Globe-trotting chef Nici Wickes has always been one for following her heart and doing what feels right, even if that means bucking the trends.
Her latest move is a case in point. While many other people of a similar age are leaving cities in search of a quiet life in the country, the former host of the TV show World Kitchen has just shifted back to Auckland – albeit part-time – and is relishing being back in the “rat race”.
“I was a bit nervous about coming back,” she admits.
“I thought it would be too noisy and busy for me, but I’m really loving it. It’s great being back in the thick of things.”
For the last 11 years, Nici has managed her busy career as a TV presenter, food writer, cooking teacher and chef while living in the quiet beach community of Port Waikato. It’s a 60-minute drive south from downtown Auckland in off-peak hours, but a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Nici bought a 1950s bach in Port Waikato because she was keen to get into the housing market, but couldn’t find an affordable home she wanted in the city. She loves her house and the peace and quiet of its location near the beach, but found she was spending more and more time in Auckland for work. “It felt quite pressured – I wasn’t getting time to do things properly.”
Nici, who grew up in the Auckland beachside suburb of Kohimarama, usually stayed with one of her sisters – she has four and decided she needed a base in the Big Smoke, as well as Port Waikato.
“The food industry is so fast-moving. I thought it would be good for me to spend more time in Auckland, where I could keep up with food trends.”
Nici now rents an apartment literally a stone’s throw from popular Ponsonby Rd, which is packed full of top-class eateries.
Her new location makes it easier for her to write her restaurant reviews and also means she’ll be handy to the offices of the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, where she has just started as our new food columnist.
She’s having a great time checking out food on offer in the city, and using it as inspiration for the dishes she’’ll contribute to the magazine.
“I feel a bit like a visitor in the city I grew up in – there’s so much to discover,” she tells. “I love the buzz of the place.
But then every couple of weeks I head back to Port Waikato. I’m very lucky – I get the best of both worlds.”
Some of the things she thought she would struggle with – like being motivated to exercise – haven’t proved as tricky as she expected.
“I thought jogging and cycling would be of no interest in the city because I’m used to doing it in the countryside. But jogging is good here because you can look into people’s houses – I love being nosy!”
The fact that Nici can have such a flexible lifestyle and move backwards and forwards between the two locations is one of the advantages of having no children.
“That’s not a situation I necessarily expected to find myself in at this stage of my life,” she confides. “It wasn’t that I set out to be a career woman or that I never wanted to have a family, it is just the way things have worked out.
“I am sometimes surprised that I am not settled in a relationship, but life is full of surprises, isn’t it? I am more than happy with the opportunities that being single at the moment is presenting. I feel very fortunate.”
The bubbly blonde is best known as the presenter of the TV show World Kitchen, in which she travelled the globe being inspired by local cuisine. She has degrees in psychology and physical education, has run her own paper-making business and been a business advisor. A keen cook since childhood, she took a cooking course, which led to the TV job. Nici also teaches cooking classes, reviews restaurants, gives demonstrations and has written two cookbooks.
Nici’s new column for the Weekly (look out for her recipes on the website from next week) will be focusing on meals for one or two – “although they are easy to adapt to feed more people”, she emphasises. She’s particularly keen to help empty nesters – “or no nesters, like me” – when it comes to putting food on the table every night.
Many parents find that after years of cooking the same meals over and over for their families, once the kids leave home, they’re at a loss over what to cook.
“I think it is a great opportunity to try new things and to have the foods you really want to eat.”
She also hopes her recipes will persuade people living on their own to get inventive. “I know a lot of people say they can’t be bothered going to a lot of trouble if it is just them, but that is no excuse to just make eggs on toast or cheese and crackers.”