Diana Chan, Malaysian winner of the latest MasterChef Australia, talks about the show and collaboration with Malaysia Airlines
When accountant Diana Chan took a shot at getting a spot on the ninth season of MasterChef Australia, it was a now-or-never decision for her. Little did the Malaysian know she would be crowned the winner!
“I have been following the show since Season One, and the only thing that held me back was that each year it got harder and harder. So, I was afraid of how embarrassing it would be if I failed on national television,” admits Chan. “With a little push from family, friends and my partner, though, I decided ‘You know what? Why not?’ I’m at a time in my life where I’m not married yet and have no children, and it’s probably the only time for me to do it. So I did it!”
The win was celebrated by Malaysians who follow the show – made sweeter by the fact that Chan is an actual Malaysian, not just one with a vague connection to relatives in the country. The Sitiawan-born, Johor Bahru-bred lass moved to Melbourne when she was 19 to study at Deakin University and has been a permanent resident there since securing a job at one of the top accounting firms in the world following her graduation.
Chan is still proud of her Malaysian as well as Peranakan roots. Being Peranakan, also known as Baba Nyonya or Straits Chinese with their own unique culture and traditions, influenced her love of food and cooking. Cutting her teeth on her mother’s Peranakan cooking was how Chan learnt the fundamentals of cooking.
“Preparing Nyonya dishes takes a lot of care, a lot of love and a lot of time. That’s how I learned how to prepare ingredients properly,” says Chan, who adds that she grew up in a household where both parents were (and probably still are) amazing cooks. “We were a typical Asian family, and the whole family would always be present for dinner and we’d talk about our day and our plans over an abundance of good food.”
Sounds like what it must have been like in the house she shared with the 23 other contestants from the show.
“The overall experience was incredible. It was beyond my expectations,” Chan says about being on MasterChef Australia. “You meet amazing chefs and get to cook in some of the world’s best restaurants and get training like no other. It was seven months of intensive training – I’ll probably never get to have this experience again where I lived with 23 other crazy foodies and we eat, sleep and breathe food. The experience was out of this world.”
The show itself was a pressure cooker. “It’s a lot of stress when you’re cooking, and the camera’s in your face and you can’t hide. And the producers always catch you at the wrong time!” Diana had her own way of getting around this, especially when she made a mistake during cooking. “If I burn something, I quickly hide it,” she reveals. “Or you just swear! If you swear, they don’t film you, as they’ll need to beep out your language!”
She learned a lot on the show, which apparently was more serious than what goes on air, but also not as depressing as some scenes might seem. “The judges are pushy and can be in your face, and they don’t show the harshest feedback on TV,” Chan divulges. “Of course, it’s constructive and all good. They also don’t show how the judges can be quite nurturing and will give you a pat on the back if you deserve it.”
Being on the show was also good for exploring alternatives in cooking and adapting to different situations. Says Chan, “It’s definitely not one of those shows where you go on to look pretty. They put you through some tough conditions like when we were in Japan and the challenge was on a rooftop – it was four degrees, and we were freezing.”
On the other side of the spectrum was when the contestants had to cook in rural Victoria: “We had to cook in the salt flats and you had to wear sunglasses because it was too bright, and it was hot and you were sweating.”
This was good, though extreme, training for Chan’s collaboration with Malaysia Airlines to create a dish for Malaysia’s national carrier. There are several challenges to preparing airline food, most notably how it tastes at high altitudes, how it looks, and the cost.
Chan plans to address these challenges by exploring her options. Her focus is in creating something flavourful that diners can make at home, so she is keeping it simple and utilising local, seasonal ingredients but without compromising taste.
“The challenge with inflight food is that you need to create food that travels well. The taste has to be more enhanced so it has to be a food that is jam-packed with flavour,” she explains.
Of course, the dish would have a Malaysian twist. For this, Chan looked at some of her childhood favourites as part of her inspiration. “With some, like the jiu hu char (stir-fried jicama), I think that can be done as an alternative to salad. Meanwhile, laksa (spicy noodle soup) may not travel well, but I can use the paste and use that flavour to create something else, like pair it with roast chicken. Just try to think outside the box, taking things that are true to your heart but just changing it a little bit to adapt to the situation.”
What does she think of Malaysia Airlines’ onboard hospitality and how does she plan to make it better? “The food is great – one of the best satays I’ve had in my life. And that’s a big call!”
Praising the excellent service, Chan does have a suggestion that calls for simplicity. “Sometimes, I think less is more – better to have two or three super-tasty items on a plate than having five items,” she suggests. This philosophy echoes her plans for her own restaurant someday – a philosophy we can look forward to while boarding a Malaysia Airlines flight when her dish starts getting served.
“Number one for me is taste, followed on par by freshness, while keeping my eye on its nutritional values,” says Chan. “Malaysians know when food doesn’t taste good, so you can’t serve them something that’s subpar. Thus, you can’t discount taste.”
*Business Class passengers can look forward to the Steamed Fillet of Garoupa with Asam Pedas sauce, specially curated by Diana Chan and Malaysia Airlines’ in-flight catering team, on selected flights from Kuala Lumpur to Australia and New Zealand. Passengers on selected flights from Australia to Kuala Lumpur will be served the special Tarragon and Lemon Roast Chicken with quinoa, roasted vegetables and classic gravy.