In the decade since 4.35 million Australians tuned in to see lawyer Adam Liaw win MasterChef Australia’s second season in 2010, the Sydney father of three has written cookbooks, worked as a TV presenter and columnist, and regularly thrilled his 300,000 social media followers with kitchen hacks and fool-proof cooking tips.
Next on the menu, he’s presenting an episode of Dateline about Vietnam’s KOTO [Know One, Teach One] cooking school for disadvantaged kids and is also flexing his food brain as a contestant on Celebrity Mastermind.
Liaw, 41, tells The New Daily about the bittersweet experience he had branching out – with some foodie talk thrown in for good measure.
Tell me about filming Vietnam’s Hard Knocks Kitchen.
It was eye-opening. There was a psychological and emotional element I hadn’t really anticipated. There’s a lot of trauma these kids have experienced so that even if they do have access to the limited services available to them, sometimes they’re just not psychologically ready to see that they have value. That’s what got to me, that they feel that they’re not worth helping.
How were you inspired by the KOTO cooking school?
KOTO has a fabulous philosophy, it’s not a new one, but it’s a ‘teach a man to fish’ kind of thing. To see the way the older students pass on their knowledge is fabulous. It’s hard not to feel inspired, but for me the overwhelming feeling is gratitude that there are people like [Vietnamese-Australian general manager Jimmy Pham] out there, working hard every day to fix the problems.
Switching gears, what is it like competing on Celebrity Mastermind?
Nerve-racking! I was like, ‘Wow, this is genuinely terrifying.’ It got to the point where I couldn’t even answer questions, I was so nervous. Maybe it was the weight of expectations.
People love your food hacks. Which is the most genius?
I don’t think they’re genius. I tend to try to share ideas that are very, very simple, which is the best way to cook. It’s faster, it’s easier and it tastes better. The one thing that people find has changed their life is that when making a stir-fry, don’t put 10 ingredients in, just stick to two. I get so many messages from people saying, ‘I used to put in every vegetable I had in the fridge and now I make a stir-fry with just chicken and celery, and it tastes delicious every time’.
What’s your go-to mid-week meal?
Precisely that type of thing. Quite often it’s just a grilled piece of salmon with vegetables. You don’t need a recipe. There’s no magic bullet that’s going to make everything taste different. Food just tastes good the more simply you prepare it.
Do you jazz it up for a dinner party?
For something like Chinese New Year or Christmas, you kind of have to go for stuff that’s a little out of the ordinary. But for a regular dinner party, there’s nothing wrong with a stew and mashed potatoes or a roast dinner or a big pot of pasta. People come to a dinner party for the company. They don’t come for a restaurant experience.
How do you get someone who hates cooking to fall in love with it?
Focus on one thing that you love to eat, like a steak or a simple bowl of pasta, and keep working at it until you can make it like you love it. That’s better than trying to learn a new recipe every week.
What are your steak tips?
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There are three steps: Season it well with salt, cook it in a good, flat, hot frying pan until it’s how you like it and rest it well. You’ll get a great steak every time. It’s more about the frying pan – you need one that holds a lot of heat – than how many times you flip it or whatever.
Would you rather cook for a pack of Paleo folk or a flock of vegans?
Neither, to be honest. If you’ve got an awful lot of rules around how you eat, that’s totally your choice, but I’m more into a moderated approach. When you exclude a lot of things, it gets more complicated.
Do you change how you cook for your kids?
They eat anything. They have their favourites – they love salmon, they love broccoli, and my daughter is in love with eggs at the moment. Kids are very textural, so a lot of the time when they don’t like vegetables, it’s because they don’t like how they’re cooked.
So, what should I make for dinner tonight?
Teriyaki salmon. It’s easy.
Dateline: Vietnam’s Hard Knocks Kitchen airs at 9.30pm on Tuesday, February 25 on SBS
Celebrity Mastermind airs at 7.30pm on Saturday, SBS, Grand final: March 21