“Dressing beautifully makes you happy,” says Peta Mathias. “Just putting on beautiful clothes makes you immediately feel better. A lot of people don’t like colourful clothes, but I find that it changes my mood—and I might even change my clothes three times a day!”
Indeed, the Kiwi icon is almost as famous for her colourful clothing—and character—as she is for her creativity and culinary skills. Peta Mathias MNZM is an award-winning chef, author, broadcaster and entertainer who has hosted food and travel shows—and tours—in Aotearoa (including Taste New Zealand) and around the world, while penning numerous tomes such as Can We Help It If We’re Fabulous?, A Matter of Taste, and Eat Your Heart Out, her latest, released in 2019, about unusual love stories. Her 2016 memoir is the brilliantly titled, Never Put All Your Eggs in One Bastard, and she’s just finished her newest book, Shed Couture, “about clothes and fashion”, due out in October.
I ask if she enjoys the writing process.
“I love writing, but it gets harder and harder, how much work writing a book entails and the reward for it. But it is something that you’re driven to do. You know, it’s like being a painter or an actor. You just have to do it. You have to express yourself in this way. You’re driven.”
Peta has recently also taken her one-woman live show on the road, “telling tall stories, sautéing up a storm, singing of lost love and explaining how egg whites can transform your life”.For as long as she cares to remember, she has also split her time mainly between Aotearoa and the South of France, spending around six months of the year at her place in Uzès, a little north of the Riviera. What makes all of her achievements even more remarkable is that she didn’t find her calling until middle-age, a late-in-life lane-change that she admits to regretting not making sooner.
“I don’t understand people who say that they don’t have regrets,” Peta tells Verve. “I do have them—I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I was a late developer. It took me a long time to find out what my true path was—food, cooking and entertainment. I’m basically an entertainer. Everything that I do, such as hosting culinary tours, and speaking events all over New Zealand—where I also sing—is part of my whole need to make people happy, and to entertain. I wish that I had got that a lot earlier than I did, because I was around 40 by the time that I got my act together.”
What advice would you give others approaching such a crossroad?
“You’ve got to do it. If you’re the kind of person who plays it safe, then changing your life is probably not for you. You have to be a risk-taker, but you can do it bit by bit so that it doesn’t feel so drastic. When I set up my life in France, I did it for one month the first year, two months the second, until I had finally set up this second life. It’s never too late to change. There are numerous examples of writers not publishing their first books until they were in their 70s. Challenging yourself is also the best way of keeping your brain healthy.”
Is that what you put your infinite energy down to?
“My mother was like that. In fact, both my parents were, so it’s just inbred. I also like working. People work because they feel that they’re contributing something to society. If I stopped, I’d feel pointless. Terrible things may happen that set you back, but you have to keep the faith, and keep on going.”
Your love of food and the need to make people happy, are these also a reflection of your upbringing? Were family dinners, for instance, celebratory affairs?
“Well, I’m the oldest of six children and was like a second mother—she taught us all to cook when we were young. I loved it because I discovered that cooking made people like you, that food is love. We’re the only animals in the universe who use food to socialise.”
Peta asks if I like to cook and I tell her that I do if I’m in the mood—but my partner’s the one with the culinary talent so I often wind up as her sous chef. “Well, we do need servants,” she laughs, then adds that preparing meals for others is a form of the utmost respect. I ask more about her childhood. Her dad, she says, was a gentle soul, but, for her mum, Peta stumbles for adjectives, then fills the silence with “my mother was quite a splendid package”.
“She was very beautiful, and very clever and capable of so many things,” she goes on. “She was colourful and dynamic and expected a lot from her children, which was hard work. But I’m very close to my brothers and sisters, so we must have had a good childhood. And we adored our father.”
Peta’s dad was an accountant, and her mother a “very talented artist”. Some of her work adorns Peta’s K’ Road apartment—a possibly-permanent residency she’s been forced to take up since Covid closed the borders. A collection of antiques and classic art contrasts with the contemporary abode—her mother’s paintings aside, Peta’s especially fond of the dining table that takes pride of place on the glassed in terrace with floor-to-ceiling folding doors and big views of the city and harbour.
“It’s a cutting table from a knitwear factory that’s covered with the girls’ graffiti. So, I’ve still got all the graffiti over the top of it, and it’s been cut down to table size, with iron, wheeled legs put on it. It’s very unusual, and special.”
Quite the centrepiece for your regular dinner parties?
“I normally do so much cooking professionally, but since I’ve moved into this glass house, I’ve become addicted to cocktail parties. It’s so nice getting people over for the sunset—and of course, it’s a lot less work as you just have to make finger food!”
How’s your flairing?
“You’re talking to the wrong age group!”
Peta’s “double life” between France and New Zealand has always been peppered with regular trips to far-flung jungles and dusty, aromatic streets scattered around the globe. Grateful as she is to have been back on home soil when the pandemic hit, it is tempered by her need to roam—this Kiwi must fly. I ask if Covid has forced her to reassess her views on life and travel.
“Not yet. I think I’m still living in a fantasy world where I think I’m going to get my old life back, but you know, I was reading in the Sunday Times, actually yesterday, predictions from the travel industry and us getting back to some sort of normal again is likely years off. So, I think I will be forced to change my life, whether I want to or not, as a lot of people will. I feel very, very sorry for my colleagues in the hospitality business at how much they’ve suffered, because they’re keeping us all alive by feeding us beautiful food.”
What are your thoughts on the evolution of the Kiwi food scene during the time you’ve been back and forth?
“Auckland in particular has fantastic restaurants. I mean, really fantastic. New Zealand is not behind at all, either in food or wine. In fact, we’re ahead of most people—we’re very similar to Australia. We have really good cooks and we have really good, fresh produce. And that’s what’s going to be the thing with New Zealand while we can’t get international visitors and we can’t go anywhere ourselves. We’re going to have to really concentrate and up our game with regard to food and wine tourism. That’s our next big thing. And we have to take that really seriously.”
Last month, Peta organised a culinary staycation at Hawkes Bay (“a wild success!”), with plans for similar events throughout the country in the coming months, as well as in Rarotonga and Australia once those travel bubbles are finally established.
Finally, I ask if she gets nervous about hosting such gatherings, or at her speaking events.
“Oh no,” she giggles. “I’m the girl you have to push off!”
Peta’s next book, Shed Couture, will be out in October, published by Random House. Keep up to date with her latest projects, including those culinary tours, at petamathias.com
Photography: Neil Gussey Model: Peta Mathias – Silverfox MGMT New Zealand | silverfoxmgmt.co.nz / 021 178 3729