Karen on ‘Kokkedoor’ winning: ‘I had to rise from the ashes’



This is how Karen Els describes herself in 2023. She easily admits today that she is a different woman than the one who earlier this year Kokkedoor Fire & Flame entered. The program changed her life, and although she still struggles with deep personal pain, she is proud of the upheaval that has taken place in her life.

It was the first day in the cook door-store, but for 46-year-old Karen van Malmesbury it was also the beginning of a new phase in her life. She had already recorded her first diary entry for the program when she found out that her husband had sued her for a divorce. Even before she herself could properly comprehend what was happening, she had to bare her heart in front of the camera about the fact.

“I called the cameraman back and told him to start shooting. I knew that by the time the program aired, I would be a divorced woman,” Karen told RNews. She is proud, but still gets moved when she thinks about this period in her life. She still loves her ex-husband, she admits with tears in her eyes, but her determination to struggle through the hurt stands like a pole above water. After all, this is how she also tackled the competition.

Today she considers Kokkedoor Fire & Flame as a beacon of victory and especially healing in her life. If it weren’t for her fellow participants, the waters of hurt and recovery would have been much deeper, she says.

“My turning point came in Struisbaai. One does not always get the opportunity to have a big, drastic turning point in their life – I did,” she says.

People still ask her today if the tears she shed so easily during the show’s taping were real. Her answer to this remains undoubtedly yes. The tears flowed easily, but she was never shy about smiling. Today she confesses that this smile often served as a shield behind which she hid her pain, and that she often cried in the evenings.

However, giving up her positivity for disappointment, sadness and anger was something she was not willing to do.

At one stage of the competition, she realized that she had nothing to return to, and that she could not afford to forfeit the chance she had to win the competition now.

“I don’t have a house, I don’t have a job, I don’t have a husband. I knew I had to get out and show. That was my driving force. It happened now, I had to decide what I was going to do – either you go in sacks and ashes, or you go to fight.”

It was a year of change of heart for Karen, and another one of those changes took place in the competition. She one day at the cook door-walked into the store and people could tell almost immediately that something was brewing in her heart. She had a dream the night before that gave her a brand new outlook on the challenges that lay before her.

“I dreamed about pitch-black ashes, and it was as if I was lying under those ashes. I was like a phoenix rising from the ashes. It made me realize that this is a choice that we women have to make – are we going to allow circumstances to get us down, or are we going to rise from the ashes like that phoenix?”

She remembers how a stranger walked up to her years ago and said that there was the number 23 hanging above her head. At first she thought nothing of this, but ever since then she wondered what this message meant. When the 23rd of each month rolled by, she remembered what that number might mean in her life.

At the end of 2022, it was Karen’s daughter who made her aware that this year will most likely be life-changing for her.

“To be honest, I thought that I was either going to die, or that something massive was going to happen in my life. And 2023 was then death and birth. Everything that was wrong in my life died, and so many blessings came my way.”

One of those blessings was Karen’s fellow grillers, especially Gert, with whom she eventually won the competition. The friendship that developed between these two food lovers is particularly precious to her.

She remembers how Gert told her after their first challenge together that they could win it. Little did she know that he was actually simply referring to the next challenge in the competition. It was clear to her, they could win the competition.

Before the final challenge was to take place, they carefully made lists all night, jotted down plans and went on to talk about exactly what would happen the next day.

“The handover of the trophy took place at two o’clock in the morning before the cook door-save took place,” she recalls.

Still, when she looks back on that day, she doesn’t remember the fatigue or hard work. She remembers the teamwork, and the unwavering faith she and Gert had in each other to see the competition through to the end.

She becomes moved and quiet when she thinks about the version of herself that still existed at the beginning of 2023. For that woman, she has the world’s respect.

“You are stronger than you think you are,” are the words Karen would say to herself today.

At the end of the day, after everything she has been through this year, Karen considers 2023 to be a year of gratitude and joy.

Kokkedoor Fire & Flame was fat fun. Money or not, I thoroughly enjoyed myself – and that’s all that matters.”