The latest series of My Kitchen Rules has taken such a toll on judge Manu Feildel, he's planned a dramatic getaway.
Not only did the French chef gain 7kg tasting the contestants’ dishes, but his 12- to 15-hour days meant he spent lengthy amounts of time away from his son Jonti (8) and partner Clarissa Weerasena.
It’s also been the show’s most dramatic season yet, with two teams sparking an online “race row” after fans accused producers of portraying the now-eliminated “Spice Girls”, Jessie Khan and Biswa Kamila, and new “gatecrashing” team, Sophia Pou and Ashlee Pham, as villains on the show.
So when Manu turns 40 this week, he’s planning to be as far away from the heat of the kitchen dramas as possible. “Everyone around me is asking, ‘Are you going to have a big party?’ For once I want to spend some time alone,” says Manu.
"For my 40th, I'll be doing the Kokoda Trail in the mountains of Papua New Guinea for charity, walking for nine days in the humidity and heat for CanTeen." But before he heads off on the grueling tramp, Manu is making the most off family time.
He describes his partner of two years Clarissa, a jewellery designer, as an “amazing cook”. When he’s at their home in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, Manu is happy to let her take charge.
The pair met in a nightclub three years ago, getting together six months later after Clarissa moved from Perth to Sydney.
Although Manu admits he sometimes plays up his Gallic charms, particularly with female contestants who love his accent, he says Clarissa doesn’t mind.
“She knows it’s part of the game and there is nothing negative to it. I think there’s an expression – it’s nice to look at the menu as long as you eat at home,” jokes Manu.
“She knows more of me than anyone else. We do very well together, we complement each other. A bit of saltiness and a bit of sweetness.”
Portrayed as a tough judge on the show, Manu is a softie at heart. He admits to being deeply moved when Tasmanian abalone diver Mick Newell shed a tear of pride after his son Matt cooked a top-notch salmon dish that wowed him and fellow judge Pete Evans.
“It can be emotional,” he explains. “I can definitely put myself in Mick’s shoes. Being that proud of your son is something you can’t explain until you have kids.”
Perhaps it’s his paternal instincts, but Manu has been quick to defend the Spice Girls, who gained a reputation for their barbed comments and bitter criticism of fellow contestants.
Although Manu is first to say that he judged their cooking harshly, but fairly, he says the television public’s reaction was out of line. “Some of the viewers were quite full on. It’s a cooking show, not a political debate. People have been quite nasty towards those two girls.”
Although the French chef is run off his feet judging on MKR and running his Sydney restaurant L’étoile, Manu says Jonti understands his schedule. “He’s a good little boy and he understands that I have a full life."
While Jonti no longer watches MKR because he is “bored of it”, he’s still keen to follow in his father’s foodie footsteps.
“He says that’s what he wants to be [a chef] and that he wants to be on TV, but maybe he says that because that’s what he knows from me. Whatever he wants to do, I’ll back him up. “But he’s got plenty of time to discover life. I think kids should be kids as long as they can.”
No stranger to the cruel glare of the spotlight, the passionate cook is working on his fitness. His personal trainer has him running and boxing, but Manu says that unlike Pete, who is on a health kick, he doesn’t want to miss out on the food he enjoys.
“Pete’s gone to the extreme, I wish I had his mental strength... I couldn’t do it. I like food too much. I just have to work hard at [exercise] and try and get the weight off that way. I can’t eliminate the things I love.
“Anyway, I feel healthy and happy. I’m 40 – bring it on.”
My Kitchen Rules screens on TV2 Mondays,Tuesdaysand Wednesdays at 7.30pm.