Originally published on SBS.
Accountant-turned-chef Diana Chan tells SBS Food why she made a monumental career shift, her vision for Australia’s food industry and what it was like filming Asia Unplated with Diana Chan during Melbourne’s lockdown.
Take us through your journey with food. How did you go from being a home cook to pursuing professional cooking?
Diana Chan: “From a very young age, about five or six, my parents taught me how to pick out the best produce. I watched them in the kitchen a lot and learnt how to prepare ingredients.
But it was only when I moved from Malaysia to Australia at 18 that I had to fully cook for myself. Eating out was quite expensive as a uni student, but I still wanted to eat good food.
I also loved watching MasterChef, ever since season one. I thought ‘maybe I could do that’. I reached a point in my life where I thought, ‘I don’t have any big commitments. If I want to do it, I should probably do it now.’ My friends pushed me to go for it.
After winning, I went back to accounting for six months. But I couldn’t juggle my job and what came with winning. I had the passion; I had the platform. It would’ve been silly not to make the most of it.
How has life been post-MasterChef?
It’s really been a fun ride. There were lots of highs and lows, of course. Everything is slammed down on you the first year. Then another winner comes in, so things mellow and you find your feet in the industry.
I always get asked where my restaurant is. It’s still what many expect when you say you’re a chef. I had a pop-up restaurant and realised that wasn’t my jam. I did some food writing, then I got into TV, first by appearing on other people’s shows.
I really liked the media side of things, so that’s when the concept of Asia Unplated came up.
What would you like to see more of in the food industry?
We represent multiculturalism very well in Australia, but I think it would be cool to see cuisines broken down further by educating people and saying, ‘yes, these countries or regions are neighbours, but their cuisines are different’. We do that on the show.
Also, it would be great to work towards a more sustainable industry, which is of course happening, and people considering vegetarian options as table centrepieces.
What can we expect from season two of Asia Unplated? And how did Melbourne’s COVID-19 restrictions affect filming?
In season two, I talk more to the camera, which is probably a bit more engaging. We revisit Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese food, but we explore cuisines that people are more unfamiliar with, too, like Filipino, Sri Lankan and Cambodian.
There was a bit of troubleshooting this season. We had talent from interstate that couldn’t make it to film in Melbourne because of the lockdown. For one episode, I asked my cousin Karen to come on last-minute. She runs a catering business. We filmed her making a Nyonya laksa. It was a solution that worked really well and I believe comes up quite funny on camera.
What are your favourite recipes from the season?
Melbourne chef-restaurateur Jerry Mai came on and made rice noodles from scratch, which is so easy, people forget. The Laotian-style oven-roasted snapper wrapped in lettuce and pineapple is a beautiful recipe and really different. The Sri Lankan crab curry is also really nice.
What places would you travel to, just for the food?
I’m biased. Definitely Malaysia and Singapore. Hong Kong, too. I love the level of ideas that come out of London’s restaurants. And Istanbul, I was mind-blown by the restaurant scene there.
What advice do you have for people wanting to go into the food industry, but are apprehensive?
Don’t be confined to thinking food is just about restaurants. I’ve developed supermarket products, I’m about to launch a homewares range. YouTube is also massive. You can be a home cook and teach online. Think of things from a wider and more holistic angle.