Portrait

Adam Liaw, 2010 MasterChef winner, on his passion for keeping things simple in the kitchen. By Romy Ash.

Sharing a banquet with MasterChef Adam Liaw

“MasterChef  has done a bit of a disservice – all of those competition-based shows have – by making things look very difficult. Cooking for 99.9 per cent of us, who aren’t running top restaurants, should be very simple. I always tell people, ‘There’s no correlation between how difficult something is to cook and how good it tastes.’ Absolutely not.”

Adam Liaw is the winner of 2010 MasterChef, author of four cookbooks, and generally a lovely man. We’re sitting at a skinny table full of food. It’s a banquet for two. Liaw scoops za’atar-rubbed bread through olive oil-drizzled hummus. I crunch on a deep-fried strip of eggplant that’s dipped in a dollop of what I assume is harissa. It’s a spicy yellow sauce. We’re eating at Moroccan Deli-cacy, a nut shop that’s been converted by Melbourne restaurateur Hana Assafiri into a deli and restaurant; and we are already full.

He goes on: “Even when it comes to stirring a pot, if you’re not confident, you tend to move things around in the pan, push it over here, push something over there, for what reason? The pan is doing its work, whether you put it to this side of the pan or the other. But yet we still always do that. I’m not saying this from on top of the mountain. I do this, too. If I tried to cook anything that’s here I’d make an absolute mess of it.” 

I don’t really believe him, but I let it pass. “My chef boyfriend is always telling me to leave fish alone in the pan,” I say. “The pan will release the fish when it’s ready,” I say mockingly. “But it’s true, I’m always fussing with it.”

Liaw laughs, “Yes. This is why fish sticks to the pan, because people aren’t confident. Firstly, they don’t let the pan get hot because they don’t want to burn the fish, but you need to get the pan hot so it doesn’t stick. So they put the fish in there, and then they keep moving it around. There’s a Japanese saying, grill fish like a lord, and mochi like a peasant, like a beggar actually. A lord is lazy, so he doesn’t touch the fish, but a beggar is hungry, so he keeps flipping it around, thinks it’s going to cook faster.” 

Before we began eating, Liaw asked if I minded if he took a few shots of the spread. Later, the shot appears on his Instagram looking exquisite. I can’t quite believe I’ve eaten the food on display. More than 1290 people agree it looks delicious. 

Liaw still writes and tests all his own recipes in his home kitchen, a rarity in the industry. He says if there’s a recipe in the newspaper, it’s what he and his family have had for dinner the week before.

“Get confident, that’s the only thing to do, because what happens is, Asian food is very simple” – he goes on to explain all the exceptions to this, instances and cuisines where things get complicated – “it’s just about cooking the ingredient as simply as possible.”

Liaw’s cookbooks are about demystifying Asian cooking. They’re called Asian After Work, Adam’s Big Pot, Asian Cookery School … he’s passionate about explaining that cooking this sort of food is easy.

“The whole thing about stir-frying is just – it’s not about putting 17 different vegetables into a stir-fry. Every stir-fry I ever grew up eating was two vegetables, one vegetable, one meat, one vegetable kind of things, incredibly simple, and it was never defined by the flavour of the sauce. You can make a great stir-fry with just a sprinkling of salt, realistically.”

Liaw’s family moved to Adelaide from Malaysia when he was three. He says, “I always remember my grandmother, who had literally never cooked Western food in her life before that, was trying to Australianise us through food. She doesn’t even eat beef because a fortune teller told her she would be cursed if she ate beef. But she would make steak and chips for us, and ham and cheese sandwiches. We still had fried rice and Hainanese chicken rice and all those sort of dishes, but there was a real effort on her part to make this Western-style food for us.

“We were a very big kind of family – so just say dinner was lamb chops, it would be lamb chops with mint sauce on one side and curried lamb chops on the other side. Half cooked in a more Western style and the other half with a more Asian style. You’d have beef stroganoff on one side of the table, and beef and oyster sauce on the other side, and halfway through the meal you’d switch it – so you could get some of everything. It was always a fusion, I guess,” he says. 

“The first thing I remember cooking with my mum was gulab jamun – it’s an Indian dessert, which is still one of my favourites.” 

“Is that a syrupy ball?” I say.

“Milk balls in a cardamom syrup,” he says.

“Yum.” 

“Yum,” he agrees, taking a sip of mint tea.

We’re eating a selection of desserts now: a medjool date dipped in chocolate and coconut, a walnut hiding within; syrupy rosewater cakes. 

“How did your life change after MasterChef?” I ask. “Did people stop cooking you dinner?”

“Yeah,” he says, crestfallen. “Yeah, they did.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 30, 2016 as "Adam and eat". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.