If life has taught Aaron Brunet anything, it’s to make the most of every moment. He’s currently one of the favourites to take this year’s MasterChef New Zealand title, but if it wasn’t for his and wife Ani’s bittersweet past, Aaron (42) may not have even entered the top-rating cooking show.
“You have to make life count,” the devoted husband and dad says, as he hugs Ani and daughter Ariana (13). “It’s something I had to learn, and something I remembered when I entered the show.” Incredibly, it was Ani’s first husband Rob that brought the two together.
It was only after Aaron supported Ani through Rob’s passing from cancer that they realised they had feelings for each other – an experience the Raglan couple say was a bright spot in an otherwise horrific period. “We became incredibly good mates before we got together,” says Ani (41).
“I was 21 and Rob was dying. Aaron and his mum lived around the corner from us, and he would come and help me nurse him. Just before Rob did pass away, he looked into Aaron’s eyes and asked him to look after me, which he’s done ever since.”
After a few more months of grieving, the pair finally realised that what they had been looking for in a partner was what they had all along. “We figured it out while we were eating,” smiles Aaron. “We were at a Mexican restaurant, and from there we never looked back.”
Now living in Raglan with their outgoing daughter Ariana, who starred in TV One’s This Is Not My Life, the Brunet family is an incredibly tight trio who prefer to live what they call an “unconventional” and slightly nomadic life.
“We’ve always been willing to take slightly bold and unusual steps,” Aaron says. "Just after we got together, I wanted to go travelling the world but Aaron wanted to go to Dunedin. I love it down there too, so that’s where we went,” adds Ani.
The pair did eventually travel around Europe, when Ariana was just 10 months old. “I didn’t get any sleep for months,” remembers Ani. The family, who call themselves the Three Musketeers, have now finally settled in Raglan, where Aaron works from home as an IT consultant and Ani teaches yoga.
“Up until now, we’ve never had that conventional, nesting, stability craving,” says Ani. “But when you have a child at school, things get a bit different, and the Raglan community would be a hard one to leave now.”
“We don’t have a stressful life, that’s for sure,” Aaron says. “Work, swim, walk, cook!” Surrounded by exceptionally strong women, Aaron is in the minority most of the time, especially when Ani throws yoga parties.
“They’re all very lively,” he says. “It’s been good though. I make all the food and tested out my audition recipe [a jazzed-up granny apple tart] on all of them.” The MasterChef hopeful has a particular fondness for homemade pizza and bread.
“People come over just for his bread,” Ani says. “He sells to the locals, although the money doesn’t nearly cover the labour. But it’s what he loves to do.”
Despite his lifelong love of food, something he credits to his Italian mother and grandmother, Aaron wasn’t sure what he wanted until he entered the MasterChef house.
“It dawned on me all of a sudden, I do want to cook after all,” he says. “I found my passion, the reason to get out of bed in the morning.” “It doesn't matter what happens in the competition now,” adds Ani. “He has won. He went in there with a personal question, and came out of it with an answer. It was what he was looking for.”
MASTERCHEF’S AARON: PHOTOS: FIONA TOMLINSON • MAKE-UP: KATE SMITH