Accountants don’t often grow up wanting to become chefs, and even less find themselves entering an intense and much watched cooking competition and emerge victorious. Unless you’re Diana Chan, a name few Malaysians – apart from family and friends – would have recognized barely a year ago. Now, we’re all curious about this lady from Johor, who floored the competition during the ninth season of MasterChef Australia, so we conducted an e-mail interview with Diana to get to know her a little better.
Growing up in Johor, Diana was used to helping her parents in the kitchen. “I was cheap labour for my parents. Joking! It was great. At a very young age, I was exposed to cooking and was taught about the provenance of food. We had a herb garden and used herbs in a lot of the cooking.
“I was always asked to peel onions or garlic, remove the tails of the beansprouts (this still haunts me), pound paste from scratch and clean seafood.” Diana is grateful as these seemingly menial kitchen tasks and duties taught her the basic fundamentals of cooking, which helped her cook for herself when she moved out of the family home.
The first proper dish she was allowed to make was spaghetti bolognaise, but Diana only truly started cooking proper meals for herself when she moved to Australia for her tertiary education at the age of 19. “I couldn’t afford to eat out a lot as a uni student so I decided to buy fresh produce from the markets once a week and cooked a lot at home.” The discovery of farmers markets led her developing a cooking style that combined Australian produce, her mother’s fresh, herb-driven approach, and her father’s love of seafood. Diana’s personal favourite twist on a Malaysian classic is one she made in round two on the MasterChef Grand Finale – oatmeal prawns. “I wanted to showcase my heritage, but in a modern way.”
Joining the competition
After four years as an accountant, Diana wanted to take her passion for cooking one step further and decided to try out for MasterChef. “I thought why not. I’m at the point in my life where I have less commitments, I have a supportive employer and it will be harder for me to do it once I start a family. My boyfriend had pushed me to joined and so I did. I didn’t think I would get called for an audition let alone take the whole competition out.” But was it everything she expected it to be? “MasterChef definitely exceeded my expectations. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I thoroughly had fun and enjoyed myself.”
And even though accounting and cooking seem like careers on the opposite ends of the spectrum, her nine-to-five made a significant impact in the MasterChef kitchen. “The skills and experience I gained from being an accountant prepared me to handle and deal with different situations professionally, timely and methodically. I think when you work in a big firm it teaches you to work in different situations and with different people, especially when we work in teams and it’s translatable to when we had team challenges on MasterChef.”
Diana’s tips for balancing work and cooking
Diana still works full time as an accountant and applies the same organized methods she brought to the MasterChef kitchen to her own home cooking, “I think when you work full time, you need to plan your meals.
So how does she balance working and making meals? “I would generally have a big cook up over the weekend and freeze my food into individual portions, or I would make something quick and easy for midweek dinners. Usually on weekdays I would mix it up by having a curry on one day, a hearty salad the next, a stew or soup in winter, stir fries as they are easy to whip up and maybe a simple grilled chicken over the bbq with a salad and some roasted vegetables.”
The weekends are when she goes all out. “I go to the market and get inspired by the seasonal produce. I’d do a big shop and cook multiple dishes and freeze them. I will cook something more time consuming like laksa, curries, stews, slow cooked food and roasts.” Her most requested dish during gatherings with family and friends is her crispy pork belly with sticky sauce, pickles and wasabi mayo. “It was the dish that got me into the competition and a real crowd pleaser.”
But not everything she makes goes well. When asked if she’s ever created a dish or recipe that failed, Diana honest replies, “Yes. All the time. Recipes are a guide. To understand the recipe you need to understand the crux of the dish and what the process is. This is why you need to try and test a recipe to make sure it works.”
Future culinary adventures
So, now that Diana’s won MasterChef Australia, do her family and friends ask her to cook for them more often? “Yes and no. They understand that I have been busy since winning and are respectful of my time. I still love to entertain and don’t mind cooking for my friends and family whenever I can.” When she’s back in Malaysia though, she likes to eat out as much as she can to get inspiration for her cooking.
Asking if she has some words of advice for someone who wants to get into cooking, Diana responds, “Go for it! Don’t be afraid to give things a try. Cooking is much like anything else. If you keep at it, you will get better. It will come naturally and before you know it you will start surprising yourself with what you can create. Also, let the ingredients speak for themselves. The best meals come from using the best and freshest ingredients available.”
What can we expect from Diana next on her your culinary adventure? “I’m keen to explore showcasing the amazing food and culture of Malaysia. I would love to keep travelling and exploring new ideas.” She is also working towards her food concept next year, and we just can’t wait to see what she has up her sleeve!
Curious about Diana’s food? Here are a few of her favourite recipes she’s sharing with us. You’re going to want to try these recipes below!