Pete dishes his rules for healthy living
Manu Feildel and Pete Evans from My Kitchen Rules.
His worst ever day in a commercial kitchen was actually his first. As an apprentice Pete Evans caused an Italian tomato sauce explosion that covered the entire store room of a Gold Coast restaurant. The head chef gave him a bollocking that 20 years hasn't erased.
But now with a bag-full of accolades, six best-selling books, success as a restaurateur, chef, TV presenter and a fortune made on the back of his cooking skills, Evans says the sometimes rocky road following his passion has been worth it.
And it makes it easier for him to empathise with the contestants on Prime's hit show My Kitchen Rules where he judges amateur cooks with his friend and former colleague Manu Feildel.
''Not only that I was young and kitchens are pretty daunting places as a youngster - I had to go tell the head chef that I had dropped two or three hours of his work all over the floor… then I had to clean it all up. It took hours,'' he says.
The 39-year-old is welcomed into the homes of millions of Australians four nights a week in the latest series and seems to be the softer touch, regularly scoring contestants higher than his French counterpart Feildel. But if the show had been in existence when he was starting out Evans says he would have been a fierce competitor - even partaking in some strategic voting.
''If I was going on the show I'd be on there to win and I'd be saying, 'I'm going to win this competition'… I'd do anything I could, to win.''
Former contestants Peter Hamilton and Gary Rogers (from season three) were savaged on social media for similar comments and faced homophobic slurs. This seasons contestants Jessie Khan and Biswa Kamila were beset by Twitter trolls and racist tweets called for the duo to ''pack your bags girls, back to India'' after the spice girls episode and their elimination.
But Evans takes umbrage at any criticism that the show is edited to make villains.
Khan told media out-of-context editing of footage, especially in the final days of MKR , made them look like emotionally manipulative schemers.
''You film for 12 hours and in the end you say anything. They [producers] were always really nice and ask you about things. You might not want to say them [on camera] but they'd say 'It's okay, say that.' Then they'd use it in a way that it wasn't meant to be.''
Evans says there is bound to be some ill will in a competition where amateur cooks are asked to give their opinions about other contestants' cooking.
''There is definitely drama. There is emotion in the whole thing but so far as people being made into villains or anything I don't think it is what it is.''
Evans sees the show as an educational platform and says it's an exciting time to be in a studio kitchen as more Australians start experimenting with food. But he's worried there is still a way to go before eating nutritionally and well is the norm - and it's a valid concern. In October the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the first results from the most comprehensive study of the health of Australians ever undertaken.
The Australian Health Survey weighed, measured, interviewed and took biomedical samples of about 50,000 people and found that obesity rates in Australian adults are on the rise, with 63 per cent now classed as overweight or obese.
Researchers also found 67 per cent of Australians perform little to no exercise and only 5.6 per cent of Australian adults had an adequate daily intake of fruit and vegetables. Only 5 per cent of children under the age of 11 - who are bound by their parents' shopping and cooking decisions - were getting enough leafy greens and fruit.
(The study defined a serve of vegetables as half a cup of cooked vegetables or a potato and a serve of fruit as one medium piece of fruit.)
''I'm over the moon to be able to work on a show that is watched by so many people and to have food as the vehicle is so bloody good. There are soap operas out there, there's so many different shows that don't give you any benefit whatsoever. Whereas cooking I think can improve people's lives, because the single act of cooking, sharing a meal and sharing conversation with family or a group of people is paramount.''
He says television shows have made people passionate about food. And television ratings certainly reflect a love affair between viewers and cooking shows.
My Kitchen Rules is beating the pans off MasterChef: The Professionals with about 3.2 million viewers across the metro and regional markets while MasterChef pulled between 893,000 and 789,000 in the cities.
''I think the way that people shop and experiment with food for their families is wonderful and yes I believe media has played a huge part in that. What it's done is it's sparked people's passion and now people are being more and more adventurous. It's a wonderful time to be in this country because people are wanting better produce.''
Evans sees his roles as parent (he has two children aged six and seven with his former partner Astrid Ellinger) and as celebrity chef intersect as he tries to educate Australians about nutrition.
''My role is to get people back into the kitchen and cooking nutrient foods. Lots of beautiful vegetables, fresh fruit and to think about where your meat and seafood come from and try to do the best that you can with the budget that you've got,'' he says.
And he tries to make eating every meal at home an occasion - no eating on the couch in front of the television, or a bite over the sink.
''Every time I cook with my kids and my loved ones we sit down as a group with no TV on and some beautiful music and we all sit there whether it's breakfast, lunch or dinner, and the kids help prepare the meal sometimes but they definitely always take their plates back to be washed.''
But with the television show, studying a nutrition course, his catering business, the opening of organic food store BU Organics at Bondi in December, an investment in a coconut water company, numerous cookbooks and sponsorships, the obvious question is how does he find time to sit down for family meals.
(On the day of this interview he'd already spoken to four other journalists and was about to head out to do a catering job for Australia's largest wine brand Jacob's Creek.)
''I've worked really hard all my life. I've always worked 80 to 100 hour weeks in the kitchen for the first 15 years of my cooking career… everyone has the same amount of hours - it never changes. It's how you fill your day. I fill my day with everything I love to do - family time or personal time or I go for a surf. I'm always cooking at home and I'm always researching and studying. I work but I don't find my work to be work, I find it extremely rewarding.''
Organic produce is his latest passion and he says most Australians (even those on modest incomes) could make the switch if they corrected their protein-to-greens ratios.
''Most people cook a big steak and have a few vegies on the side…the ratio is out. Fill a plate with great vegetables and still enjoy the flavour of your steak, your chicken, your fish but reverse the quantities.''
And for those who find their budget still won't stretch to an all-organic diet, he says the most important thing to look for in food is hormone and chemical-free.
The focus on what type of food he is putting in his mouth has helped him lose five kilos. Evans says he has always been outdoorsy - surfing whenever he gets a chance, but the change as he approaches the big 4-0 this year has been more pronounced.
''I eat 80 to 100 grams of protein per meal and then I eat a hell of a lot of green vegetables and root vegetables and I never go hungry,'' he says. ''I find it's a cheaper way of eating better produce. I've always been active. I love the ocean. I go surfing as much as I can or fishing. I have a chin-up bar at home and that does wonders for me. And I stretch and do yoga and I eat extremely well. I look after myself - [I take] olive leaf extract, I have pro-biotics and I eat fermented or cultured vegetables at every meal to help break down protein.''
And he's bet on organic produce being on more than a fad.
''[I'm] working with a fellow in Bondi, Pete Melov, the healthiest man I know. He has a store called The Suveran and I loved what he's done and I wanted to take it and make it bigger. We've got into business together to get beautiful food out to the masses.''
The first organic store is just the start of his vision.
"We wanted to make it affordable and we're working on free food initiatives for children and public schools in the local area which we want to expand upon. The goal is to be able to provide organic food to schools around the country.''
He says healthier food will be the big trend of 2013.
''Think cultured and fermented food… people making their own sauerkraut and kimchi and fermented vegetable products. Vegetable preparation is going to be huge and it can be heaps of fun. It can help with a lot of health problems.''
As for how long the popular TV show will be on, he's committed to his co-host and is keen to do a few more seasons.
''He's one of my best mates. We're very very close. Whenever we're on the road I always cook for him and we spend pretty much every day together. I wouldn't want to be doing the show with any other person. As for how long - it depends on how long people keep watching for, I guess. The viewers are in charge of that.''
With a record 3 million eyes glued to the show across the nation, it looks like he's in for the long haul.
■ My Kitchen Rules screens on Prime7 Monday to Thursday at 7.30pm.