Interview: MasterChef’s Khanh Ong talks debut cookbook A Gay Guy’s Guide to Life, Love and Food

Masterchef contestant and beloved fan favourite, Khanh Ong has released his debut cookbook, A Gay Guy’s Guide to Life, Love and Food. After competing in the 2018 series and returning a second time this year for ‘MasterChef Australia: Back To Win’, he is ecstatic to release an innovative cookbook that showcases his vibrant personality.

Rather than just exploring food, Khanh uses his endearing tongue-in-cheek humour to recall and illustrate moments from his life. From lazy brunches and to messy breakups, to impressing a date – there is a recipe in the book for all of them. His particular way of storytelling truly brings the recipes to life.

The AU Review caught up with Khanh to track the journey of unveiling his new book through childhood memories, family history, love and heartbreak.

What is the philosophy behind A Gay Guys Guide to Life Love and Food?

Food is more than about feeding you. It feeds you through memories and emotions and that is something I wanted to represent in this book. There are stories behind everything and that’s why there is always a story behind my little dishes.

I feel like I speak for everyone when I say this, but when you grow up there are certain dishes you fall in love with and they remind you of things. That’s why you love them, as much as they’re delicious, there are certain things that take you back to a place. I want to take people to certain places that I’ve been through – through food.

What made you fall in love with the culinary arts?

Food takes me back to a place of comfort. My mum did the majority of the cooking in our house. Mum and dad were refugees and when they came here, they worked a lot to build a new life.

This meant that the only time I would spend with my mum would be in the kitchen. After school she would make me something and then go back to work. Then she would come home for dinner and she would spend an hour cooking. I would sit on the counter plucking herbs and we would talk. This is where I felt the most happiest, when I was just hanging out with my mum and cooking.

That’s when I really fell in love with food because I started to understand things from her – and as I grew, I started teaching her things.

In your book, you mention how big of an impact your family was growing up, as your parents migrated from Vietnam. What were your favourite dishes that they cooked for you when you were young?

It would have to be all of my mum’s broths, like the Bún bò Huế (a spicy pork broth) that’s in the book, which I rate higher than Pho. Bún bò Huế is literally my life. That’s why it was a signature dish when I went back on Masterchef for the second time.

But one of the dishes that has the most nostalgia (which actually isn’t in the book) is an onion omelette with rice that my mum used to cook. She stopped making it when I was 13 and 14 and later on, I asked her, “why don’t you make this anymore?” and she replied saying, “Khan, you don’t understand that when we made that, it was because we were quite poor.”

I didn’t realise that she made it out of necessity. It was basically white rice, an onion sliced in 4 eggs. My mum said that we didn’t need to eat that anymore, but I still make it to this day because it’s a memory for me.

What are your favourite dishes to cook for your family now?

They’re favourite dish is banh xeo, my savoury crispy vietnamese pancakes with pork and prawn – which is also in the book. But, the thing is, my mum loves pork and my sister doesn’t like pork. So what I do is make them one by one and make mum’s one with all pork and Amy’s one with all prawns. That way it becomes a ‘choose your own adventure’ and they can choose their favourites.

Your book has dedicated chapters to different themes such as the ‘Sustainable Dating’ and ‘Broken Heart’ chapters. What would you cook for someone on your first date?

Okay, on this date, am I trying to be cool or trying not to be cool? Because there are different things I would be cooking if I was trying to be cool.

Let’s just say you’re trying to impress them!

In the chapter sustainable dating, there is a whole page dedicated to mayonnaise. It’s a quick 2-minute mayo recipe that you can make. All you need is a jar, a stick blender and the ingredients and pull it out and it makes mayo in 2- minute. It’s the coolest thing ever because your date is going to think you’re a wizard. You can serve it with any dish like a pork belly or fried chicken, because any dish will be instantly better with mayo.

What are your go-to comfort foods when you’re heartbroken?

Carbs, obviously. I have a crispy potato recipe in the book and it works every single time. I have them in the freezer ready to go. In the recipe I say that it is better to cook them frozen because the inside stays fluffy and the outside becomes crispy. When you cook the frozen potatoes for a longer time it doesn’t overcook. This is because the inside needs to defrost while it’s cooking, and takes longer for the inside to be fully cooked which results in fluffy and crispy potatoes.

A lot more people will be cooking from home due to the coronavirus and lockdown restrictions. Do you have any tips for them?

In my chapter, ‘Being Basic’ I talk a lot about how things are customisable. There are certain things that you can do to one basic recipe to totally change it. I think that’s what cooking is all about it. Customising it and changing the recipe.

There’s a cake in the book where it gives you the basic cake recipe. But then I talk about how if you want it to become a chocolate cake or a banana bread, this is what you do – because all cake recipes are the same. There’s starch, leavener (to make it lift), fat and of course a sweetener. Once you understand those ratios and you can make it work.

How has being part of Masterchef changed your life?

I believe that Masterchef has changed my life completely. 5 years ago, if you had told me I would be coming off the second season of Masterchef, had my own restaurant, cooking show and now a cookbook coming out. I’d be like how?

The show was incredible. I chose it because it was so positive and how much it celebrates food and culture, heritage and who you are. Coming back on this season I actually wanted to show even more of that. I’m a lot more sassier this time around. I wanted to be more myself and stay true to who I am.

Khanh Ong’s book, A Gay Guy’s Guide to Life, Love and Food is out now from Pan Macmillan. Get your copy HERE.

Danica Jones

Writer for the AU Review, a lover of books, poetry, good food, travel and adventure. Follow her personal instagram @x3danicajones or her poetry instagram @danicajoneswrites

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