Love of food unites TV chefs

A love of food brought Sara Barnes and Danny Walker together and continues to unite them. In fact, when the Wellington couple marry this year – they’re having weddings both here and in the United Kingdom – they’re turning more attention to their menus than what they’ll wear. Friends and family will feast for days in each location.

The telegenic, outgoing couple had their first night cooking in TV3’s new show, The Great Food Race, in which eight teams of two showcase their culinary skills, competing against other duos. On Sunday night, flame-haired Barnes and Manchester-born Walker got through to the next round, winning top points over the other three teams for an impressive menu of ceviche, arancini balls, marinated chicken, beef cheek, syllabub dessert and cocktail.

Cooking in their Brooklyn home, they served dishes to the judges, Wellington restauranteurs Leonardo and Lorenzo Bresolin, and the competing teams. While they planned to serve some of the dishes outside, a particularly windy evening forced guests indoors, and so they ate in the dining room on a table laid with a fake grass mat.

Even though 31-year-old Walker is confident on screen and a natural thrill-seeker, nothing prepared him for the stress of cooking under pressure, serving courses to expert judges and competing against teams from around the country. A bartender for 13 years, he has mixed cocktails in challenging situations, in bars all around the world.

“I’m the type of guy who will jump off anything,” he says. “But it’s incredibly nerve-racking and you’re sweating and clammy. It’s anyone’s game and you’re not sure what the judges are thinking.”

In fact, the couple had their first argument ever while preparing a meal for the show, although it was off-camera. “We’ve been together for one-and-a-half years and we’ve never had a single fight before that. But it does bring out the best and the worst of each person,” says Barnes, 29, who works as an arts administrator for the New Zealand Festival.

“It’s been a lot of fun with some stressful times. But it has also shown us how well we work together,” says Walker.

Away from the screen, the couple describe food and cooking as their biggest shared hobby. They prefer to cook for friends than meet them at a restaurant. Walker will spend days preparing meals and thinking about a menu when friends come from out of town. But the creative cooks are not keen on following a recipe. “Even when we travel together, the first thing we do is find the local food markets. Here, every weekend involves a food experience,” says Barnes.

Their venture on to the televised cooking show began last year when they spied an advertisement for competitors. “We filled in an online form and totally forgot about. Then we flew to Auckland for a cooking audition, and it all just happened so quickly. All of a sudden, we were filming,” says Walker.

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The story of how they got together has a fairytale-like element to it, too. They met four years ago in Wellington at a Christmas function and became great buddies, flatting together for nine months. But they never hooked up. That happened when Barnes was stranded in the UK waiting for a visa and Walker, who was living there, took her on a tiki tour around southern England, including venturing to pubs and restaurants. Says Walker: “Then we got together and it really was amazing.”

For a food-obsessed couple, it’s surprising that neither comes from a foodie family. The reverse is, in fact, the case. “It’s almost laughable,” says Walker, who remembers a childhood of visiting McDonald’s when his family travelled to some of the world’s top food destinations. “I ended up cooking my own food when I was at home as a teen.”

Barnes’ father was a diabetic, so she grew up on a basic meat and three vege diet. Her sisters were also fussy eaters “so we ate simple food”.

Over the next 11 episodes, contestants will have to show they can cook and entertain anywhere in New Zealand, under any pressure, in pop-up kitchens. Winning teams will then be taken overseas to cook in a mystery destination, before they return for the final battle back in New Zealand.

While they can’t reveal how far they have got in the series, The Great Food Race has still given the couple time to plan their wedding menus. For their wedding in Featherston in June, are heavily involved in planning the menu with caterers. Walker will cook a barbecue the night before, a brunch on his wedding day, and a picnic the following day.

In the UK, at their second wedding, he’ll be dishing up eight meals over three days. “We’ll be buying a pig and putting that on a spit. It will be a communal wedding, all about feasting.”

The Great Food Race, TV3, Sunday, 7pm.