Diana Chan was as young at five years old when she and her siblings were inducted into kitchen duties by her parents. She and her two siblings would be roped in to peel garlic and onions or clean the tails off the beansprouts. The first dish she ever cooked was an apple pie, when she was all of nine years old. And that fondness and love for the food only strengthened through the years as she moved from the city of Johor Bahru in Malaysia to Kuala Lumpur and later to Melbourne, Australia, to pursue higher studies in chartered accountancy.
“Every night, my mum would make sure the whole family sat down on the dinner table to share a meal together and debrief on our day. I often watched my parents cook and followed them to the market to pick out fresh produce,” she reminisces. It is no surprise then that for her, food means family. Owing to her ethnic background, she says, food was always the centre of every conversation. “We always laugh and say that Malaysia’s national sport has to be eating!”
For Chan, being a Malaysian living in Australia is pretty unique and special. “I feel fortunate to have the best of both worlds. I do, of course, have a soft spot for my culture and heritage and I’m glad to be able to showcase that to the Australian public,” she mentions. That the Australians are by and large are open to different cultures only works as an advantage for her.
It is from the vantage points that Chan’s cooking philosophy has evolved over the years. “My philosophy is always using the best ingredients you can find or available and understanding the fundamentals of cooking. I love that approach as it is how I started cooking in the first place,” she says, admitting that it takes years of experience to be able to balance flavours and experiment with different cuisines and ingredients. For her, being in the kitchen both commercially and domestically has built that up for me.
The change, of course, came about when while working as a senior analyst with Deloitte, she finally decided to take the plunge to contest in MasterChef Australia. She had religiously followed the show for eight years before coughing up the courage to apply. “It was only when my friends urged and dared me to do it that I decided to. At that stage in my career, it was the best time. I had nothing to lose and thought I should just give it a crack,” she says. She had not thought she’d go all the way as the competition was mentally and physically exhausting but then she loved cooking so much that the process did not seem too hard in the end.
There were times when the stress was immense, especially during the pressure tests on the show. “I was never a fan of following recipes, but you don’t really have a choice when you’re in that situation. I loved group challenges and mystery boxes. It resonated with my style of cooking, and it was great working in teams as I was used to that sort of environment.” To balance that, she tried to get as much sleep and switch off as much as she could. Exercising in the in-house gym was a huge help. And boy was it worth it!
Chan’s life took a 180-degree turn after she won, and it has been a whirlwind since then, albeit a joyous one. She found it daunting at the start, as the show finished filming before it went on air. “You never know what perception people have of you on screen, but I was true to myself and had fun through the process,” she says. Post that she has done a lot from having FMCG (dumplings) in supermarkets nationwide, to hosting TV shows, Asia Unplated and The Healthy Cooks to working with government bodies and many corporates on event cheffing in Australia and overseas. She has also been a brand ambassador for various well-known brands. “I also hosted a podcast, The Turning Point.
The opportunities are endless, but Chan says they all require hard work and persistence. One has to push for it and keep working to stay relevant, and it can’t be done without inspiration, which Chan often draws from her travels. “I also just go to the market when I feel like I need to be inspired. Every time I visit a new place, I go check where the locals eat and shop. It is an integral part of understanding the landscape of the region,” she informs. And at times she can’t travel, Chan watches a lot of cooking or travel shows for inspiration, while she continues to work on a homeware business and a few restaurant plans. In-between the crazy, she reads, exercises and cooks to unwind. “It might sound crazy, but I never get sick of cooking unless I’m physically tired. When I’m mentally drained, I love cooking as I don’t have to think about it” she says.
And now, foodies in India can have a taste of her specials as she curates five dishes for Marriott Bonvoy on Wheels, available on the menu until July.
Three essential ingredients you can’t cook without
- Oils - butter, olive oil, etc.
A chef who has inspired you
Yotam Ottolenghi – I love his approach to veggies. It’s so simple yet so moreish
Your fave cuisine
Tough one, but as if I’m biased, I’d say Malaysian. I actually love love love Japanese food.
A dish you would like to reinventNasi Lemak – A Malaysian coconut rice dish served with lots of condiments. I’m still figuring out how we can make this look different.
Also read: Chef Pooja Dhingra: Home Is Where The Heart Is