possessions, with holiday adventures and food always high on the family agenda.

Life was going swimmingly but after completing a bachelor degree in psychology and another in physical education at the University of Otago, Nici ditched her plan to become a sports psychologist and went to the US instead, snowboarding and cooking her way around the country. Back in New Zealand she drove a backpackers’ bus in Northland and unleashed her inner hippie by making paper. Her photo albums quickly became a business. “I always thought of my sisters as being creative but never myself. I did have a knack for setting up a business though.” She ran Yesterday’s Paper for four years before friends pointed out she was rather good at giving advice. Perhaps she should do this professionally?

So she did. Nici became a business advisor at Waitakere Enterprise, a job she loved and held for three years. “I got to use my brain and business head plus I got to present workshops and discovered the performer in me.” But, eventually, being with people working at their passions got to her. Why couldn’t she do this too? She knew what her passion was – cooking. She found cooking easy and pleasurable. Still does. “When people offer to help me in the kitchen, it feels like they are taking something that I really love away from me.” She started catering for film crews, events, friends and family and discovered how much she loved it.

So she resigned and went to the New Zealand School of Food & Wine run in Christchurch by Celia Hay. The intensive four-month cooking course gave Nici an excellent grounding in French cuisine and she adored cooking every day. And yet she still had days when she asked, “What am I doing with my life?” When she saw auditions for a play at the repertory theatre advertised, she obtained the script, learned the lines and decided to go for gold: the lead role. On the form under “Experience” she wrote “No live acting experience” which really meant “None”. After her audition, director Elizabeth Moody looked at the young Miss Wickes and said, in her haughty, most theatrical manner, “You’re aaaawfully good, but I’m verrrry concerned about your lack of experience. Will you take a minor role?” To which Nici said simply, no. “It was pure naivety. I didn’t realize you were supposed to take what you were offered but my reasoning was that I was busy enough so why turn up every night for just three lines?” Elizabeth conceded and gave her the lead.

But still the feeling she wasn’t doing enough with her life dogged her. “I was in my early 30s. Most of my friends had proper jobs and I felt I was mucking around.” Fortunately, she had written down her year’s goals on a previous New Year’s Eve. “When I had a blue day I took out my little blue book and had a look at the goals. One of them was to do some acting and there I was with a lead role. Another was to take more exercise and I was mountain-biking from my flat at the top of the Port Hills down to the cooking school on the flat. Another goal was to do more cooking. There I was, cooking full time.

“There lies the power of committing your goals to paper. I’ve set goals ever since and enlisted all sorts of people to do them with me. I don’t chant affirmations or anything like that but I do believe in setting goals.”

By the time Nici finished the cooking course she knew one thing for certain: she didn’t want to work in a restaurant. She went back to Waitakere Enterprise to run their business-awards programme before being head-hunted by a large consulting firm running business-growth training sessions around New Zealand and Australia. By now she was a skilled presenter and realized that the best way to pass information across to people was to engage them. For that to happen, she had to engage with herself first. So she embarked on a Meisner acting programme which at its heart teaches people how to be present from moment to moment.

After that she enrolled in a course at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in Auckland. “It helped me become conscious of myself and my inner world. A lot of my training was around people discovering the brutal truth about themselves and learning they could survive that. But it has to be done with compassion which is how psychosynthesis operates. It’s funny because I did these things out of personal interest but in the end they helped me enormously in my professional life.”

Nici was still working and travelling for the consulting firm and had bought her house at Port Waikato. As well, she was making television ads now and then and running occasional evening cooking classes at a Pukekohe deli. The classes were sell-outs. “I found I could talk and cook at the same time and I enjoyed it and was good at it.” But the corporate work began to take its toll. “To be honest, I was lonely and exhausted.” For a nanosecond she considered buying the Pukekohe deli but then she came to her senses. Which was just as well, since not long after this she received a call asking her to audition for a new cooking show. “I knew it was my big chance. Since I was eight years old I’d played make-believe ‘Let’s have a cooking show’.”

She’d already resigned from her corporate job to become an independent consultant so she waited, fingers crossed, for the call telling her the television job was hers. After all, having her own television show had been one of her goals that year. “How outlandish, eh? It had never been on my list before but a lot of alchemy goes on when you focus. I’m a strong believer that the will needs to be there. I just knew if I imagined it, it could happen. You can’t create anything without imagining it first.”

The call came, the show was made and four seasons of World Kitchen later, Nici has her dream job. “I travel, work at what I love and have a television show which gives me a voice to reach people. When someone tells me they love watching the show I always say, ‘Great, but did it make you cook more?’” That’s what she would like to concentrate on next through her writing and television work: encouraging people to cook more and cook better. “That’s my mission.”

No doubt a more concrete objective will be scribbled in that little blue book on New Year’s Eve and the results should be visible onscreen sometime in 2012 or beyond. “Whatever or wherever I end up next I know that I’m always happiest when I’m cooking and sharing a meal with others, so I guess that’s a constant.”

Nici brought back from Barcelona the paella pan hanging over the stove. “I always try to bring something back from my travels and make sure it’s functional so every time I use it I’m reminded of my travel adventures. I love the resurgence of retro, kitsch design as I’ve been collecting it for years.”

Designer kitchens and modern houses are not for Nici. “I like to fill mine with merry colours that dance around the room. My friends all know what I like so they keep an eye out in op shops.” The red basket tray was a surprise gift while the tennis racket with map of New Zealand was a present from her sister Susie: a nod to their childhood when they spent more weekend time on the court than off it.

Nici Wickes on life

On living at Port Waikato: “I’ve been here for eight years now. It’s very 1950s’ New Zealand where your neighbour will give you some wild venison over the fence, the kids play outside till dark and there’s a lot of gardening, hunting and fishing.”

On buying her house: “My friends were having families in Auckland and I felt alienated; I couldn’t afford a house there. Then I saw an ad in the paper for a mortgagee sale at Port Waikato. I missed the sale but I loved the place. I’d written a list of what I wanted in my ideal house: single level, French doors, sunny and close to the beach. I got exactly that.”

On learning: “I really enjoy the process of transformation from not being able to do something to being able to do it, from not feeling confident to becoming confident and going from unskilled to skilled. I try to surf and that is quite humbling for me. I’m not very good at it but I never wish I hadn’t done it. You have to learn that you’re not going to be terribly good at something in the beginning but why not give it a go?”

On fighting fat when you’re a chef: “I battle with that. I ride my mountain-bike every day at the Port and I surf a bit. I’m convinced portion size is the key though. I remember a size four chicken would go round our family of seven. We used to get a drumstick and that was it.”

On success: “I’m not deeply ambitious about material things. I’d rather have experiences and a simple life.”

On being a single woman: “I won’t lie to you and say I love the freedom of being single. I admit to feeling lonely sometimes because, despite having wonderful family and friends, it’s nice to have some consistency in your companionship. But did I ever imagine having a gorgeous husband and living happily ever after? I’d have to say no. I was too busy fantasizing about having a cooking show, so that’ll teach me.”

On Christmas: “My sisters live all over the place but we try to come together for Christmas. The kids love it at the Port because of the beach and the horses out the back. I do a turkey every year; we have a great big roast in the heat of the day. For the last decade we’ve had a theme – this year’s is Middle Eastern. My mother will make the meringues and there’ll be lots of veges from my parents’ garden.”


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