2012: Some Stuff That Happened

2012 is nearly done and I have to say it was a big year!

When the end of a year comes around I think our first reaction is to gasp at how quickly it all rushed past; but I think if we spend a few minutes thinking about everything we’ve done, we realise that we actually pack a lot into just 365 little days. Here’s some stuff that whizzed by this year:

Filming for South Africa’s Top Billing in Kruger National Park.

I got to meet a lot of you! It was really fantastic to meet so many people in person who have been so supportive. Thanks to everyone who came along to the Noosa International Food and Wine Festival, Johannesburg Good Food and Wine Show, events in Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and of course here in Australia. Thanks also to all of you (more than 125,000!) who have connected on facebook and Twitter from Portugal, Finland, The Netherlands, the US, UK and Latin America. (I hope I haven’t missed anyone!)

Riding a boat on a burning river for the Hakui Matsuri, Ishikawa Prefecture.

I ate a lot of good food (and here are some of the highlights.) Maybe a little too much if I’m to be honest. I think an exercise plan is definitely on the cards. Who’s with me?

I’ve written a lot more this year and really enjoyed it. Spending a lot of time on the road it’s great to have something to do while I’m away from home. I wrote for a bunch of magazines and started Around the Table, my regular column for The Wall Street Journal’s Scene Asia. My first book “Two Asian Kitchens” came out in Dutch, and also in paperback here in Australia. Lots more interesting things to come in 2013, and a new book out later in the year as well – watch this space!

Oysters fresh from the water in Freycinet, Tasmania for Destination Flavour.

I came back to TV! I appeared as a guest judge on both MasterChef Malaysia and MasterChef Australia, plus joined SBS co-hosting the first season of Destination Flavour. I had a ball traveling around and getting to know more about where our food comes from. Destination Flavour was really well received so thank you so much for all your support! It ended up being the highest rating food program on SBS for 2012, and I’ve even been nominated for a TV Week Logie for “Best New Male Talent”, so if you want to vote for me you can do so here. (But I’m up against people like Joel Madden and Seal, so let’s not get our hopes up…)

Singing at the Alannah and Madeline Foundation’s Starry Starry Night ball to raise money for children in violent situations.

I was able to support a lot of organisations that I think are doing really fantastic things in our communities. I played soccer (badly) for UNICEF and got to meet Alessandro Del Piero, played basketball (badly) for the Sydney Kings, and even sang in front of thousands of people for The Alannah and Madeline Foundation! I am very proud to support OzHarvest, Foodbank Victoria, The Cancer Council, The Crows Foundation, Diabetes Australia and many others. If I can ask anything of you for 2013, it would be to spend a little time helping any organisations in your own community that you think are doing good work to help those that need it.

Pulling on the boots for UNICEF.

On the “Year of the Dragon” float in the Sydney Chinese New Year Parade.

It was great being one of Sydney’s Chinese New Year Ambassadors for 2012. Sydney holds the largest Chinese New Year celebrations anywhere in the world outside of mainland China, but best of all I got to ride on a parade float just like Ferris Bueller. I was also an Adelaide Crows ambassador for our great 2012 season (expecting big things for 2013 boys!)

Last but definitely not least, I got married!

2012 was definitely a great year, but 2013 is already looking like a lot of fun. See you next year!

My wedding: Happo-en, Tokyo.

11 Memorable Things I Ate In 2012

King Tacos, Okinawa

I’m not much one for keeping score, but as another year goes by it’s nice to spend a few moments thinking about all the things we’ve done, the places we’ve been, and especially all the delicious things we’ve eaten.

I ate a lot of good stuff this year and here, in no particular order, are a few that stuck in my mind.

  1. No. 2 Burger – Pearl’s Diner, Adelaide
  2. Springbok, corn, pap and apple – The Saxon, Johannesburg
  3. Kuruma-ebi nigiri sushi – Sukiyabashi Jiro, Ginza
  4. Chicago-style deep-dish sausage pizza – made by my sister-in-law who lives in Ohio
  5. Oysters and Succulents – Attica, Ripponlea
  6. Banana leaf – Nirvana, Bangsar
  7. Taco rice cheese yasai – King Tacos, Okinawa
  8. Lantern yakitori – Torishiki, Meguro
  9. King George Whiting usuzukuri – Sokyo, Sydney
  10. Injera and wat – Abyssinia, Indianapolis
  11. Congee with ham, yolk and Earl Grey tea – Momofuku Seiobo, Sydney
Any dishes, meals or experiences that stand out in 2012 for you?

No. 2 Burger – Pearl’s Diner, Adelaide (photo: White Wall Photography)

Kuruma-ebi nigiri sushi – Sukiyabashi Jiro, Tokyo

Chicago-style deep-dish sausage pizza – made by my sister-in-law

Taco rice cheese yasai – King Tacos, Okinawa

Lantern yakitori – Torishiki, Meguro

Clockwise from top left – Nirvana, Attica, Sokyo, The Saxon and Momfuku Seiobo

Injera and wat – Abyssinia, Indianapolis

 

Thanks for the memories, Jozi!

I’ve just landed back in Australia from another great Good Food and Wine Show in Johannesburg and just wanted to write a quick note to say thank you to everyone who came along to the show, watched the demonstrations, said hello, or took photos. I had an absolute ball! The picture above is just a selection of photos from Twitter and Facebook that I’ve grabbed.

If you want the recipe for the Sriracha Hot Wings that were part of my demonstration in the Chefs in Action Theatre, you can find that here.

My highlights were working with the wonderful team at the Good Food and Wine Show again (and great talent such as Levi RootsAnjum Anand, Sid Sloane and of course, my old mate George), eating A LOT of fantastic food (particularly a great meal of springbok at The Saxon), and of course meeting all of you.

I didn’t take too many photos myself this time because I was so busy at the show, but if you want to see photos of my 2011 trip to South Africa, you can see them here.

Destination Flavour premieres on SBS

Oysters fresh from the water – Coles Bay, Tasmania

I’m really excited to announce the launch tonight of Destination Flavour on SBS here in Australia. It’s a new food and travel show I have been filming together with Renee Lim and Lily Serna.

Renee, Lily and I travel Australia to find the people who devote their lives to producing the best food around – everyone from potato farmers to world-acclaimed chefs. I really hope you guys enjoy the show.

If you miss an episode, or if you want full recipes of anything you’ve seen on there, you can  visit the Destination Flavour website.  The recipes will be there to print out, as well as longer and more detailed “extended cut” videos that can walk you through them.

http://www.sbs.com.au/shows/destinationflavour

I’ve loved filming the first season of Destination Flavour, and I hope you all enjoy watching!

Unfortunately, my filming schedule for Destination Flavour overlapped completely with the filming schedule for MasterChef All Stars, so that’s why I wasn’t able to take part in that one. Still, I wish those guys all the best and it’s fantastic that they’re able to raise so much money for charity. I’m involved with a lot of the charities that they are competing for and I know how much good work they do in communities in Australia and around the world.

 

5 More Favourite Kitchen Tools

Following on from My 10 Favourite Kitchen Tools, here are a few more things that I love in my own kitchen. Have a look and, if you like, let me know what some of your favourite kitchen tools are!

A real kettle
I know that electric kettles are perfectly fine, but there’s something very romantic about boiling water over a flame. My sister gave me this vintage kettle a couple of years ago, and it’s become one of my favourite things. The act of filling the kettle is almost ceremonial each morning and when the water is boiled, instead of an impotent plastic click, it vibrates with a low, musical hum that fills the whole house.

Rasp graters
They weren’t even around 10 years ago, but these guys are the business. They’re magical with garlic, ginger, spices like nutmeg and cinnamon, citrus zests and even hard cheeses like parmesan or pecorino. They don’t stay sharp forever, though, so make sure you change them when they wear down.

An oil jug
I do all of my deep frying in a wok, and one of these oil jugs is perfect for dealing with the litres of oil needed. The top is fitted with a fine sieve to strain out any bits, and the oil can be easily poured both in and out. A little cold oil into hot oil in a wok is the best way to reduce oil temperature quickly, and having your frying oil on hand makes oil blanching, shallow frying and deep frying incredibly simple. I think of this as the domestic equivalent of the big oil cauldrons that professional wok chefs use for their stations. Just make sure to change your oil every week or two as it burns, takes on flavor or oxidises.

Pizza trays
Any commercial kitchen in the world will have dozens of these strategically stacked around it, and for good reason. They’re incredibly versatile and can be used for grilling, resting meats, covering frypans, arranging prep or basically anything else you can think of. I don’t even use them for pizza. I do that in the oven on a terracotta tile.

Enamel bowls and trays
I love enameled metal bowls and trays. The bowls are sturdy, light and non-reactive. The rectangular trays are perfect for domestic prep and they are the permanent must-have items in Japanese domestic kitchens. Having a good prep tray is as important at home as it is in a restaurant. It’s amazing how just having something as simple as a dedicated prep tray can make such a big difference to the way you cook.

What are some of your favourite things?

A 21st Century CNY

I’m not a superstitious person, but at Chinese New Year even the most rational of us find ourselves following the old traditions such as buying new clothes, cutting our hair before new year’s day, paying off debts, cleaning the house and giving red packets. For many of us these acts are more of a mental exercise of renewal and an adherence to culture than any belief in luck, good fortune or evil spirits.

In the past few years I have had my own Chinese New Year To Do list, taking the opportunity to remind myself to keep my digital world updated. Given the amount of time we all spend on computers and digital devices these days, it’s worth spending a few hours at least once a year making the effort to keep these things running the way they’re supposed to.

If you’re one of those people to which these kind of things come naturally, my hat goes off to you. But if you’re anything like me, you might benefit from the list below:

  • Backup all your hard drives
  • Update your existing software on all devices (computers, iPods, iPads, phones, GPS etc.)
  • Clean up folders and purge or organize old files
  • Tidy up your desktop and dock or taskbar
  • Clean up and organise your music, photo and video libraries
  • Change your wallpaper
  • Get any new software you’ve been needing and delete unused programs
  • Synchronise your bookmarks across all your computers
  • Clean your screens and keyboards
  • Clean the outside of your computer
  • Change your online passwords (Security experts recommend that this be done several times a year, but most of us don’t do it at all.)
Little Decisions

I happened across this old tweet of mine today and realised that I had written it exactly two years ago to the day. When you find something like that, you can’t help but think what your life would be like if things had gone differently.

My life of two years ago wasn’t a bad one. I was a lawyer working for The Walt Disney Company in Tokyo. It was a good job, that I enjoyed, in the field I trained in, and in an interesting country. All in all, I had a really nice life. While I’d like to be able to tell you all that there was a “piece missing” or that I hated my old life, the fact of the matter is I was really very comfortable doing what I was doing and quite content. So much so that this tweet was actually about the second MasterChef audition I was invited to.

The first audition was in my home town of Adelaide and it was scheduled while I was supposed to be visiting Cuba. Having planned the holiday for months, I declined the audition and went on holiday instead. When I returned to Japan, I called the producers and asked them if there were any other auditions that I could go to and they invited me to come to Sydney. Again, I ummed and ahhed and tried to decided whether I would travel all the way from Tokyo for a long-shot chance at something I wasn’t even really sure if I wanted to do.

In the end, the only way I could look at it was to say “Why not?”

Why not go to the audition? Why not give it a shot? If I fail, my worst-case scenario would be that I continue on doing what I’m doing and I have an interesting story to tell. The best-case scenario, of course, would be that I get through the audition and I have another, more interesting decision to make.

As is no-doubt obvious, I ended up going to the audition, having a ball, and getting through to the next round. The rest is history. There were lots of other moments and other decisions (and actually, I pulled out of the show at least 2 more times over the following few months – but that’s a story for another time), but this was the first one. Every single thing in my life would now be different if I had made that one little decision differently. I wouldn’t have had the amazing experience I have had over the past two years, the new career I have now, and a future that I’m incredibly excited about.

It didn’t seem like an important decision at the time – it was tiny, insignificant and almost laughable – but it was the first one, and it turned into one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made. I don’t think that all the important decisions in life present themselves with banners, fanfare and prancing horses. Sometimes it’s the little decisions that reach further and wider than you’d ever imagine.

I’m sure that right at this very moment there’s someone else, somewhere in Australia (or elsewhere in the world) that’s trying to decide whether or not they should audition for MasterChef or take a different kind of new step. Who knows, maybe in a few months they’ll be the one centre-stage when the gold glitter rains down.

Kitchen Myths: Flambé

One of the most identifiable skills of classic cookery is the art of the flambé. Picture a busy and bustling kitchen, punctuated by fireballs of purple-yellow flames leaping from pans rattled by white-jacketed chefs. Adding alcohol can introduce complex flavours and aromas to a dish, but too much alcohol can be unpleasant and overwhelm other delicate flavours. For that reason, in cookery we are often taught to flambé – to “burn off” the pungent taint of raw alcohol. But how well does it really work?

To flambé, a strong alcohol (usually higher than 20% alcohol per volume) is added to a pan of sauteing ingredients and ignited with an open flame. While flambéing is often used tableside for dramatic effect, the process does have an effect on flavour. The extremely high temperature of the alcohol flame (about 1100C) leaves a very light singed taste to flambéd ingredients within the flame, and the reactions of the burning alcohol with other ingredients can create additional complex flavours and aromas. This process of flambéing also burns off some of the added alcohol to take the edge off the strong and sometimes unpleasant alcohol ‘burn’ found in some strongly alcoholic dishes.

However, the processes of flambéing does not remove all of the alcohol. In fact, a short flambé will still leave around 75% of the added alcohol in the finished product. Even after simmering for an hour, about 25% of the alcohol still remains, and after 2 hours that proportion drops to about 10%.

Considering the relatively small amounts of alcohol added to foods, and the portions of those dishes we eat, the final alcohol content of dishes is not usually a problem. Even a whole bottle of 14% alcohol wine added to a Coq au Vin will first dilute to about 7% amongst the other ingredients, then and after cooking for a hour will result in a dish of only about 2% alcohol. Divided amongst perhaps 4 people, the final amount of alcohol consumed by the diner is quite small. However, those with alcohol sensitivity might want to hold back on that extra serve of a flambéd Bananas Foster, as each plate would contain alcohol from rum roughly equivalent to a swig of a cheeky dacquiri.

How to Win MasterChef

Picture Credit: Someone with waaay too much time on their hands

The finale of Season 3 of MasterChef Australia is just a few days away now, so I thought it would be a good time to revisit some of the skills we contestants learn throughout the competition. The style of competitive cooking on MasterChef is very different from cooking in a commercial kitchen or cooking for your family at home, and it can take some time to get used to. Yesterday the News Limited papers published an article I wrote sharing a couple of tips for getting ahead in the MasterChef game. There was no online version of the article, so I thought I would share it with you here.

For those of you that want to put their hat in the ring for next year’s MasterChef title, applications are already open. You can apply here.

The article “My recipe for success”, as it appears in The Daily Telegraph, The Herald Sun, The Advertiser and The Courier Mail:

“The finale of this year’s MasterChef is just a few weeks away and from nearly ten thousand hopefuls a few months ago we will soon have another winner joining Julie and me in our little club. For anyone wanting to try out next year, here are my six tips to help you come away with the MasterChef crown.

1.  Find your own style. 

At home, we might like to try different things and we all have our strengths and weaknesses, but in the MasterChef kitchen you need to think beyond that to find your own style of food. Even if you can cook everything from Asian Abalone to Zimbabwean Zucchini, you still need to work out exactly what warms your cockles.

I love Asian food and it’s what I cook at home, but for the first few months in MasterChef I was making fancy European dishes that I thought would impress the judges. It wasn’t bad food, but it wasn’t getting me anywhere in the competition. It was  only when I started to cook the food I loved that I started winning challenges.

People cook the way they like to eat. It’s natural and authentic, and that’s what the judges want to see. As Jimmy will happily tell you, it’s better to be a one-trick pony than a dead duck.

2. Cook to the challenge

Cooking in the MasterChef kitchen is very different from cooking at home. There are absurd time limits, weird ingredients, ridiculous themes and long tasting procedures. You need to think about all of that when you decide what to cook. Give yourself plenty of time and don’t try to be too ambitious. Good food doesn’t have to be difficult, and in fact, for amateurs like us, it usually isn’t.

In terms of tasting, the first thing you realise in challenges is that the food on MasterChef is usually cold when the judges taste it. The contestants cook in the morning and then the food goes into the fridge while the kitchen resets for the tasting and the benches are cleaned by magical elves. However, before that break the judges will zip around the room for a mini pre-tasting to give them an idea of what to expect in the real thing.

The easiest way to make an impression is to leave enough time and ingredients to make a second plate that the judges can taste warm without ruining the dish that needs to be presented later. If the judges have a chance to taste your food the way it would normally be eaten, you’re immediately off to a good start.

If you want to be really clever, you can even add a touch more salt to the dish that will be tasted cold, because the saltiness of the dish will mellow as it cools.

3. Tell the story

Food is better in context. If we think back to the favourite meals we’ve eaten, we rarely remember the food alone. We remember the company, the restaurant, the atmosphere – the whole experience.

The judges have tried thousands of dishes in the MasterChef kitchen, and so it is sometimes hard to create that special experience around yours alone.

To make your dish stand out you need to explain not just what is on the plate, but also why it’s there. Is it inspired by a childhood memory? A simple family favourite? An edible homage to a Rolling Stones song? This doesn’t mean that every plate needs to be dedicated to an elderly relative, but it does help to give the judges an idea of why you made that dish and what makes it tick.

4. Know the judges’ tastes

All the judges love good food, but they still each have their preferences. George likes food prepared with professionalism and discipline – that means your dish should be well-seasoned, clean and elegant – Gary loves unpretentious food made with humility and strong technique, and Matt likes ‘smart’ food where he can see that thought has gone into the dish.

When you cook for the same guys day-in and day-out and hear their feedback on everything you make, you pick up on their likes and dislikes. If you can make a dish that tickles all the judges in all the right places, you’re looking good.

5. Listen and learn

The person who wins MasterChef is not necessarily the person who comes into the first day of the competition as the best cook. If it was, we could have probably just given Marion the title in the first episode last year and called it a day.

The entire process takes ten months from audition to finale, and for the whole period you are living, breathing and (of course) eating food. In that time you have an opportunity to learn from the people around you – the judges, the guest chefs, the other contestants. Absorb information like a sponge and accept every piece of judges’ advice and criticism as like manna from Heaven. Then put it all into practice in the next challenge.

6. Embrace the experience

A big part of winning the MasterChef title is about keeping yourself in the right frame of mind to cook well. It’s not easy. There are the long hours, the early starts, the isolation from your friends and family, and lots of pressure. But the trade-off for all of that is the chance of a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. Once you accept that fact, you can relax, make friends and have fun. Happy cooks make happy food, and I certainly could not have won MasterChef without the friendship and support of the other contestants… but those guys probably didn’t want to hear that.”

Post-MasterChef Life: One Year On

It just dawned on me that it’s been 1 year to the day since I won MasterChef. Exactly 365 days ago Callum and I were centre stage in the most watched non-sport TV event in Australian history. We came out of the MasterChef house into a whirlwind, and it’s been a manic 12 months since. To mark the occasion, I thought I’d just look back at the year that’s been:

     I’ve received tens of thousands messages of congratulations from within Australia and all over the world. England, India, the USA, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, the Netherlands, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, France… the list really does go on. In fact, it might even be easier to list the countries I haven’t received messages of thanks from. The sheer number of messages has been enormous, but please believe me when I say I’ve appreciated every single one.

     I’ve worked in some of Australia’s best restaurants, including Tetsuya’s in Sydney and The Flower Drum in Melbourne. I’ve cooked every day and developed my cooking skills more than I thought possible in just one year. I’ve written more than 300 recipes and spent countless hours in the kitchen, enjoying every minute.

   I’ve written a cookbook, and fulfilled a lifelong dream in doing so. It’s something that I’m extremely proud of and it’s received some fantastic reviews (like this one… and this one… and this one). It happens to be selling quite well too. I’ll even be attending my first Byron Bay Writers’ Festival just next week… as an author. It’s incredibly humbling when somebody tells you they’ve cooked one of your recipes and it’s changed the way their family cooks and eats. Never in my life would I have thought I could make a tangible difference, however small, to people’s lives through food.

     I’ve filmed for TV in Australia, New Zealand and soon Malaysia; done literally hundreds of interviews for TV, radio and print; and photo shoots galore. It’s all a bit much really, but it doesn’t get in the way of the food. One thing I am really happy about is that I am getting a chance to write a lot more for magazines and newspapers. I’ve even had the opportunity to take Australian journalists and bloggers around Malaysia to show them what I love about the food of the country of my birth.

     I’ve travelled on more than 120 flights, spent nearly 150 nights in hotel rooms, and travelled nearly 200,000 kilometres. That’s an average of new city every three days, and a total distance of nearly 5 times around the world! It’s exhausting, but post-MasterChef life is certainly good for the frequent flyer points.

I really think it would be easier if I just started flying myself.

     I’ve moved back to Australia from Japan. I spent a 6 wonderful years living in Japan and travelling around Asia – eating, learning and working – but it is so nice to be back home in Australia.

     I’ve won awards like FHM Australia’s “2011 Food Hero”, and been variously nominated for others as strange and diverse as “Favourite TV Star” at the Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Awards. Walking red carpets and signing autographs for squealing fans is certainly not something I’m used to.

     I’ve met some amazing chefs from around the world including Rene Redzepi, Heston Blumenthal (again), Florence Tan – the Queen of Nyonya Cuisine, and especially Iron Chefs Hiroyuki Sakai and Chen Kenichi, who I had the pleasure of dining with in Melbourne recently and who I will be working with in the near future.

     I’ve cooked banquets at the World Expo in Shanghai, demonstrated at the Auckland Food Show and countless other shows around Australia such as Taste, Good Food Show, MasterChef Live and Fine Food Australia.  I’m soon to travel to South Africa to demonstrate at the Good Food Show over there and am cooking a series of degustation dinners in North Queensland. These are all extraordinary experiences that I am incredibly grateful for. In my wildest dreams I never would have imagined my life would involve travelling the world, cooking and eating. It’s amazing fun and it never feels like work to be talking to people about good food.

So, what’s next?

The biggest project I’m working on at the moment is a plan for a casual Japanese restaurant (izakaya) here in Sydney. There’s nothing concrete to announce at this stage but we’ve put hundreds of man-hours into it so far with the hope of opening very early next year. I know it’s been a long time coming, but for me and my partners in Japan it is more important to get it done right rather than fast. Stay tuned for more on this one.

I have a few trips coming up to Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa and Japan. I’m soon hosting a tour to Japan to assist (and cook for) victims of the tsunami and nuclear disaster along with the fantastic Iron Chefs, Hiroyuki Sakai and Chen Kenichi. I’m also planning a stage in one of my favourite restaurants in Japan.

I’m working on plans for my second book and hope to have that out within the next year. Writing my book last year was a wonderful experience, and it was so gratifying to see all the positive feedback. Still, I hope my next book can be even better!

While not the most exciting development, I know this blog is long overdue for an overhaul. I hope to start writing more regularly and especially posting more recipes and photos of what’s been happening. Stay tuned for a newer and more interesting site over the next few months.

They say that moving house, changing jobs and getting married are the three most stressful things you can do in life. In the past year I’ve done two of those things, but it’s been far more wonderful than stressful. I’m truly thankful to all of you for making this possible.