Double Diplomacy | Karena and Kasey Bird

This month marks the start of the second series of Kitchen Diplomacy, the jet-setting food show hosted by MasterChef 2014 champions, Karena and Kasey Bird. The sisters take up where they left off in 2016, exploring cultures of the four corners, but instead of being hosted by local ambassadors, they visit local homes and eateries taking in tips and techniques before ending the week by preparing an interpretive meal inspired by their cultural learnings.


“We had such an amazing time,” beams Kasey. “I think to go to another country and have a focus on food is such an incredible way to experience the history, culture, and landscape. It’s fascinating meeting the people and learning about the traditions and the cooking techniques. The more places we visit, the more we add to our toolkit to bring home.”


Karena adds that the second series, “the best job ever”, was certainly easier to film, having been “more focussed and refining our style”. I ask about the challenges of making the transition from TV contestants to presenters.


“The thing is, we just get to be ourselves,” says Kasey. “There were no instructions about how we should act, we were just let loose! Being in different environments and cooking with unfamiliar ingredients to interpret food that we’ve tried over such a short amount of time creates a different kind of pressure — but being on MasterChef helped us deal with cooking under pressure.”


“We also travel with a small crew of only four — two camera people, the director, and the sound guy,” says Karina, “so we feel very comfortable with them. You actually kind of forget that you’re filming a TV show while you’re there.”


Kasey , Chef Ismail and Karena in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


You must all develop a real bond?


“We do,” says Kasey. “It’s funny because whenever we meet up at the airport after we haven’t seen each other for while there are lots of hugs and excitement. It’s like a family.”


The sisters clearly have an incredible connection, but being on the road for great lengths can strain even the strongest of relationships. Kasey reveals that they have an almost “intuitive understanding”. “But there are still rules,” interjects her sister. “Like if we’re on an aeroplane and Kasey’s wearing her eye mask it means that I’m not allowed to talk to her!”


Karena, Mr Black Bacon and Kasey at O’Doghertys.


The sisters still live just a couple of hundred metres apart in their hometown of Maketu in the Bay of Plenty where the family gathers together regularly to feast. Though they’d barely cooked as a team before, Karina and Kasey would often discuss their favourite eateries, recipes and cooking shows. Entering MasterChef, they say, just felt like a natural progression. Brimming with ideas and inspiration from their global gastronomical tours their next big goal is to open a restaurant of their own.


While in Peru, the sisters discovered that some communities cook potatoes in an earth and stone oven similar to the hangi — only they also add manure to the mix. The potato was first domesticated in Peru, and remains a much-revered part of their culture. We see Karina and Kasey visit the Potato Museum and discover a stark effect of climate change. “Potatoes that used to be grown at 3,000 feet now need to be grown 500 feet further up,” says Karina. “They’re having to go higher because the potatoes aren’t growing as well as they used to.”


The sisters say that one of the biggest — and best — surprises was their visit to Ireland. Having only previously experienced traditional Irish pub grub like bangers and mash, they were shocked to find a thriving and innovative food scene producing artisan breads, cheeses, beers and gin. “We drank Guinness every day,” chuckles Karina. “But the problem with that is that once you’ve tasted Guinness in Ireland, it ruins it everywhere else.”


Karena and Kasey Bird say it was an honour to meet Dilmah founder Merrill J Fernando in Sri Lanka.


“I was also blown away by Sri Lanka,” says Kasey. “Especially learning about the history of the tea.”


Are you always well received as Kiwis?


“Definitely,” says Karina. “We got to watch the last Lions games at an Irish bar in this tiny town — like Maketu where we’re from — and it was eight in the morning and the locals were drinking Guinness and they’d cheer when us Kiwis walked in. Everywhere you go there seems to be an appreciation for New Zealand, which makes you feel proud. But, once we got an Uber in the US, and the driver asked where we from and we told him New Zealand and he replied that he’d had lots of customers from Europe recently!”


Kasey says that they also feel great responsibility as Maori ambassadors when abroad.


“I feel like that even travelling without the cameras,” adds Karina. “Being Maori you are representing your family when you travel overseas so it’s always in the back of your mind to be respectful and appreciate other people and their country as you soak it all in.”


Karena and Kasey’s Kitchen Diplomacy premieres Thursday, 8 February at 7.30pm on TVNZ1, also available to stream on TVNZ OnDemand.