Wellness Warrior: Aaron Brunet
Tell us how you got into cooking and what you’ve been doing since winning Masterchef New Zealand in 2013.
I was born in Nelson and only ever lived there as a baby unfortunately, it's a great place! Mum was born in the north of Italy and she always made vegetarian food taste great, she changed her diet as soon as she left home at 18 and has never looked back. I rebelled against her rebellion as a teenager and spent most of my life eating everything under the sun! As a confirmed insatiable foodie I basically had to figure out how to get what I wanted and that meant learning how to cook for myself. Millions of disasters lately I realised what a big part food played in my life and entered Masterchef thanks to my daughter’s unwavering belief in me (thanks babe!). Winning was amazing and also very confronting - perhaps I wasn’t who I thought I was. My self doubts and criticism had been in charge for way too long and the win brought a lot of things up for me. To be honest my life fell apart for a while and it was in the process of rebuilding myself from the ground up that I started to ask myself what really mattered to me and find a sense of purpose. As part of my self-prescription to get life working again I found a job working for a community trust in West Auckland and have spent the last 18 months helping run the recycle shop at Auckland’s biggest transfer station (Waitakere). This actually aligns very well with my environmental outlook and has been a great learning experience in all sorts of ways, including interacting with people from all walks of life. Now I’m realising that I have a real opportunity to contribute to people from a food perspective in a way that feels totally real to me and I’m feeling called to act on that, it’s something I’m very grateful for.
What prompted you to take up a healthier, plant-based diet?
I’m super-inspired by the idea that the single most powerful thing we can do to reduce our carbon emissions and improve our health is to eat more plants more often! As famous food writer Michael Pollan says, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. My daughter Ariana and I watched the movie Cowspiracy in early 2015 and on top of all the other reading I’d been doing (The China Study by T Colin Campbell, Finding Ultra by Rich Roll, Thrive by Brendan Brazier) it dawned on me that here was the answer I’d been looking for. As a dad I’d been grappling with Ariana’s deep concern for her future in a world affected by climate breakdown and until then I’d felt powerless to offer her a real sense of possibility that the future could be better than our past. Once I realised that simply by changing my food choices I could dramatically and instantly reduce my environmental impact I was easily won over. The personal health benefits have been amazing for me too. I’ve lost weight that had previously stubbornly stuck around and I’ve got way more vitality than before. What I’ve been surprised by is how my whole mind and body feel more connected and harmonious. Gradually over the past two years I’ve been truly feeling more connected to my real self and to other people in a way that has made life richer and more enjoyable. Nice!
What would some typical ‘go-to’ foods or dishes be for you in a given day or week and why?
Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day and even if I only have 5 minutes to make it I love playing with different combos. Often I’ll make a smoothie bowl with frozen banana and berries and fresh turmeric and miso (it’s an awesome flavour booster). That’s the base, then on the sides I’ll chop up whatever fruit is good at the time, along with a sprinkle of ground nuts and dates plus other yummy toppings like carob powder. A classic go-to for me in the evening will be to start with a super-vital salad. I like to line a bowl with lettuce and dark greens like spinach and silverbeet, then add a topping of grated carrot and beetroot dressed with a pinch of salt and cider vinegar. Minced garlic and bean sprouts add real oomph, and I’m hooked on cashew parmesan as a topping, I’ve always got some made up in the pantry ready to go (raw cashews ground up with savoury yeast, garlic powder, salt and pepper).
What food and lifestyle choices do you make to try to benefit the environment?
My food choices are easily the biggest way I benefit our world - whole food, plant-based eating is the bomb in terms of that. I’ve also switched my views on what really makes life satisfying and I can confirm that it sure ain’t buying stuff I don’t need! Compared to a few years ago I probably consume about a quarter as much as I used to and I get way more enjoyment from connecting with great people than having the latest phone. Healthy soil is another big interest of mine and even in my flat in central Auckland I have a worm farm. All my veggie scraps (e.g. everything that comes out of my kitchen) go into it and come out the bottom ready to go on the neighbour's garden to revitalise their/our soil.
Other than food and nutrition, what do you do to build wellness into your lifestyle?
Connecting with people is the effortless answer to this one. I’m feeling totally blessed to have found my tribe this year and the rich deep wellness I’m experiencing from being around wonderful people is life changing. It’s what we’re all looking for deep down. The sense of belonging I’m experiencing feels amazing, and it leaves me wanting to take good care of myself because I feel worth knowing and worth spending time with. I love what Dr Libby says about this - food can be nutritious, but it’s people that are either healthy or not. It’s important to be closely connected to WHY we eat, and to know that we’re worth looking after. It becomes way easier to make good choices for ourselves when we have that.