Living the food dream … Marion Grasby's new line of products and cookbook are now out. Photo: Ellis Parrinder
A successful MasterChef contestant needs a few basic ingredients in his or her personal pantry. The ability to cook doesn't hurt, of course. Nor does having a face the camera loves. Bonus points are up for grabs if you can cook things with gooey centres - chocolate fondants, for example, or poached eggs - to provide producers with a handy cliffhanger each time the judges prise them open and poke around for the required runniness. But the really big one, the 11th secret herb and spice, is keeping a firm and unwavering grip on your "food dream". The term, so overused it's become clichéd, is now synonymous with the wildly successful Channel Ten reality show.
Series two contestant and crowd favourite Marion Grasby ticked all the boxes: she cooked confidently and cleverly during her time on the show in 2010, and had a genuinely warm demeanour that helped her forge an instant connection with the audience. But, most of all, she had a ready-made food dream on hand that spoke to her post-show aspirations and gave audiences another reason to relentlessly cheer her on. Now, only a year since series two ended, that dream has come true.
Well, sort of. When they're asked on camera, almost every MasterChef contestant says they want to open a restaurant. In Grasby's case, she spoke often of her desire to run a wine garden with her partner Tim Althaus, 30. But most contestants probably realise that without formal training or working their way through a kitchen, their food dreams can be more realistically realised through cookbooks, endorsements and media appearances. In line with that, Grasby, 28, has just released her own range of Asian-style packaged recipe bases called Marion's Kitchen, writes a regular column in MasterChef's spin-off magazine and launched her first cookbook, Marion: Recipes and Stories from a Hungry Cook, last week. Which means, says Grasby from the kitchen of her two-storey home on Sydney's northern beaches, it's all going nicely to plan.
"My opinion [throughout the show] was that only one person would win," she says. "The rest of us would have to make our own luck."
Grasby's shrewd, eyes-on-the-prize mentality when it comes to her food career is a relatively new development. She originally completed a double degree in law and journalism at the Queensland University of Technology before scoring a coveted cadetship at the ABC in Adelaide. Her bosses sent her to the countryside north of the SA capital to cover rural issues - in particular, the water crisis for properties along the Murray. "I was going out to farms and watching grown men cry and seeing whole communities devastated," she remembers. "I felt it was a real privilege to be hearing and telling their stories."
Like many bitten by the journalism bug, the act of being invited to share people's most intimate life moments ignited in Grasby a hunger for more. She was soon imagining herself as a foreign correspondent, travelling to war-torn countries and reporting on the world's injustices. Her work at the ABC was an inspiration, as was her own childhood in Papua New Guinea (where she lived with her father, Charlie, and mother, Noi, from age four to 15), which helped develop her social conscience.
Then the food bug bit. "South Australia has this wonderful food culture," she says. "Absolutely everyone, whether you're a doctor or an accountant or whatever, is really into food. I was meeting all these producers and growers and other foodie-type people and I started to become completely immersed in it."
Grasby had always loved to cook - her Thai mother is a trained chef - but suddenly her passion for food increased exponentially. "I started thinking that being a foreign correspondent in a war-torn country might be quite a lonely existence," she says, flashing her famously engaging smile. "One that wouldn't include a lot of good food!"
Instead, Grasby enrolled in a masters of gastronomy at the University of Adelaide, with the hopes of leveraging her knowledge into a career as a food writer. Unique in Australia, the course educates students about history, sociology, politics and anthropology through the lens of food and wine. To support herself while she studied, she worked behind the counter at a boutique provedore, answering phones, slicing meats and soaking up everything she could.
Her ABC bosses, not to mention her anxious parents, thought she was mad to give up such a promising journalism career. "I was earning half of what I'd earned before, but it didn't matter," says Grasby, looking nostalgic as she recalls those two years. "I absolutely loved it."
When friends urged her to audition for the second series of MasterChef, Grasby decided to put everything on hold yet again. "I loved watching the first series," she reveals. "What appealed was the chance to meet these fabulous chefs who I so wanted to cook with. The connections are really what it was all about."
As the series progressed, it became clear Grasby was not going to let any opportunity to further her food aspirations pass, working hard to cement relationships with the chefs she met on the show. In particular, she caught the eye of British chef/scientist supremo Heston Blumenthal, who singled her out as the best performer during a challenge in the UK, and she has nothing but thanks for the support she received from the show's judges - food journalist Matt Preston and chefs George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan - during and after the show. Straight-talking macaron king Adriano Zumbo, never one to over-egg a pudding, told a journalist that Grasby was "the only one who had ... natural talent. She just had that vibe about her."
Her surprise elimination at the hands of a poorly executed satay sauce dismayed audiences and swamped the next day's media with the sort of headlines usually reserved for football finals. Commentators used phrases like "shock upset" and "bundled out" and some viewers even threatened boycotts. Grasby herself seemed relatively unfazed, largely because she was so determined that MasterChef was primarily a platform for her bigger plans.
"The judges might have liked me personally, but they had to judge me on what I made that day," she says, with typical pragmatism. "I was disappointed to leave, but there were all these things I wanted to do and leaving the house meant I could get out and do them."
Within days, she was doing exactly that. Her first move was to hop on a plane to Thailand to begin sourcing ingredients and manufacturers for her Asian food product line, Marion's Kitchen.
With her partner, Althaus, taking care of the logistics and marketing ("He plays the hard-sell bad cop to my cooking good cop," she grins), the range of sauces, pastes and meal bases was designed to her liking and is now stocked in 2000 retailers around the country, including Woolworths and IGA.
Surprisingly, MasterChef's primary sponsor, Coles, decided not to stock the product. "We wish all the MasterChef contestants well," says Coles spokesman Jon Church, "but we have to stay focused on stocking the products we believe are right for our customers." Perhaps the supermarket giant believes the MasterChef phenomenon has a limited shelf life, and that even a standout like Grasby will see her star fade too fast for them to risk stocking her line.
They may well have underestimated her. The ocean-view house she and Althaus share now feels like the hub of an empire - he has an office downstairs where he works on the business side of the Marion Grasby brand as well as his own online wine business.
Grasby's laptop is perched on the kitchen table next to a plate of avocado toast so she can keep an eye on her emails, website and social media presence. There are boys' toys: a former DJ, Althaus collects records and one room is devoted to a ping pong table, but foodie touches are everywhere: a copy of Larousse Gastronomique sits casually on a hall table and Grasby's iPhone lights up with a picture of a cherry tart when it rings.
The house feels cool, young and casual, but there's a buzz of something on the boil. Quite possibly it's that food dream of hers, bubbling to life.
Sugar-glazed peaches with rose water and honey yoghurt
Recipe from Marion: Recipes and Stories from a Hungry Cook (Pan Macmillan, rrp $50).
"I love playing with fire and sugar. I'm mesmerised as the tiny white sugar crystals burn and melt into little pools of amber liquid before seizing up into a burnished sheet of sugar glass. Here, you're basically creating a crème brûlée top for the peach cheeks. A small kitchen blowtorch is the best thing to use for caramelising sugar because you can control the flame and its effect on the sugar. This yummy breakfast moonlights as a light dessert option at my house."
2 cups good-quality thick natural yoghurt
2 tbsp honey, or to taste
¼ tsp rose water
4 large peaches
1 cup caster sugar
1/2 cup shelled pistachios, roughly chopped
In a bowl, fold together the yoghurt, honey and rose water. Use more or less honey, depending on how sweet you like the yoghurt. Cut the peaches in half and scoop out the stone with a teaspoon.
Using a fine sieve, dust the cut side of each peach cheek evenly with the caster sugar. Using a kitchen blowtorch, run the flame over the sugar so that it scorches and caramelises. Serve the glazed peach cheeks with a generous dollop of the yoghurt and a sprinkling of pistachios.
MASTERCHEF SUCCESS STORIES
Even if they didn't win, a surprising number of MasterChef contestants have proved to be anything but flashes in the pan. Here are some still successfully following their food dreams ...
Julie Goodwin (winner, season one)
The original MasterChef, the NSW Central Coast native had a likeable Everymum personality that found a natural home as a regular contributor to The Australian Women's Weekly. She also has commercial agreements with a range of brands including Glad and Fountain.
Poh Ling Yeow (runner-up, season one)
Poh's sizzling creativity in the kitchen made her an audience favourite and has helped her carve out a niche in her speciality: modern Asian cooking with a twist. She hosts her own show on ABC TV, Poh's Kitchen, and has a two-book publishing deal with ABC Books.
Trevor Forster (season one)
Runs a successful restaurant, Capricci's, with his wife, Marianna, in Rockingham, WA.
Justine Schofield (season one)
The bubbly blonde, a favourite with the judges, has her own show, Everyday Gourmet with Justine Schofield, on Network Ten, as well as running her own catering business.
Andre Ursini (season one)
Runs a hugely successful bar/restaurant in Adelaide, Andre's Cucina & Polenta Bar.
Adam Liaw (winner, season two)
Has just produced his first cookbook, Two Asian Kitchens, makes regular TV appearances and is concentrating on opening his first restaurant.
Skye Craig (season two) Runs her own dessert company, Wild Sugar.
From Sunday Life