Friends of Marlaina Curtis thought she was crazy when she announced she wanted to be a TV chef – and compete with the slew of cooking shows already on our screens.
But with sheer grit and determination, the Taranaki woman has made it to national television – producing and presenting her own cooking show, and bypassing the normal route to become New Zealand’s newest culinary celebrity.
She’s never competed in a cooking contest or owned a chain of fancy restaurants. Instead, the vivacious mum of three, who started off posting online clips of herself cooking at home, has used good old Kiwi ingenuity to get her show, Marlaina’s Kitchen, on air.
“I didn’t want to be that person sitting on the sofa, watching these shows and talking about doing it,” says Marlaina, who once auditioned unsuccessfully to appear on Hell’s Kitchen.
“People were telling me there were enough cooking shows, but I didn’t listen to any of that. I had a picture in my mind of what I wanted to do. I can cook, I can present and I love to laugh. I just thought, why not give it a go?”
Her style and enthusiasm is so engaging, it’s surprising to learn she suffers from a rare illness. Marlaina has sickle-cell anaemia, a genetic blood disorder which sees her constantly battling fatigue, pain, arthritis and bacterial infections. Despite the symptoms, Marlaina tries hard to ensure she’s always at her best in front of the cameras.
“It’s like having labour pains, it’s that severe. I take medication to control it. It doesn’t stop me from doing what I love.”
Marlaina moved to New Plymouth from the UK 16 years ago with her family – husband Greg Chapman (47), and children Shukura (22) and Sigourney (17). The couple also now have a son, Jazz (11).
In London, she appeared in The Bill and Eastenders, and moved to New Zealand to escape the increasing racism she was experiencing.
“I didn’t want my children to suffer,” she admits.
Adapting to the New Zealand lifestyle, Marlaina dug her heels in by running her own performance school in Taranaki and becoming a local personality. But she has always set her sights high.
“I’m no Jamie Oliver or Chef [Gordon] Ramsay, but I loved hosting dinner parties and wanted to share my passion and knowledge. There were lots of cooking shows – and I believed that I could offer something different.”
The former model prepared for her new career by talking to herself as she was preparing dinner.
“It’s not as easy as it looks, talking and cooking at the same time. But the more I did it, the more comfortable I became.”Her mother, who was a professional chef, was also an inspiration.
“If you wanted to learn from her, you had to stand by and watch – she didn’t believe in recipes. It was all about the taste,” she explains.
Once she perfected the art of talking and cooking at the same time, Marlaina produced and funded a sample programme, using her own kitchen, to send to networks. Prime TV quickly snapped it up.
Marlaina’s Kitchen, which screens on Saturday afternoons, was made on a shoestring budget, and features Marlaina preparing a range of quick and easy meals for those who don’t normally have time to cook.
“Everything is about speed, presentation and taste. It’s devised for busy people, who can change it up and try their own thing,” she says. The half-hour show ends this month, but Marlaina is already devising her next TV project – a talk show where she interacts with local celebrities.
“I feel really honoured that people in New Zealand have let me into their homes and allowed me to share my love for cooking. If you invest some money and believe in yourself, then it pays off.”
She encourages everyone with dreams to pursue them, and offers some sound advice.
“I tell people what I’m going to do, therefore I take ownership of it. If I fail, then at least I tried. The failures make you who you are, and help you grow.”
Photos: Caren Davis. Make-up Edyta Koscielecki