One cool chef

Diana Chan drew on her par­ents’ culi­nary in­spi­ra­tions, and her Malaysian her­itage, to emerge as the lat­est Aus­tralian MasterChef.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By SUZANNE LAZAROO star2@thes­tar.com.my

THREE months after film­ing wrapped on the lat­est sea­son of MasterChef Aus­tralia, ac­coun­tant Diana Chan dis­cov­ered that she had won – at the same time that the rest of the world did!

The pop­u­lar cook­ing com­pe­ti­tion for am­a­teur chefs films two end­ings – so fi­nale con­tes­tants won’t have to carry the bur­den of such an ex­cit­ing se­cret for months – and Chan, 29, is still bask­ing in the glow of sur­prise and de­light al­most weeks later.

In the midst of 150 cheer­ing family, friends and well-wish­ers at her view­ing party in a lo­cal pub in Vic­to­ria, the 29-year-old Malaysian (she has Aus­tralian per­ma­nent res­i­dency) learned that her calm, or­gan­ised ap­proach in the kitchen, culi­nary ver­sa­til­ity and bold cel­e­bra­tion of the flavours of her na­tive coun­try had paid off – to the tune of an A$250,000 (RM852,262) prize.

But more than the prize it­self, it’s the im­mense love she’s feel­ing from so many quar­ters that has cur­rently sent her “over the moon”.

“I’m over­whelmed with hap­pi­ness!” she said, in an e-mail in­ter­view. “I have been in­un­dated with so much love and sup­port. It has been an in­cred­i­ble jour­ney, and I couldn’t have done it with­out the sup­port I re­ceived from my family, friends and fol­low­ers.”

Chan was born in Si­ti­awan, Perak, and moved to Johor Baru when she was three; she grew up drawing kitchen in­spi­ra­tion from her par­ents. Her mother’s forte has al­ways been Per­anakan food, fra­granced with herbs, each dish built on a strong foun­da­tion of cul­tural pride and history. “My dad enjoyed bar­be­cu­ing out­doors, and cook­ing Can­tonese food,” she said.

“My Malaysian her­itage has played such a big part in mould­ing my cook­ing style,” said Chan, who comes back to the coun­try of her birth at least once a year. She’s a foodie at heart, who rat­tles off a long list of favourite lo­cal dishes: “beef ren­dang, asam laksa, sa­tay, ikan bakar, wan­tan mee ... I mean, where does it end?!”

“But also, my par­ents are in­cred­i­ble, di­verse home cooks, and I was lucky to be brought up in a house­hold that loved meals that were fresh, healthy and de­li­ciously full of flavour.”

Al­though she was her mother’s kitchen shadow from the age of five, Chan was more helper than cook.

“I used to get odd jobs like peel­ing onions, pre­par­ing veg­eta­bles and mak­ing sam­bal bela­can from my mum,” she said. “I used to watch her bake, and was fas­ci­nated with all her cakes. And I also used to watch my dad pre­pare fresh seafood and learned how to clean and gut them.”

Then she moved to Mel­bourne when she was 19, to study Com­merce at Deakin Univer­sity. There, her for­ays to farm­ers’ mar­kets saw her fall­ing deeply in love with the fresh, or­ganic pro­duce avail­able.

There was soon no turn­ing back from her kitchen love af­fair. She de­vel­oped her own cook­ing style, which com­bined some of the hall­marks of her par­ents’ styles – her mother’s fresh, herb-driven ap­proach and her father’s love of seafood.

This style was un­der­scored by an im­pres­sive sense of or­gan­i­sa­tion in the kitchen, a qual­ity which was im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent to view­ers tun­ing in to watch the con­tes­tants bat­tle in the

MasterChef Aus­tralia kitchen.

Her me­thod­i­cal ap­proach al­lowed her to do things like make a ver­sion of asam fish in just 30 min­utes – def­i­nitely a feat for cook­ing this Per­anakan clas­sic!

And Chan’s com­po­sure was ap­par­ent even in the emo­tional mo­ments when things didn’t turn out ex­actly as she would have wished – like when He­ston Blu­men­thal took the top 12 on a Vic­to­rian road trip, and her dessert from the In­ven­tion Test turned out to be a lit­tle dis­jointed, send­ing her into an Elim­i­na­tion Test.

Chan and Sarah Tiong – whose par­ents are Malaysian, and who also did the coun­try proud with dishes show­cas­ing lo­cal flavours and in­spi­ra­tion – are both strong cooks, who went on to make their mark on the show.

“Sarah was my big­gest threat on the show,” said Chan. “We had sim­i­lar cook­ing styles and also shared a sim­i­lar pas­sion for our Malaysian her­itage. All 24 con­tes­tants got along ex­tremely well, but the closest (to me) would have to be Kar­lie (Verk­erk), El­iza (Wil­son) and Sarah. The four of us got along like a house on fire, and we are still very close.”

Look out for Chan in the semi-fi­nal episode, when she proved her ex­cel­lent grasp of tech­nique, and wowed judges and the au­di­ence alike.

Chan has grown as a per­son and a cook from be­ing on the show. “I have gained a great deal of knowl­edge, skills and tech­niques from the judges, and (learned so much) through all the chal­lenges we faced through­out the sea­son,” she said. “It has boosted my con­fi­dence in my cook­ing, and widened my un­der­stand­ing of flavours and ingredients.

“The whole ex­pe­ri­ence ex­ceeded my ex­pec­ta­tions,” she added. “Some of my high­lights? Meet­ing my food idol Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi, go­ing on the He­ston road trip, trav­el­ling to Ja­pan and just hav­ing ac­cess to some of the world’s most renowned chefs and kitchens.

“The team and service chal­lenges were hard, but still def­i­nitely some of my favourite chal­lenges – they’re ex­cit­ing, and show how well you work in a team sce­nario, how well you han­dle pres­sure.

“It was al­ways a goal to get to the end, but at the start of the com­pe­ti­tion it seemed so far away,” she added. “As I got to­wards the end, with about 10 con­tes­tants left, that’s when I started be­liev­ing that I ac­tu­ally had a shot at tak­ing the com­pe­ti­tion out!”

Chan says that she has been in­un­dated with amaz­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties in the early days of her win. “But my main fo­cus will be my food con­cept, a fresh ca­sual res­tau­rant that fo­cuses on whole­some and nour­ish­ing meals with fu­sion flavours,” she said.

“An­other op­por­tu­nity that has pre­sented it­self is to work on a project to­wards boost­ing tourism in Malaysia through a food and travel show.

“For now, I am still at Deloitte, but I will have to de­cide on my next step.”

Fol­low Diana’s jour­ney on MasterChef Aus­tralia S9 on Life­time (Astro Ch 709), Mon­days to Fri­days, 8pm and 11pm.

A study in calm, Chan was ruled by a pretty cool head through­out the com­pe­ti­tion.

All the con­tes­tants got along, but Chan was par­tic­u­larly close to Tiong (left), Verk­erk (right) and Wil­son (not pic­tured).

Pre­sent­ing her cre­ations to the judges.

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