As the MasterChef phenomenon cranks up again, sweeping all before it, Peter Wilmoth caught up with Adam Liaw to see what winning the competition does to you.

Masterchef to Mr Chef

11:12:AM 13/05/2011
Peter Wilmoth

Adam Liaw
Adam Liaw
You may have noticed it’s back. That’s right, it’s impossible to take that first taste of a meal – any meal – without imagining Matt Preston, with a fork in his hand, rolling the morsel around in his mouth and then looking ominously, wordlessly, up at you. Or George Calombaris chopping one hand into another and rocking back and forth on his heels and saying “bewdiful”. Or Gary Mehigan, head held up with that British Empire confidence, ring-mastering the master chefs.

It’s the stuff of moist dreams for television programmers – MasterChef’s opener pulled 1.57 million viewers. The circus is back in town. Everything else on TV for the next few months will just have to shiver in this show’s shadow. The master, it seems, still rules.

But what happens after the cheering stops, when there are no more reaction shots from the judges or pressure tests or appearances on the cover of New Idea? What happens when you leave the bubble that is MasterChef and re-enter the real world? What happens after you’ve been part of a television and cultural phenomenon? What happens when you’ve been “Adam from MasterChef” for more than a year and then you manage to reclaim your second name if not your anonymity? How would it change your life?

“In every possible way,” says Adam Liaw, fresh from a photo shoot and about to head into 774 ABC Melbourne for The Conversation Hour with Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan. “I (now) do a different thing (from being a lawyer) every day. I live in a different country. I’ve released a book rather than editing texts on legal contracts.”

And, for a modest and softly spoken man, the fame as the winner of last year’s MasterChef hasn’t always sat well. “I go out less than I used to,” he says. “I don’t think it’s the greatest feeling in the world having everyone in a room staring at you or talking about you. It’s never negative. I don’t get hassled when I go out, but I’m a pretty private person generally. Sometimes I feel like going out with people who don’t treat me like I’m Adam from MasterChef.”

The result of the book deal that was part of the MasterChef prize is Two Asian Kitchens, Liaw’s travels through what he calls “The Old Kitchen” (“hawker noodle dishes, Japanese yakitori, creamy coconut laksa … the dishes of my history”) and “The New Kitchen” (“modern dishes that draw on the memorable flavours and experiences of my own life”).

It is a superb volume, with stories of how Liaw came to his passion for cooking and how food had such strong echoes of his childhood and early cooking experiences.

Liaw’s father is Hainanese Chinese from Malaysia; his mother is Singaporean-born with English, French and Indonesian heritage. Laiw was born in Penang and grew up in South Australia before working in Japan, China and India. With access to so many rich and varied cultures and cookery traditions, it is little wonder that Liaw has such a fascination about food and identity.

“That same plate of chicken made by my grandmother also tells the story of my grandfather’s migration to Malaysia from Hainan Island off the southern coast of China,” he writes. “He was part of a wave of Hainanese migrants who sparked a period of intense innovation in Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine. The cuisine they developed knitted together the available local produce, the tastes of their British employers, their own culinary backgrounds and the culture of the region.”

Liaw grew up in the Adelaide Hills in a blended family of eight – a mixture of siblings, half-siblings and step-siblings, including an adopted sister. His mother remarried when Liaw was eight. The house had a Brady Bunch feel about it.

“From a food perspective it was great because they were a very traditional English family, so it was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding one night and then stir-fries and curry chicken the next,” Liaw says. “It gave us all a strong appreciation for different types of food.”

Young Adam would help in the kitchen and at eight was cooking by himself. The first recipe he wrote was called Scrumptious Banana for a year 7 project. “I remember it very clearly. It was a kind of Malaysian-style banana fritter, with vanilla and some other things going on. I think we were doing a week learning about bananas. We would help out mum taking turns cooking the family meal once a month.”

The food was East or West, depending who was in the kitchen. “Mum is English, she grew up in Singapore so the food she cooks and likes to eat is very Singaporean.” The man who became his step-father is English.

“My step-brother was thinking of becoming a chef at one point, so he would try and make these French fine-dining meals. My brother is a carnivore, so he would make these hearty beef stews. Everyone had their own style of cooking from a very young age. I had no idea. I just tried everything.”

At eight Liaw cooked his first family meal, orange glazed chicken, and a lot of it. “It was almost like catering when you’re serving that many people, big racks of chicken going into the oven.”

He didn’t really have cooking heroes growing up. “In the early ’80s (in Australia) you could list the five to 10 celebrity chefs who were on TV – Ian Parmenter, Peter Russell-Clarke, Geoff Jansz, Gabriel Gaté, Huey … Back in those days there weren’t chef heroes. There were guys you liked. I remember chefs like Nick Nairn and Rick Stein … The really impressive shows were the ones coming out of the UK.”

At 14, Liaw’s mother moved to New Zealand with his step-father and the two youngest children. Liaw stayed in Adelaide to finish school, moving in with his grandmother, who spent half the year in Malaysia. “For six months of the year I’d be pottering around by myself in the kitchen and having to make all my own meals,” he says. “That’s when it became every day rather than special-occasion cooking.”

Did he cope? “It was fine. It was a big change going from eight people and having to line up to go to the bathroom in the morning to having a big five-bedroom house that you’re running around in by yourself.”

Was he lonely? “I was pretty independent, but at that age when you watch a scary movie you sleep with the lights on. I had an extended family and they would drop in care packages. I’d catch the bus home together from school with friends, hang out, play computer games, whatever kids do.

“I think it’s a good thing for a kid to go through. You’re too young to get into any real trouble – well, maybe not these days – I wasn’t running riot … but I guess old enough to learn some life skills and skills in the kitchen, which I’m very grateful for now.”

The teachers watched after him a bit, knowing he lived alone. “I had a good relationship with teachers. I was doing a cooking demonstration in Adelaide last week and my year 9 and 10 teacher was there and we had a chat.”

Liaw was living in Tokyo with his girlfriend and working as a lawyer when he heard about MasterChef.

“Friends were telling me about the show and how much they enjoyed it,” he says. “One day sitting at work I filled out my application, put it in and forgot about it.” While on holiday in Cuba he received emails inviting him to audition, but ignored it. In Paris on his way back to Japan, he sent an email saying he’d missed an audition and asked whether there was another.

“There was one in Sydney that weekend. It was a long weekend in Tokyo and there were very cheap flights to Australia.” He flew back for the first of four auditions.

When he kept doing well at the auditions he left his job and headed back to Australia. The rest, as the millions of us who watched the show know, is history.

His timing, as a food star, is perfect. “It’s almost a surprise that (cooking) hasn’t been more popular. It has become more of an art form. It used to be about sustenance. It’s evolved artistically in the same way music and fashion did.

“I read an article by David Chang, one of my favourite chefs, saying he doesn’t think that chefs are the new rock stars, they’re more fashion designers, breaking new ground, creating new things, looking at things differently. It’s such a technical field, cooking, that to apply that technical ability and creativity is a very rare thing, so those great chefs that can do that deserve the credit they’re getting at the moment.”

MasterChef’s popularity with children is “by far” what Liaw is most proud of – “the response you see from kids who are appreciating good food and appreciating it from an environmental standpoint, a health standpoint, a taste standpoint”.

“It just says good things about the future of Australia and the way Australians are going to eat, and I think that’s fantastic,” he says.

He is concerned about the levels of obesity in Australia. “Obviously a child’s health is a parent’s responsibility, but I think there are broader society issues at play as well. Supermarkets need to stock more fresh, healthy food and people need to be able to understand they can make something healthy as easily and cheaply as they can go to fast food. I think that’s where MasterChef plays a part. It shows kids that going and eating a fast-food hamburger every day after school isn’t the be all and end all.

“The commercialisation of food and (of) MasterChef does get a bad rap but I think if you see what some of the supermarket chains are doing in now sticking (to) healthier food and healthier options, it’s incrementally a good thing.”

Another celebrity chef, Curtis Stone, who has a strong commercial relationship with Coles supermarkets, told me last year that he appreciates the opportunity to have an influence inside the tent. “Absolutely my belief as well,” Liaw says. “I wouldn’t rule out working with any company. There’s food snobbishness, and that doesn’t help anyone. Anything you can do to help people eat better is a good thing.”

He is still in regular contact with several MasterChef contestants. “It would be on a daily basis. Probably the people I see the most would be Aaron, Jonathan, Matthew, Marion, Callum, Courtney,” he says.

“One of the great things about MasterChef, at least in our season, was that they never actively pitted one person against another. The competitiveness stemmed from everyone trying to do their best rather than hoping the person next to them would fail, so it was a really positive environment.”

He admires the “molecular gastronomy” style of chef Heston Blumenthal with all its test tubes and chemistry-set instruments. It is, he says, not just about the food, but a sense of occasion.

“That kind of molecular gastronomy has a place. I find it fascinating, especially in the way that Heston does it. He does those kinds of things for a very specific effect, not just for the academic aspect of, ‘Look what I can do with this ingredient’. He says, ‘Look what I can do with this ingredient to create this feeling in my diner’. His food is fantastic, I’ve eaten it, but he goes that step further to create this wonderful dining experience.”

Is it worth paying $400 a head for dinner? “Absolutely. You’re not just getting food at that point. You’re getting a whole experience. I know people who have eaten at The Fat Duck (near London) and those kinds of experiences, to people who would appreciate them, people would remember for longer than they would the 10 $40 meals you would otherwise go out for.”

While in Melbourne, Liaw wants to try the food at Ben Shewry’s Attica in Ripponlea, which keeps receiving huge gongs as one of the world’s top restaurants, and Adam d’Sylva’s Coda in the city. He’s likely to dine at the Flower Drum, where he recently worked for a few weeks in the kitchen as part of the MasterChef prize: “I’d like to go to the Flower Drum to eat as a guest rather than tasting food in the kitchen.” He’s going to Japan soon to do a similar gig.

Does he miss law? “A bit. I still have a lot of contracts to read. And I’m thinking of doing some lecturing at a couple of Sydney universities on media law.”

Liaw has plans, with a couple of old friends, for a restaurant. “Years ago we were talking about opening a place in Australia,” he says. “I was going to be a director of the company and they would do the restaurant side. Now, post-MasterChef, it seems a good time to put those plans into effect.”

After all this talk about food and molecular gastronomy and after enjoying his book, I wanted to ask Liaw about the best meal he’d ever had.

“That’s the great thing about food. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get those great experiences. Some of the best meals I’ve had … there was a plate of pasta I remember from an island in Croatia that I still think about very fondly – a very simple seafood pasta. And another very simple seafood pasta on an island called Burano near Venice, vongole pasta. A salami and cheese sandwich I had after climbing a mountain. That’s the relationship between food and atmosphere. If you love food, you think about experiences through food. I’ve eaten a thousand sandwiches since my salami and cheese sandwich in the Flinders Ranges, but I still remember that one.”

» Two Asian Kitchens by Adam Liaw is published by Ebury Press at $49.95

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