From UNSW Med student to Masterchef 2021 contestant: in conversation with Eric Mao

by Katherine Wong

Eric Mao, UNSW med student turned Masterchef top-24 contestant, eloquently discusses eastern Chinese cuisine, his experience auditioning and filming on Masterchef, and his favourite places to eat on campus.

Hi everyone, I’m Eric. At UNSW I was a medical student up in Wallace Wurth and I was scheduled to be in fourth year, but I’ve taken a year off to do this little thing called Masterchef.

So lovely to meet you! Let’s start off with some quick questions:

Favourite place to eat in Sydney?

Ooft. That is tough.

I have this nostalgic attachment to this one Cantonese restaurant in Beverly Hills called Beverly Hills Seafood. I love the food there, they’re unassuming but the food is very considered. It’s delicious and I have a lot of nostalgic attachment because I went there a lot with my sister.

They do this really delicious, sliced abalone soup that we always get.

Favourite place to eat on campus?

Okay, so I haven’t been on campus for a year because I was doing placement last year but my favourite place to eat was probably Stock Market. They were so easy and quick. I was able to get a really good lunch there and it’s salads so it was pretty healthy.

Favourite cuisine, to cook or eat?

Favourite cuisine to cook is definitely regional Chinese cuisine, namely eastern Chinese.

My family is from Wuxi, which is this city about two-hours drive away from Shanghai, so eastern Chinese food is something I’ve always been enamoured with. It’s the food I grew up eating and it’s probably the most nostalgic for me but I also love eating nicely done Sichuan food, and southern China, food from around the Pearl Delta region, and Cantonese food.

I enjoy cooking food from all of the regions of China because these regions are so different and they’re so interesting.

            Can you tell us a bit more about eastern Chinese food?

Yeah, yeah! So, I’d describe it as a lyrical, romantic riverside cuisine because eastern China is full of various lakes that lead towards the ocean. During different times of the year, these lakes would be littered with water vegetables, aqua plants, lotus roots, hairy crabs – things like this.

It’s a very produce-driven region, and a lot of it is produce that is indigenous to the area so in some respects it can be difficult to replicate in Australia where we may not have access to these particular bamboo shoots or lotus roots or hairy crabs, things like that.

But other than that, I would say it’s a region that focuses on a sweeter palate. There’s no spiciness involved. There’s a lot of use of dark soy and aged black vinegars like Chinkiang vinegar, Shaoxing wine – these things are popular in more regional parts of China but they originated from eastern China.

Who is your favourite Masterchef judge?

Ooh, you’re getting me in trouble.

Honestly, all three of the judges are amazing, they’re full of integrity. They’ll help you, they’ll work with you, they’re very candid. All three of them bring something amazing to the table and they’re very very knowledgeable.

But I would say I had a particular connection with Mel. I’ve always really admired Mel. I think the position that she is in – she’s a female, Asian judge on Masterchef Australia. That, in itself, represents so much and she has faced adversity in the past before and that’s given her a fresh perspective on my experience as well, so we connected a lot over the shared identity of growing up in Australia as Chinese-Australians.

Through that, and through the food I made for her, she was really able to appreciate what I was going for and understand what I was doing.

Who or what inspired you to audition for Masterchef?

The thing is, I’ve always loved cooking. I auditioned for Junior Masterchef when I was ten and I didn’t get in, but I’ve just always really loved cooking.

I’ve always thought that Masterchef was a fantastic platform to showcase various home cooks and their stories. And I think that’s the power of food, and that’s what Masterchef is good at: showing people’s stories and perspectives and lives through the lens of food. I’ve always really admired the show and I can’t say there has been a particular person who has inspired me to apply but I just always wanted to.

I think the circumstances of last year – COVID and everything – readjusted everyone’s perspectives on life, which is very dramatic sounding but I think that it did that for me. I just thought, ‘if not now, when?’

Tell us a little about your journey to the Masterchef kitchen. What was the application process like?

Yes, YES, okay so the application process was lengthy. I had to do a really long written application, send in videos, after that there were interviews, and then this cook-off down in Melbourne. That was the turning point in my application process because before that everything was done online, then we flew down to Melbourne for the penultimate stage.   

At that time, I had to negotiate things with UNSW Medicine because I was worried that if I went down and didn’t get in I would have to come back – and Medicine basically wouldn’t allow me to sit the final clinical exam. So, I was worried.

There was a lot of bureaucratic struggle and I had to really think about what I wanted because it was a big risk. If I got in, then I would be elated but there was always the chance that, if I didn’t get in, I wouldn’t know what to do: I would have squandered a year. It was tricky to work out what I wanted to do. I relied on a lot of family and friend support and I finally came to the conclusion that this was something I wanted to do so badly that I was willing to do that.

Thankfully, I got in, and it was fine but I do remember I was like, “oh my god, what do I do, what do I do?”

Between the med process and the Masterchef process, which was more difficult?

Hmm, well I don’t really remember the med application process that well, but… I can’t say.

Obviously, getting into medicine is a whole thing in terms of grades, in terms of studying, the interview, whatever. But it’s hard to say because when I was applying for medicine, there was nothing else I had to focus on – I only had this at the front of my mind. Whereas, for Masterchef, it was a struggle between medicine and Masterchef and what I could do to negotiate the two.

Emotionally, Masterchef was harder, it was just such an emotionally-charged experience: I didn’t know what I was doing, I just kept thinking about what would happen if I didn’t get in, I would’ve wasted a year.

What does a typical day look like for a Masterchef contestant?

A typical day is a long day of filming: morning until night.

We wake up, we go to our location, we have to get ready and do a lot of behind-the-scenes things, we do the cooking. The cooking is exciting, everyone can’t wait to see what we are doing today. It’s stressful but doing a challenge can be really fun. The cooking is the most critical part of the challenge in terms of the outcome but the thing that takes the most time is the tasting. Tastings take a very, very long time. Then after the tasting, you get the verdict.

            So, how long is your average day?

Everyday changes depending on the challenge and how many people are cooking but typically it’s 8am to 7pm.

This question kind of relates to that but what is the most surprising thing about Masterchef that most viewers don’t know?

Definitely that: just how long tastings take. Because on TV, it’s not clear how long that takes it looks like it goes by very quickly. There’s also all the behind-the-scenes stuff: all the photoshoots, camera resets and all that kind of stuff.

Another thing that’s not shown is that the food has to sit for a while before they can taste it officially on camera. So, immediately after the challenge ends in real life, the judges have to come and taste all the food to get an idea of what it will taste like then and there, because after a few hours, the food will never be as crispy as it was when it was just deep-fried or as fresh as it was when it was just tossed.

If it’s ice-cream, for example, the ice-cream will always be separate from the official dish and it would be kept in a little container in the freezer. Generally, food will be kept in controlled conditions as best as possible but if it’s something deep-fried it will never last and will never be as crispy as it was.

I’m aware you have a fan account on Instagram (@stanericmao) which I think is run by other students. What are your thoughts on this account? Do you know who runs it?

It’s actually run by my friends, but I don’t know who exactly it is run by, I just know it’s one of them. It’s so funny, I think it’s hilarious.

My friends are lovely, and my really close friends were really supportive during my application process as well because I chatted with them about what to do and all that kind of stuff.

Favourite chef/food inspirations?

My top food inspiration would be Fuchsia Dunlop. She’s amazing, she’s this British woman who went to study journalism in university and she was placed as a correspondent in China. During the time she was stationed there, she fell in love with the cuisine and decided to spend a year in Sichuan at the Institute of Higher Cuisine. She dropped her journalism, dropped everything and she became, not only the first foreigner, but also the first woman to graduate from the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine.

Then, what she’s done is that she lived in China for a while, travelled around and then gone back to London and pioneered the regionality of Chinese cuisine to a broader Western audience, which is super cool.

She’s written cookbooks, she’s done memoirs, she’s a pioneer.

            So, Fuchsia Dunlop is a white woman, but she clearly respects Chinese food, and kind of like David Thompson, who is a white man specialising in Thai food, both have spent a lot of time, effort, and passion understanding the cultures of their specialities. Where do you think the line is between cultural appropriation and appreciation when it comes to food?

I have spent a lot of time eating around restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne where it’s become quite popular for a lot of fusion restaurants to open up, especially Chinese-Australian fusion-y restaurants.

Some of the time I do get this feeling that there is little respect or little knowledge about what makes Chinese food. They’ve sort of plucked various ingredients from Chinese cuisine that they think are Chinese and turned it into very Western food but called it fusion. Sometimes I do think it’s a bit of a bastardisation of the cuisine.

In terms of cultural appreciation, I think being educated on what makes Chinese cuisine, why you use Shaoxing wine in this application, why you use soy in this application, why you use salt, why you use various ingredients in various ways, why you cook things in certain ways – the grammar of Chinese cuisine is completely different to the grammar of Western cuisine. Understanding this distinction and the nuance is a celebration of culture and is cultural appreciation. For example Fuchsia – what she does is talk about things very authentically, and I think that’s an amazing way to present Chinese food, especially regional Chinese food, which is something that is not very well known in the Western food space.

When it’s not done as well, I would think that is an appropriation of culture.

Masterchef has often been referred to as one of the most diverse and safest spaces on Australian TV for people of colour, do you think this is true?

Yes, I one hundred percent think that is true. Throughout the past decade or so, the show has done amazing things for showcasing people of colour and their stories on national TV.

All the contestants, all the crew are so lovely and Masterchef is just such a great platform that people of colour can go on, cook their food, share their stories, and shed light on a part of their identities which isn’t showcased in the current Western zeitgeist.

What does your ideal future look like? Will you be setting up a restaurant?

I would LOVE to work in food. It’s a bit up in the air right now but I want to continue my medical studies, I’m quite close anyway so it’s just about graduating. But I would love to do this along with working in food media and create content around food I love. It could be a Youtube channel, or in this current day and age, maybe TikTok, or just writing recipes and sharing that with a broader Australian audience is something that I would love to do.

Eric is currently competing on the 13th season of Masterchef Australia. You can catch him cooking at 7:30pm from Sunday to Thursday on Network 10.

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