A former model with matinee idol good looks, New Zealander Ross Burden quickly made his mark when he popped up in London in his late 20s. A chef at heart, he first appeared on Britain’s daytime TV Masterchef programme in 1993, hosted by Fern Britton, where he reached the final and his telegenic charm began getting him more fan mail than Britton. He would later become sidekick to the show’s second presenter, Ainsley Harriott, and together the two men produced several best-selling cookery books.
With his “raven-haired” looks, charm and “exotic” accent, Burden was to British TV cuisine programmes in the 1990s something akin to what the Italian Gino D’Acampo is today. Friends say his adjectives were more like those of Gordon Ramsay, although Burden ensured they were deleted before broadcast or “beeped” if live.
He may not have been one of the first TV chefs but Burden was certainly one of the first celeb chefs. Just as Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, the Hairy Bikers and the Two Fat Ladies did later, Burden travelled the UK as something of a one-man cooking circus.
Residents of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides flocked to the island’s Carinish Hall in July 2004 to observe this phenomenon. Burden was smart enough not to tell the islanders how to cook. His aim was to promote local produce and help launch the Outer Hebrides Speciality Food Producers Association, formed by the charity Urachadh Uibhist (Revitalising Uist) to outline the Outer Hebrides’ wide range of local, quality foods – not just the islands’ world-renowned fish and seafood. Burden was also one of the first TV chefs to advocate seasonal produce, particularly in Britain, questioning why we buy certain fruit or vegetables throughout the year when they are out of season and artificially preserved. He reflected this passion in his recipes.
“I remember the two weeks in the year when I could pick and eat my granny’s raspberries and how much sweeter they tasted after a waiting a tantalising 50 weeks to eat them,” he said.
Having carved a career and fame in the UK, in 2010, Burden was virtually abducted back to New Zealand by the producers to be a judge on their version of Masterchef, which he presented until leukaemia struck him down last year. He died suddenly while receiving cancer treatment, even as he was mapping out to his friends and family plans for his next projects.
During his career in the UK, Burden’s TV fame won him several well-known private clients for catering events, including Princess Anne and the actress Joan Collins, and he went on to set up his own catering company, serving fine food to the rich, famous or royal.
Joan Collins joined him in a healthy eating video, which helped win him a tabloid title as one of the UK’s most eligible bachelors -- once described as “the tastiest man in Britain”.
Casting off his kitchen apron, he fronted TV documentaries, notably about wildlife – one of his passions – including for the National Geographic channel and for columns in the News of the World. He said growing up on the New Zealand coastline around Napier stirred his interest in the natural world and pushed him towards a degree in zoology. He became a passionate supporter of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature and a fundraiser for the fight against breast cancer.
As a celebrity chef, he was also filmed sky-diving over the Nevada desert, was winked at by Anne Robinson when he was a contestant on The Weakest Link and was told by Simon Cowell to stick to his day job after appearing as a trio with two other chefs on the X Factor. He was also very much what New Zealanders call an “outdoorsman”, travelling widely around Asia and enjoying shooting and scuba diving.
But he was fascinated by history, loved opera, taught himself Italian, French and the native New Zealanders’ Maori, and became a passionate philatelist.
Ross Kelvin Burden was born in 1968, in Taradale, in the heart of the vineyard region near Napier on Hawke’s Bay, North Island, to Kelvin Burden and his wife Anne. As a teenager, his looks and physique won him assignments as a model, which helped pay his way through university. For reasons unknown, he became known to all as CJ, which stuck throughout his life.
His sister Kirsten Hughes said her brother had been diagnosed with a form of leukaemia in July last year and had contracted an infection after undergoing a bone marrow transplant. He had been working as a waiter at Auckland’s famous Sails restaurant to help pay his bills.
His death led to tweets and blogs from New Zealand, the UK and beyond. “You lit up a room when you walked in; you sparkled your way through life and it has been such a pleasure to know you,” said one.
“What a huge loss for the world. I’ll miss our lunches and fabulous chats, your wicked sense of humour, optimism and massive intellect,” said another. A clearly close friend wrote: “My beloved, adored CJ, you have left me silently, without waiting for me to come home to you. What fun we had – 7-hour lunches, too much wine, talking too long, telling each other terrible jokes, exchanging likes and tall stories. Soar high and fly free, unshackled, and continue your travelling of the Universe and beyond. The world is now minus one big huge sparkling diamond.”
Ross Burden is survived by his mother Anne, his sister Kirsten and extended family.