Diana Chan catalysed a culinary coup when she won the highly competitive MasterChef Australia in 2017. Life has never been the same for the accountant-turned-chef, who came to Australia to study accounting at the age of 19 and never left. On a recent visit to India for a masterclass for Conosh, Chan got candid on growing up in Johor Bahru in Malaysia, life after MasterChef, and her absolute favourite foodies spots in the world.
1. Welcome back to India. What are you looking forward to this time?
I was here pre-covid so it will be interesting to see what’s new and exciting. I am booked in for a meal at Indian Accent. So, I am looking forward to that. Though I grew up eating Indian food, I am always discovering something new when I am here. I thought I had all the dosas until I discovered ghee dosa with masala and I was like ‘wow.’
2. What’s happening on the work front?
I am working on my cookbook based on wok cooking. I grew up eating a lot of wok food. It’s a vessel that I love! I use it for boiling, steaming, stir-frying… it’s a really good heat conductor and incredibly versatile. You can make so many dishes from noodles to rice dishes, seafood, meats, and so much more in a wok.
3. You were a finance professional when you signed up for MasterChef Australia. At what point in your life did you want to make food your career?
Food was always my heritage and culture. I never looked at it as a business; I never dreamt of opening my own restaurant or becoming a chef. But MasterChef changed that. I was not prepared at the start. Life takes you in different directions. But if you tackle it with an open mind, good things will come out of it. I have always lived this ethos throughout my entire life. I am open to things and happy to go with the flow. When I finished MasterChef I was given a platform and basically pulled in every direction. It’s been six years but I finally know what I am passionate about. And the fact that I am able to do it with my cultural heritage and love and passion for food is the best thing. I have the best job in the world!
4. You grew up in Johor Bahru in the south of Malaysia. What are some of your earliest food memories.
The food in Malaysia is a fusion of Malay, Indian, Chinese, and Cantonese. The variety of food is quite outstanding. As kids we never ate the same food on two days. My mom is a versatile cook. One day she’d cook Indian, the next day would be Malay, then Chinese and so on. Very rarely would we have takeaway. Even now in Australia, I order takeaway only about once a year. I would rather cook! My mom was very efficient in the kitchen and I don’t think I can work with her. I did a lot of the prep. She was a working mom and cooked after she came back from work. So, we would eat very late which I hated. Now I eat at 6 pm and I am in bed by 9:30.
5. Can you recommend some amazing food places in Malaysia for us?
Sure. If you travel to Malaysia, try to visit Penang Island. The food there is all about hawkers and street food—charred noodles, fried omelette, crispy rice cakes cooked in a wok, laksas done so many ways imaginable. It’s cheap and a destination for ultimate foodies. In Kuala Lumpur, you can’t miss Bijan restaurant for traditional Malay food. Here’s a tip: if you are looking for hawker food in a nice setting, go to Four Seasons Hotel next to Twin Towers. In the basement is a food court that sells a lot of hawker food. But for me, the ultimate foodie area in KL is Petaling Jaya or PJ as the locals call it.
6. You travel a lot. What are some of your favourite cities for food in the world?
I love going to back to Bangkok. I think it’s a vibrant and vivacious city that offers food 24x7. There’s just so much variety! The other city that I love going back to for food is Tokyo. Japan has great produce which they use to make incredibly well prepared and thoughtful food. There’s nowhere in the world can you find a soba noodle master. The best pizza in the world comes from Tokyo. That’s because they do the same thing for years and master it. The food is so clean that you can actually taste the produce. I also love going to London. The food scene there is absolutely amazing. So many concepts come out of London.
7. Your Instagram feed is full of mouth-watering home cooking. What are your favourite things to cook?
I cook what I crave. Sometimes I go to the shop and see things that I haven’t cooked for a while. Then, I end up creating a dinner party and inviting friends over. I love cooking and feeding people. But for everyday cooking I stick to steak and vegetables. I usually cook a really good grass-fed beef with a side of salad or steamed veggies. The one thing I love making and have almost three times a week is Vietnamese rice paper rolls. It’s so easy! I always have a platter full of fresh herbs like mustard greens, coriander, mint, garlic chives, perilla leaves, chillies and a dipping sauce in the fridge. For my vegetarian friends I add tofu or mushrooms. The prefect combo is pork and prawns but you can have it with steamed fish.
8. How do you keep yourself fit in spite of all the cooking and eating?
It’s a struggle, especially since I have a healthy appetite. If you a woman and a cook, you are constantly fluctuating. I work out five times a week and it’s a combination of weights, Pilates and jogging. Intermittent fasting definitely helps. I fast for 14 hours, but not intentionally. I just don’ feel like eating in the morning. Although, that’s a lie. I have eaten breakfast everyday here in India. I love Indian breakfast—it’s my favourite Indian meal.
9. You live and work in Melbourne, Australia. How’s the food scene there?
Australia is a beautiful country for quality of life. The air is fresh, the water is clean, and the food is great. You want a happy, simple life? Go to Australia. And Melbourne will always be the food capital of Australia. We get everything but the dim sum is really good in Melbourne. You go to any Chinese restaurant and they come around in carts. It’s really fun! I love noodles in any shape and form, and Pacific House Restaurant in Richmond is my favourite for noodle dishes. Chop Sticks Delight in Mulgrave makes amazing Peking duck. And if you are looking for great cocktails with a view and a vibe, Siglo is fantastic.
10. Lastly, what’s in your bag?
Oh! Lots of spices and dried stuff from India. This time I am also taking saffron and some mithai. I mean it is Diwali. So why not?