After her success on hit show MasterChef, artist and cook Poh Ling Yeow tells Larry Writer it’s not fame and fortune but fulfilment that drives her.
When something wonderful happens in Poh Ling Yeow’s life, she will take her Scottish terrier, Zed, and whisk him in a jig of joy around her flat in Adelaide’s Norwood. “Zed,” she will sing, “look what’s happened to us!”
There’s been a lot of dancing lately. Vivacious and beautiful Poh, who won hearts as MasterChef’s runner-up, has an exhibition of her acrylic on canvas paintings at Adelaide’s prestigious Hill Smith Gallery, she’s writing two cookbooks and, starting this month, she is to star in her own weekly show, Poh’s Kitchen, on ABC TV. The 36-year-old is proving herself to be way more than a flash in the MasterChef pan.
Yet for all the exquisitely fused tastes and whimsically rendered images that define her cooking and art, the most intriguing ingredient is Poh herself. A self-confessed “Aussie in an Asian shell”, she has come to terms with the cultural tug of war that perplexed her when young and, now, at last proud to be the sum of her rich experience, she has reconciled her past with her present.
Poh’s apartment is an art and artefact-crammed warren, a tiny chaotic temple to the creativity of its owner. Along with such iconography as goldfish, lotus flowers, ponds and Australian flora and fauna, many of her paintings feature an Asian girl. “The girl is not me, she’s my autobiographical twin,” explains the fifth-generation Chinese-Malaysian. “I invented her to represent the things I grew up hating about myself, the broad face, the almond eyes. I use her to tell my stories. I put her in an Australian setting and she looks a little out of place, and she looks lost in an Asian landscape, too.”
Each episode of Poh’s Kitchen teams Poh with a prominent chef – such as Neil Perry, Emmanuel Mollois and Thai food master David Thompson – to explore different styles of cooking. They’ll source ingredients from around Australia and then prepare a dish. “I hope people have fun watching and give the recipes a go,” says Poh. “I want to share my joy in cooking and eating wonderful food, especially the Malaysian dishes.”
Her mother, Christina, will be backstage during filming. “I’m her shopper and chopper,” explains Christina. “I’ll search out some ingredients and pre-prepare, so when Poh needs chopped vegetables or chicken, it’ll be ready.”
Poh plonks down cross-legged on her loungeroom floor, Zed having commandeered the sofa. “You wouldn’t think so today, but I live a quiet and simple life,” she says, sighing. “People ask why I don’t move into a bigger apartment, but what for? I cook, I paint, they’re what I’d rather do than anything else, and there’s all the room I need to do them here.”
A perfect day for Poh is losing herself in painting for hours, then cooking to the music of “Ella Fitzgerald or French cafe ballads with accordions”.
“It’s funny,” she says, “when I get stuck on a painting and can’t make it work, I bake a cake. Baking is simple and I can switch off, calm down and decide how to solve my problem.” And there’s no better situation to invent new combinations of cooking flavours “than when I’m at my easel”.
Both her passions, says Poh, who lived in Kuala Lumpur until the age of nine, when her family migrated to Adelaide, “reflect my life and cultural memories, some of which are hidden deep inside”. Though steeped in Chinese-Malaysian cooking, Poh insists, “I’m a cook, not a chef. I don’t tell viewers what to do, I show them what I do ... Give me home cooking before an expensive restaurant meal any day.
“My pleasure is to experiment – I don’t care if it doesn’t always come off – and share my food with friends. A chef is always under pressure to get a dish exactly right and at a cost-efficient price. I just want to have fun and be inventive.
“On MasterChef, the judges were exasperated by my intuitive methods and the chaos in which I cooked. They said, ‘Don’t you want to be a chef?’ I said, ‘No, I want to be a cook. I want to write recipes and continue to paint.’ ”
“She never does things by the book,” explains Christina. “She says, ‘Mum, if I follow the rules exactly, then it’s not my talent on display, it’s someone else’s.’ She’s a loose cannon.”
Read more about Poh's story in the February issue of The Australian Women's Weekly on sale now with Lisa Wilkinson on the cover.