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.