Diana Chan can still remember the smell of her mother’s tamarind fish. The sweetness of the shallots, the zesty lemongrass and the sourness of the tamarind paste are so strong in her mind that, to this day, whenever she cooks this dish it takes her straight back to her mother’s Johor Bahru kitchen, where she would sit, night after night, mesmerised as she watched her transform the simplest, freshest ingredients into beautiful family dinners.

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“I would have been maybe five or six when I started to help out in the kitchen,” Diana, 32, recalls. “It could have been anything – from table setting or washing up to chopping vegetables; we were always in the kitchen. I learned from what she did by watching her, understanding the flavours and becoming familiar with ingredients. I was so lucky to have had that early introduction to cooking.” 


Growing up in Malaysia, in a household where food was abundant, and where every meal was treated like it was a special occasion, Diana learned from a young age that food was something to be shared, savoured. 
“We had family dinners at the table every night so that was what home cooking meant to me – bringing family, friends and people together,” she says. “You take that for granted when you’re a kid; you just have good food on the table. But as an adult, you realise how fortunate you were to have had that upbringing.”

It was this deep love and appreciation for food that inspired Diana, a chartered accountant by trade, to swap her computer for a shot at the MasterChef crown. After wowing the judges at the audition with her crispy pork belly and rice cakes wrapped in nori and sesame seeds, she was one of 24 people to recive a coveted white apron. Stepping into that hallowed MasterChef kitchen, she never imagined she'd be the last one standing.

The dish that scored Diana her white MasterChef apron. Image: TenPlay.

"MasterChef was such an incredidle experience," she says, smiling as she thinks back to the moment she found out she had won the series. "I used to cook for all my work colleagues and bring leftovers in. I always loved that – entertaining people and seeing them enjoy my food. Accounting and finance was a job, really, but cooking has been part of who I am since I was a kid and MasterChef has allowed me to really pursue that.”

We caught up with Diana Chan ahead of our Lunar New Year celebration to talk all things food, family, festivals and tamarind fish. 
 
You started out as an accountant. What’s it like being full-time in the kitchen?
In terms of career – they’re chalk and cheese. I went from sitting at a desk for 8-9 hours a day to standing in a kitchen. But in another way, the routine and regimen actually translates really well to the cooking process. When I was on MasterChef, the team leadership and organisation skills I learned in the corporate environment were invaluable. Whenever I was cooking, I would write a checklist and then tick it off because it is methodical and there is always process to cooking.
 
How did you parents feel about your career change?
They were really happy for me. Being Asian parents – they want you to be a doctor or a laywer or something like that. But they are really proud because they know I am doing what I love and just want to support me. My background only enhances what I do now and I think they can see that and just want the best for me.
 
How did you celebrate Lunar New Year growing up?
Chinese New Year spans across 15 days of celebrations, but the first few are the biggest. Chinese New Year eve is normally spent having dinner with immediate family, then over the next few days you visit extended family. We would go to their houses and give them oranges as a sign of respect, then sit down around the table for a meal. After the meal, all the kids are given red envelopes filled with money – as kids we were always cashing in at this time of the year. It was always a really happy time.

What did your family table look like over Chinese New Year?
In Malaysia we would generally have a steam boat – or hotpot - with raw ingredients that you would cook yourself, then sit down around the table and have the hot pot together. Malaysia has a lot of different traditions but, one thing they do in particular, is a salad called Lou Sang (also known as yusheng). Lou Sang is a really fresh salad with shredded vegetables, pickles and raw fish. As they toss the salad, you stand around the table and it goes everywhere. What they are trying to signify is the higher you toss, the more your fortune will grow.  
 
You cooked some incredible food on MasterChef. What is your style of cooking at home?
At the end of the day, MasterChef needed to have standards because it is a competition and people are playing to win. If people only cooked like they do at home, it wouldn’t be exciting for viewers. But if you speak to most chefs or people in food, they’ll tell you that what people really like is stuff that reminds them of something, comfort food – food that makes them happy. That’s the way I like to cook.
 
Tell us a little about your pop-up restaurant, Chanteen.
Chanteen started at the start of 2018 as a pop-up restaurant in Melbourne for six months. It was part of a rotating kitchen concept at a place called HAWKR. For me, it was a really good introduction to me to hospitality without the massive commitment. That finished up in mid August so I took it on the road and did the Night Noodle Markets in Sydney, then also in Melbourne. Now I am actually planning to set up a new permanent site in the city. The name is TBC but the concept will be the same – Malaysian street food but a little more jazzed up. Watch this space.
 
Do you have a signature dish?
Harissa Pork belly with sticky sauce, and my mum’s tamarind fish.

If you could invite anyone to dinner – who would you choose?
My Grandmother – if she were still with us. I never really cooked for her and would love to do that now - she would be so proud. She was an amazing cook. I used to go to her place after school and she would always make me the most delicious food. I would love to be able to return the favour.
 
Staple ingredient you always have in your fridge?
Lemon, chillies, lots and lots of herbs –like thyme, rosemary, coriander and parsley, and a lot of condiments. And cheese. You never know when you might need to make a cheese platter.
 
Must have cooking appliance / utensil?
A good knife and a chopping board. I am so basic. I like being hands-on in the kitchen and think that with a good knife – you can do anything.
 
Best cooking advice you’ve ever received?
For me it’s that produce is everything. Always get the best produce because it results in the best outcome for your dish. Most dishes don’t have to be complicated – they can actually be very simple but when you have good produce it just takes it top the next level. Also – keep it simple and learn the basics. Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes three ingredients can be just as satisfying.


We're excited to have Diana Chan back in the Doulton Show Home kitchen to help us celebrate Lunar New Year in 2019. Stay tuned for her favourite Lunar New Year recipes, as well as all the highlights from this stunning night of nights. Want to attend one of our special events? Visit our events page, or subscribe to our newsletters and stay up to date with all the latest things happening at Metricon.