Picker's kitchen saviour

DRUNK, depressed and alone at Elliott Heads, Matthew McKenzie had no idea how much his life was about to change.

After moving to Bundaberg from country Victoria in an attempt to escape his demons, the former streetkid and drug addict spent 2006 in an alcoholic blur - picking just enough tomatoes, capsicums and zucchini to pay for his cheap casks of wine.

“I would spend all night on the beach, drinking a four-litre goon bag - I was oblivious,” Mr McKenzie said.

But a message that Jamie Oliver was looking for troubled youths for a cooking show was enough to kick him into reality.

“My mum tracked me down after my auntie saw the ad, and I decided to go for it,” Mr McKenzie said.

After hitch-hiking to Brisbane and scrounging money to get to Melbourne, Mr McKenzie beat 28,000 other disadvantaged youngsters to score a spot at Jamie Oliver's restaurant Fifteen.

The experience turned his life around and put a new career on the boil.

“We were at the airport to greet Jamie Oliver when he arrived and I was standing at the back thinking, ‘do I really deserve this?'” he said.

“I used to watch his show when I was a kid, and then cook dinner for my brothers while dad was getting drunk at the pub. So he was my idol.”

He said the celebrity chef was just as genuine in real life as he appeared on the show.

“He left me three powerful words, which I carry with me to this day - dream, believe, achieve,” Mr McKenzie said.

“It showed me how much you can do when someone says, ‘I believe in you'.

“He and (fellow celebrity chef) Tobie Puttock taught me so much about food and how to work in a kitchen.”

After graduating from Fifteen and TAFE in 2007, Mr McKenzie scored a job at Melbourne's three-hat restaurant Vue de Monde, then went on to work at Olympic medallist Steven Bradbury's restaurant in Japan.

When he returned to Brisbane, he was appointed head chef at Old Government House, where he has prepared amazing feasts for Australian Governor-General Quentin Bryce and Premier Anna Bligh among others.

He has gone on to film a pilot for his own cooking show, and create his own Gold Coast-based catering firm.

“We source specialty items from Italy and overseas, but a lot of our produce is local - including fruit and veg from Bundaberg,” he said.

“There is amazing produce in Bundaberg.”

But for the rising star of Australia's kitchens, the true taste of Bundaberg is not cane, rum or tomatoes.

“I caught a flathead when I was walking on the beach at Elliott Heads, and grilled it on the public barbecues. You couldn't get much better than that.”



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