11 August 2020

Adam Liaw on simple food, competitive cooking and his "hangman's supper"

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Adam Liaw

Adam Liaw will cook a “hangman’s supper” for the Canberra Writers Festival. Photo: Supplied.

In a world of increasingly compacted and competitive television cooking, Adam Liaw’s food stands out as being more from the heart than the Thermomix.

“I’m a dad who cooks and this is the food I make for my family. I don’t like too much pretence,” he says of the food that’s fuelled cookbooks and columns since he won Masterchef in 2010.

He’ll cook the opening night dinner for the Canberra Writers Festival this week, and his interview with Joanna Savill will be live-streamed as he produces a “hangman’s supper”, influenced by the food that’s made him happy and connected him with those he loves.

“When I write a recipe I look at it from a purely practical perspective. Creativity informs my approach, and I think that creativity in the pursuit of practicality is the way to go, with the fewest steps possible. My style is fairly basic home cooking at heart,” he says.

While people know Liaw as an Asian-influenced cook, he points to the flexibility and willingness to experiment fostered by a diverse background. His mother was English, his father Chinese, and he grew up in Malaysia and Australia.

“I ate a varied range of food growing up and I think there’s real benefit in evaluating things on their merits, whether the food is Japanese, French, Italian, or Chinese.

“I don’t look at an ingredient and think that I don’t know how to use it. It’s more about working out what it does and where it fits in.”

That approach grounds Liaw’s preference for food that’s straightforward and delicious. He says he’s not a chef, and not interested in making complex, high-risk dishes that are the raison d’être of restaurant cooking.

If that’s the case, then how does he feel about the rise of competitive television cooking with its challenging soubises and jus and the carpaccios of unlikely vegetables?

“Look, I loved Iron Chef as a kid, so there is nothing new about this,” he says. “I’m certainly not against it, but competitive cooking is not home cooking.

“There’s nothing wrong with aspirational, impractical entertainment cooking, but there’s a lot more to it than pretending to be a Michelin-starred chef. I think the real danger is that people get demoralised when people cook something like that on TV.

“It’s been ‘sportified’ and that’s fun to watch, but at the end of the day cooking is not about beating others. If you want to play AFL you need to be able to bounce a ball first.”

The so-called hangman’s meal – the one you’d choose for your last meal on earth – is the basis for the dinner Liaw is preparing for the Canberra Writers Festival dinner at the National Museum this week.

In preparing it, he thought about emotional connections with food and how it becomes a reflection on life itself.

“When they used to do last meals in prisons, it was often a meal from McDonald’s,” he says. “Maybe as a kid that was your only treat. So I thought about how you recreate happy feelings, about who cooked for you and why.”

The Festival dinner will include memories from his own childhood and food he cooks for his children among other influences and it all represents happy memories.

And, he says, lockdown has enhanced cooking as a form of stress relief for many people.

“When I had a corporate job, I’d cook at home to unwind. Six months into the pandemic, we’ve all got stress we all need to get under control and if cooking meets the need, all the better.”

Adam Liaw will be in conversation with Joanna Savill at the National Museum tonight (12 August) between 8:30 pm and 9:30 pm. You can book for the live stream with the Canberra Writers Festival.

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