HER time on My Kitchen Rules may have been cut short last night, but for Mackay lawyer Della Whearty, she's only just starting her foodie dream right here in her hometown.
The Daily Mercury caught up with Della at home in Mackay, where she whipped up a Thai beef salad in her home kitchen and talked about the past six months of her My Kitchen Rules journey.
Dinner parties with Della
Della's friends are her "guinea pigs" with all the different dishes she tries in her kitchen, but like on the show, at home she likes to stick to "mostly Asian fusion stuff".
"I like to put miso on meats, a lot of vegies, fancy desserts and I try ice creams as well," she says.
"I've had a few people wanting the dishes we cooked on the show. I've made the barbecue prawns we won in the beach challenge a few times, I've done some of the other contestants' dishes as well.
"I came home the other day and made Court and Duncan's venison with blackberries because it was so delicious and the cookbook is out now, so I made Val and Courtney's curry the other day and we all learnt a lot from each other."
Support from family and friends
BURP played host to a viewing party for Della and Tully's ultimate instant restaurant round, with 180 people cheering on the Mackay favourite.
"We were in Malta for two weeks it was on too; there were 38 of us Muscats from Mackay over there watching it, that was a bit surreal," Della says.
"The rellies don't know the show in Malta but they were excited all the same.
"It's weird, we've had people write to us watching from Kazakhstan, Russia, Ireland, London... lots of Indian girls think I'm their poster girl for curvy girls," she laughed.
"It was like an insult wrapped in a cuddle."
With Della being one of the few contestant who regularly stood up to Josh, aka the "Seafood King" and all-round villain of the series, she says the last few episodes were "a bit tough to watch".
"I thought maybe I looked a little bit mean," she says.
"But I think what people need to realise is that was at the pointy end of filming, I'd been away from home for nearly five months and listening to that guy repeat himself time and time again I just got really sick of it.
"I was a bit tired of it. So it looked a little bit meany, which I didn't like."
When reality takes its toll
Della sighs when she talks about the ultimate instant restaurants, which she says "were really hard" with dinner parties that went for hours and cooking two different dishes for each of the three courses for 12 or so people at a time.
"The mere production factor took so long so you know it was difficult sometimes ... like 'I've gotta spend a whole day and night with you again...'," she laughs.
"And they sometimes went to 4 or 5 in the morning, sometimes later and you got there probably 2 in the afternoon so it's a big, big day.
"And you know, when the food's not great or you've waited a really long time for it and you're hungry and I was always quite drunk because there wasn't much else to do..." she laughs.
"But it was loads of fun."
So was it all harder than she thought it'd be?
"It's a tough experience," Della says.
"I say to people 'I'm a lawyer in Mackay, it's not a stress-free family life all the time. I had a newborn who didn't sleep til she was three, I'm good at this multi-tasking, no sleep bizzo but... holy hell, it's really, really difficult.
"The one thing you don't factor in is being away from your family, away from your support group and competing with adults in a game."
So did she expect to make it as far as they did?
"I think the ultimates was when it was first obvious. Tully and my first goal was 'don't be the first eliminated'. Then we stuffed up the first time and then literally it was 'get through every cook'.
"We didn't have a game plan; the reason we went into it was to have fun.
"I love food, Tully loves to have fun; the show gives you both so we didn't probably think about how difficult it would be.
"We thought we'd get to go around the country and wear cool clothes and meet chefs and cook food and make friends.
"We didn't think about it being a reality show, it's the number one rated reality show in the country, it's a massive production and you're just a puppet," she laughs.
"There were some days where it was everything we thought it'd be but other days where we thought it was the hardest thing I've ever had to do."
Della says My Kitchen Rules taught her a lot she didn't know about herself.
"I underestimated myself a lot, missed home a lot, (I wish I could say to myself back then) 'keep it in perspective'," she said.
"When you were having a hard day you just couldn't see anything else in that show, you got really tunnel-visioned.
"You're put up in Sydney, you're away from everybody and (if I could do things differently) I would try not to be so worried about the games other people are playing, and cook more simple food."
She said the idea of cooking for a dozen people didn't scare her at all, as she had done it plenty of times before.
"But you forget that there'll be cameras in your house, and the food producer standing there," Della says.
"If people ask 'would you do it again' it's hard to say either way. But I think it's better to regret something in life that you didn't do.
"I don't regret it at all, it's just... it was hard."
Her friendship with Tully
Despite the stories appearing in women's magazines recently, rumours that there's been a feud between Della and Tully are "an absolute farce," Della says.
"It's so disappointing they try to do stuff like that; if anything the show has brought us closer together," she says.
"It was hard at the time, but the reality is we're both mature, we knew filming a reality show would have its moments but we're definitely closer now."
The pair met when Tully - real name Sarah Tully - was working as a nurse, and mutual friends told them they had to meet each other.
"By chance we were at Simon's Wok Inn one night with our friends and we ended up meeting," Della recalls.
"We spent so much time together in the early days, within a couple of weekends we were in each other's pockets."
While the only thing the pair did around food back then was "eat a lot", on occasion they'd get in the kitchen at dinner parties at Della's house and bounce off each other.
When Della decided to apply for My Kitchen Rules, the decision on who'd be her partner was a no brainer.
"I thought 'I need someone who levels me out, that I can have fun with, that likes food and can cook'... Tully ticked all the boxes. She definitely kept me calm in the show," Della says.
"I tend to be a perfectionist which can be a problem in a high-stress environment and she was really good for that."
On Mackay's food scene
Della says living in Mackay is a haven for good food, if you know where to look.
"There's young emerging food talent which is really exciting," she says. "You see Justin the head chef at BURP really taking the reins, and Kristy Borg from K&Co and Curb and 9th Lane Grind, I went there for lunch the other day and it was beautiful.
"I think the difficult thing in Mackay is you have to really seek it out, we're not lucky enough to have a strip or place but if you drive out to Church on Palmer or the Italian place out at Pinnacle... there's lots of hidden gems around the place which I like."
So now her time on the show has wrapped up, will we see Della open her own restaurant or café in Mackay sometime soon?
"I think there's definitely a market for something in the middle. You have Indian and Thai and Italian places, I think a low-key modern Australian place would be really fun," she says.
"I don't think I'm interested in a restaurant but I'm looking into holding cooking classes and more of a 'bring your mates', a work team building exercise or hen's nights where you can have a laugh, have a wine, cook some good food...
"I think that's kind of what Tully and I have been recognised for most on the show and what I'm most proud of, is that we do it and we have fun."
As a regular visitor to Eat Street at Harrup Park, Della says a food truck would be fun to take on.
"Adrian (Connors of BURP) and I are looking at teaming up and doing something for Food & Wine, he's been a great mentor and foodie friend," she says.
"Through the show I asked him you know 'I want to put this with this, is that too crazy?' and he'd be like 'no, but watch your time', so he was a really good sounding board and to collaborate with them would be really fun. What they've done for the Mackay food scene is really great; it's introduced a lot of Mackay locals to a taste of the city."
But she says regardless of what steps she takes food wise, she's not ready to give up being a lawyer.
"I love my legal career and I love working in Mackay and I've been really lucky to have good in-house roles which I enjoy in private practice and I'm back to doing that now," Della says.
"I'd love to do something casually on the side around food, looking at blogs, cooking classes while still doing law. That's the perfect balance for me."
So what advice would Della give to people who haven't cooked before?
"I think the thing is it's really not as hard as it looks," she says. "That's why I like Asian food. Growing up in a Maltese/Italian family we ate a lot of that sort of food; Dad and I would go out and try a lot of Asian, Thai, Chinese food and when I went to uni at the Gold Coast it was everywhere so I wanted to recreate it so I started reading cook books.
"I think the problem now is, with food now they make it look so amazing the pictures people think they can't do it."
The trick she's learnt is you need to have a good store cupboard stocked and ready to go.
"If you've got three veggies and a piece of meat and a good store cupboard, you've got a beautiful meal," Della says. "Some wasabi paste in the cupboard, mayonnaise in the fridge, miso, vegies, you're done.
"There's no secret; it's letting things rest, being comfortable with things taking their time and not overdoing it."
So what's her go-to dish when she's a little short on time?
"Because I am so busy, a Thai beef salad is perfect. Bit of sugar and oyster sauce on there, cook it on the grill plate, have all the vegies chopped and ready, make a dressing and it's done," she says.
"I think a lot of it did come from being a busy person, learning to cook. Because I'm massive for flavour and because I didn't have much time, I thought 'how do I get bang for my buck in time here' and that's exactly how I learnt to cook."
While she says Ed Sheeran and Jamie Oliver would be her dream people to cook for, one fan she really wants to win over is her three-year-old daughter, Harvie.
"She's got a culinary mum, but her favourite meal is probably chicken nuggets and chips," Della laughs.
"So that's a work in progress, if I can cook a meal that impresses Harvie then I've done a good job. I had some broccoli soup the other day which she actually ate and I swear she'd just won a million dollars for me; I was so excited."
She laughs as she recalls making chicken nuggets from scratch one day and they were a hit, so she proceeded to make a thousand of them and froze them in snack-size portions in snaplock bags.
The next day, Harvey decided she didn't like her mum's nuggets after all.
"So I ate chicken nuggets quite regularly... I'd come home from a few too many drinks up town and me and my friends would eat these chicken nuggets because I had a whole freezer full," she laughs.
"I'm always cooking different foods and offering it to her and she goes 'nup Mum'. My goal is for us to one day go to the markets together and then cook together; I'll persist until she gives in just to shut me up."
Della and Tully were eliminated last night in a sudden death cook-off between mother and daughter pair, Valerie and Courtney.
While it was disappointing to not reach the semi-finals, Della says it was fantastic they went out on such a high note.
"The challenge was 'right your wrongs' and Pete and Manu chose a dish we had flunked on and we had to improve it; so of course they picked the quail for Tully and I from our first instant restaurant," Della says.
"Ironically, the couscous was good on the night and the quail was bad on our first one. This time, the quail was perfect, we changed the dish around, they loved what we did but in my rush I put too much dressing in the couscous and it was soggy.
"Small error. They loved the dish, loved the quail but the couscous sent us to sudden death."
Last night was the first time throughout the competition the pair faced sudden death.
"That was really hard; we'd avoided sudden death and fought our way, got to the top six and we thought 'we could do this'," she says.
"Tim and Kyle had been to sudden death, Amy and Tyson had been to sudden death so we were stacking up as good odds (to win)."
Della says making it to the semi-finals was her goal from the beginning.
"Well obviously you dream you can win it but I thought to get to the semis; people remember those teams really well," she says.
"We both did really well, produced killer dishes, Pete and Manu said they didn't want to make the decision and it was really hard.
"But having said that, I'm really proud to go out on our best. And if someone's best beats your best, it's a fair fight.
"It would've been worse to go out and say 'we did so bad' ... it's hard to be upset. Pete said it was two 10/10 dishes so, how do you pick?"
The girls cooked Della's signature dish and the one they auditioned with for the show: a miso-crusted wagyu fillet with tempura vegies, two dipping sauces and bone marrow.
"We kept that up our sleeve the whole competition," she says.
"The minute they said we were in sudden death, Val and Courtney tossed and turned about what to cook but we knew right away and thought yep let's do it.
"We've made that dish for friends, I can't wait to see friends' reactions who say 'I've eaten that dish at Della's house!'"
Judge Pete Evans told the pair it was a grand final worthy dish, which was "kind of a hard pill to swallow" for Della.
"But to go out to such a lovely team, a mother and daughter duo from Queensland, it felt right and we were really proud of ourselves and it was really great to go out like that," she says.
"We had a really tough day in the kitchen, I was missing Harvie so much, I hadn't seen her in weeks ... and when they said sudden death was Della and Tully I just cried instantly. I knew we were done.
"I was really nervous, I couldn't talk."
Della says the well wishes and support she'd received from Mackay fans has been what she's loved the most out of the whole MKR experience.
"It's been the most beautiful thing to go through, people are always messaging me.
"And (I want to) apologise to Mackay that we didn't cook in Mackay because that wasn't what I wanted. Every chance I got I talked Mackay up on the filming.
"I'm sorry I didn't win. I wanted to be the first Mackay contestant to take the prize out and I'm sorry I didn't, but I gave it my best shot and hopefully people can see that.
"My food dream isn't over yet, Mackay's where it's at for me and I'm not going anywhere so keep your eyes peeled for some cool things down the track."