Family food fusion

Written by Leanne Esposito

Our story begins far away in the South Pacific where a young Cook Islands boy meets his Polynesian Princess; they fall in love forever creating sweet moments together.

The moon and stars must have been in total alignment the evening Natacha met Simon Rasmussen. Tach, as she is affectionately known, had decamped her grandmother’s Parisian pavilion in search of her island heritage. With exotic roots comprising a French Russian father and Polynesian Italian mother, it’s not surprising a curious exploration of her bloodlines was in order.

As if a universal compass aligned, they were guided to the Moonlight Lounge, a Rarotonga nightclub. Simon arrived late in the evening after returning from the world title sprints for outrigging in Hawaii and was surprised and delighted to briefly meet Tach. He was in high spirits as his team had made the finals.

Natacha tells me that she was there with her cousin, Simon’s friend, and that she was practically a native despite Simon asking if she was a Papa’a, an affectionate name for non-island girl. Natacha’s maternal grandmother is a Rarotongan local.

“I remember learning to dance the Tamure. The cultural connection was strong. I had lived in Tahiti and was born in New Zealand. I came to Australia in 1986 for my schooling,” she said.

The coincidences continued. Both Natacha and Simon were born in Auckland and that’s where they returned to solidify their relationship.

“We moved back. After years training and working in nice establishments around the world, including luxury hotels like the Hilton Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport and as an Executive Assistant to the CEO of Pacific Resorts, I became a flight attendant for Air New Zealand. Simon was working in high rise construction,” Natacha said.

The air was certainly rare up there as their careers continued to soar.

As I meet them now, I’m thinking there must be something magical in the waters surrounding those islands. They both appear to be touched with a lightness of spirit; an ethereal quality which has them hovering in a realm where weightlessness exists, and it seems their souls fly higher than the self.

I also see an effervescence of spirit dancing in the light of the eyes of their four gorgeous girls, Talayla 15, Ariana 13, Mahina 10, and the latest cheeky edition to the family, eighteen-month-old Evanui.

Even the desserts for which Sweet as Simon is famous for glisten as if coated in a sheen of glorious phosphorescence. They certainly look too good to eat. But I’m wrong. The proof is in the pudding – literally. To eat them is to know them. To know them is to enjoy their sumptuousness.

But how did a boy from Rarotonga, who grew up playing sports year-round find himself as the fans’ favourite on Season 2 of Zumbo’s Just Desserts reality television show?

I couldn’t see the connection between mixing concrete and cakes, so I asked.

“As Islanders, food brings us together. We have ceremonies for every occasion which involves food. I would watch my mum and grandmother in Fiji bake cakes. We were always eating. We all know how to cook. I make desserts. My brother is the savoury person,” Simon said.

Even here in Australia, Simon, Natacha and the family continue their own traditions to celebrate food and life.

All are great cooks. Natacha tells me she has happily handed over the desserts to Simon.

“Now there is no point. We both do savoury, but I like to cook on my own. The girls all get into the kitchen with Miss Minx (Thermomix). Ariana’s eggs are ridiculous. Next level. They see and learn.

They see papa doing it and do the same. If it doesn’t work, they do it again. You certainly don’t hold back the passion,” she said.

I now have an understanding how their kitchen works and am surprised to be treated to a demonstration of their family’s honouring a meal ceremony – which is a fancy name for grace. They all join hands and rattle off 13 different country’s blessings to food. I consider the effects of such a multilingual family. Not only do they speak English, Cook Islands and French, there’s more!

“It’s our tradition as a family. Before Covid, we hosted exchange students and we would ask each student to say grace in their mother tongue. We now say it as our prayer.

“It is a habit when a meal is placed in front of us. Families and friends know that we do it. They all hold our hands and wait,” Natacha said.

Simon declares that he has always enjoyed cooking shows since Master Chef appeared on television. Adriano Zumbo was his idol. Simon even went so far as to enter a 25-word competition, advertised in a Master Chef magazine on which Zumbo was the cover feature. Simon still has his signed copy. Natacha tells me he would buy them religiously. The competition was to win a chocolate master class and trip to Sydney with his mentor. As life would have it, he did win.

“He had to describe his best or favourite dessert memory. I see Simon writing this down one day. He said he was just going to enter it for fun,” she said.

Simon said he wrote about his wife’s apple crumble. Well, it worked and he won two nights in Sydney and a cooking class with Adriano Zumbo with flights and accommodation thrown in. That was 11 years ago. Natacha was pregnant with Mahina at the time, and they flew down together. His girls Ariana and Talayla both agree that he manifested something that day. His Just Dessert journey was beginning, only he and Zumbo didn’t know it yet.

In fact, Simon believed that would be the last he would see of his idol.

After returning to Hervey Bay Simon tells me that it (cooking) wasn’t always easy. There were years of persistence and not always patience. He continued to seek mentoring and work experience alongside then head chef of the award-winning Coast Restaurant, double hatted Nick Street-Jones and his pastry chef wife Krista Lee Graham. Practice and perseverance, and his mistress who makes him very happy (in Natacha’s own words), Miss Rouge, his Kitchen Aid appliance, all contributed to his future successes.

“I would watch those cooking shows and thought that if those everyday people can cook like this it must be easy for everyone to do.

“Zumbo was a mentor to me from the beginning. I remember his macarons. I tried to make them. It was horrible the first time I did it. I failed miserably. I didn’t want to do it again. I was angry. I left it for a month.

“I didn’t have the right equipment. The oven didn’t work well. I wanted to do it perfect. I didn’t care how long it took. Then the hallelujah moment arrived, and I was happy,” he said.

That’s when Natacha knew he was ready and secretly sent off an application to Zumbo’s Just Desserts. He was accepted straight away.

Turning up on set Simon soon learnt that Zumbo was far more intimidating than he initially thought. It was up to Simon and the other contestants to learn everything on the fly. He tells me that it was extremely challenging and despite having a photo of his girls at his station on the set, he missed them dreadfully.

“I learnt all this technical food stuff. There was an appliance producer, and I would just ask him how to use this or that.

“You would get 20 minutes before filming to work it all out. The producers told us not to talk to the judges. But I did.

“I brought my own clothes, but they dressed me in their wardrobe, and I couldn’t get used to the makeup.

“About three weeks in I was ready to leave but Tach convinced me to stay,” he said.

Natacha’s fierce belief in her husband was what gave him the courage to continue.

“We missed him terribly. There would be no contact for 12 to 13 hours a day. We would be waiting for the phone call. We knew he could do it,” she said.

On the set they loved him. The cameras loved him. Simon’s smile can light a thousand lamps and it never dimmed.

With a natural charisma he charmed contestants, producers, assistants, and judges easily. Outside the show Simon had garnered unprecedented popularity with the viewers. His calm persona combined with some crazy cooks and innovative baking, like his UF-Fro and Lucky 13 saw him reach the finale only to be pipped at the post by 19-year-old Catherine Zhang.

I’d backed him all the way. I remember feeling deflated for him. Today I ask him whether he knew of his popularity, and he answers that he had no idea. Even with Season 2, which aired in late 2019 and now appearing on Netflix, he still hasn’t watched the final. He seems uncomfortable with fame.

“I knew the lighting crew were my fans but as for watching it I cringe when I see it,” he said.

But not so for the girls who love to watch their younger selves cheering on their father. It keeps their memories of the green room food and fun on the set fresh. Talayla, Ariana and Mahina were in school years six, four and one respectively.

Reality TV isn’t always about real time. The show didn’t air instantly, and these young girls went back to school keeping the show a secret for an entire year. It demonstrates amazing intelligence and restraint for ones so young.

Since the show Simon and Natacha have looked into opening their own boutique outlet but those plans are on hold for now. Simon’s passion is still strong. He is happy to create for others who commission his work and bake for charity while he continues his day job as a Team Leader for drainage and capital works with the council.

The day we meet is Mother’s Day. It’s special to watch Natacha with Simon and the girls. The family only returned the day before from an epic Zumbo’s Wedding on the Sunshine Coast Hinterland where they enjoyed some gastronomic delights. Natacha gives me a blow by blow description of the menu. It’s drool-worthy!

I’m not surprised that Natacha and Simon are invited to the wedding of his idol. There seems to be a massive respect and strong connection between the judges and Simon. It appears that Natacha and Just Desserts judge Rachel Khoo became firm Francophile friends during filming, speaking together in French. To say they are a fabulous foodie family is an understatement. I believe they are the embodiment of hospitality, especially when you understand that all hospitality is simply an opportunity to show love and care.

The sentiment extends to the entire family. Natacha and Simon are gracious and loving. The girls certainly have the gift. It shows in the expansive welcome that I and many others enjoy sharing sweet sensations prepared by Simon. For now, we wish them well and wait patiently for the next stage in the life of Sweet as Simon.