Cooking Up A Storm With Adam Liaw
From lawyer to MasterChef winner, Adam Liaw has grabbed his reality-TV opportunity by the horns to carve out multiple business ventures for himself. Words Tatyana Leonov.
He cooks (really well), is a cookbook author, a TV presenter, a commentator, a former lawyer, is an UNICEF ambassador who also speaks highly of his mum and… wait for it… he also plays the ukulele. Adam Liaw is not your typical chef, but that’s old news. After all, he and Callum Hann were the MasterChef finalists so popular that the televised Australian federal leaders’ debate of September 2010 between former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was brought forward by TV execs to avoid a clash with the season two finale.
Adam’s smile captured everyone’s attention as soon as he stepped onto that stage.
“The win blew me away and my life has changed dramatically since then,” he says. “But your life choices always take you somewhere, no matter what you do.
“The first event [after winning] that blew me away was the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010 – the magnitude and electric atmosphere – it was fantastic! I was also fortunate to cook in the Kruger National Park in South Africa,” he says of his filming with SBS.
“So we were cooking bobotie, a traditional African dish that’s cooked in the ground, in the middle of this huge, beautiful expanse. We made the fire and wanted to cook the dish as the sun set – and we achieved that. But then it was dark by the time we were ready to eat, so we got some lighting going. This is where filming got tricky, and we had to turn off the lights. When we turned them back on hyenas had surrounded us. I was completely freaked out! The locals I was with assured me that they were ok, and so we ate our dinner then and there [while the hyenas looked on].”
So many reality TV stars go back to their former lives after the show concludes (which in Adam’s case was law, something he still misses a little because of the structure and certainty of his former working days) but he says he was fortunate to translate his quick rise to fame into cooking for coin, writing books, presenting on TV shows and now advocating on behalf of UNICEF.
“My adopted sister was abandoned at birth by her parents [I’m guessing] because she had some physical problems and when my mother found her she was malnourished,” says Adam, giving context to his UNICEF ties. He’s currently promoting a local collaboration with Bakers Delight, which will raise funds to provide African children with nutrient supplements. “Twenty years ago my mum and stepfather decided they would help kids and when they started it was a baby or two in their living room. Today it’s hospitals and centres all over Asia, and the once-malnourished babies they looked after then are healthy kids and teenagers now.
“My mother is such an inspiration,” he says. “Sometimes we are exposed to such a big world and we get overloaded, and so underestimate ou r ability to help. We forget – or just don’t realise – a single person can make a world of difference, simply be deciding to do something.”
You can sense that Adam is excited about his achievements, both past and present (his second cookbook Asian After Work is out in September, about the same time his new SBS series Destination Flavour Japan kicks off). “During our first cooking challenge, we thought things were going well,” he says of Destination Flavour. “It was a fairly simple recipe but I had to catch the fish myself and that’s what I was worried about. I needed about 15 little fish – and I caught them. We set up the table, I started to cook, but all this is happening on a frozen lake in Hokkaido [Japan] and it’s freezing! The wind was gushing, the fire kept blowing out – this one dish took me four hours to cook!”
The new series takes place in Adam’s wife’s homeland and a country he once lived in, so it’s close to his heart and his palate. He says the Japanese are fascinated by food and take thousands of images of the food they eat, some for Facebook and Twitter, but mostly because they just love it. “One of the fixers on the program photographed everything she ate! Everything!”
Adam admits that his life now has just one gear: overdrive. There’s no time for everyday life, he concedes. “My wife and I got married last year and we haven’t even been on our honeymoon yet.”
But at the same time, he is in a position to inspire and change lives. Cooking for Adam is not just about putting a bunch of ingredients together to create a tasty dish; it’s about presenting a meal that he’s passionate about and happy to eat. To put it simply, it’s about linking his talents with his passions – combining cooking with writing, with presenting, with connections to people and to causes.
He never forgets how fortunate he is, citing his wife and family as the people who keep him grounded. “My life has changed dramatically, but family and friends always stay the same,” he says. And perhaps the new book is an extension of that, a collection of the recipes he still cooks for them. “It’s the stuff I cook now,” he says. “The stuff I’ve always cooked.”
Clearly Adam is a man of his word: “I just love the pork and cabbage dish, I ate it for dinner last night,” he says. “And the Japanese triple-fried chicken… it’s something I probably have more often than I should.”
And as for the ukulele, everyone needs an outlet to unwind. “Even when I was working as a lawyer, I used to be away two out of four weeks, and rather than travelling around with a guitar, I bought a ukulele and taught myself to play. It’s just a habit. I throw a ukulele in my bag and sit in my room and pluck away.” Keep your eye out for his ukulele CD, due for release in 2014. Ok, we’re kidding, but to be honest, we wouldn’t be that surprised. After chatting to Adam, it seems like this entrepreneur can quietly achieve anything. And like he said, “A single person can make a world of difference, simply by deciding to do something” – and he’s doing just that.