The grand finale of the eighth season of MasterChef Australia was telecast in India on Star World this weekend. Elena Duggan, from New South Wales, emerged the winner, going home with grand prize that included $250,000 and an opportunity to write a monthly column in Delicious magazine. The 32-year-old head teacher of creative and performing arts of Galston High School, known in the MasterChef kitchen for her broad smile and robust flavour combinations, beat 27-year-old coffee roaster Matt Sinclair by just three points in a nail-biting three round cook-off. Now back home, she is enjoying some quality time with her friends and family before starting on a whirlwind trip across Australia. Brunch has a telephonic conversation with her:
Congratulations on winning the MasterChef title. What’s next?
I have work experience opportunities lined up for the next six months across Sydney, Melbourne and California. I am really excited to work with all these amazing chefs and learn as much as I can. I always wanted to open my own farm café, I will use all these experiences to fulfil that dream. And my first column for Delicious magazine will be out in the November issue.
You are the head teacher of creative and performing arts at Galston High School. How are your students responding to this?
I went back to my school last week and it was so lovely to meet all my students after so long. Not only the present lot, but even my former students, and their parents had turned up. I hope my win encourages these kids to dream big and pursue those dreams. It is extra special to meet them this time.
Your dishes always look gorgeous. Does that have anything to do with your Fine Arts degree?
I always believe you eat with your eyes first. So, along with the flavour combination I put extra effort on making the food look good on the plate.
You were not selected in the seventh season. What made you come back and audition for season 8?
I think when I first applied, I wasn’t really ready. When I didn’t get through, I told myself that it was okay; but even after a few weeks it kept bugging me. I realised that I need to give it another shot and I got to put my best foot forward this time. It was then that I started preparing myself; I began sharpening my skills, experimented with flavour combinations, and when it was time to fill up the application form for the next season, I had worked hard enough and knew that this time I am ready.
Did you start the journey with the trophy in mind?
I never really expected to win this thing. I just wanted to be part of the show and gather experience and knowledge from the judges. I am not really a very competitive person. I came here for my personal growth. I wanted to become a better cook. My focus was not the trophy but on doing better than what I did the previous day. I really took one moment at a time. I wanted to excel at each challenge and be there till the end. But this is a beautiful surprise; an incredible bonus.
And you also made some great friends here…
Yes! You don’t really expect that in a competition. Matt (Sinclair) and I, although we were at loggerheads in the finals, we started our journey on the same work bench and have been through all of it together. Not only do we respect each other as cooks but we have really grown fond of each other during the course of this competition. I couldn’t have asked for a better friend.
What was the most difficult challenge that you faced in this competition?
Apart from the challenges I faced in the kitchen, it was dealing with my homesickness. I was missing my family like crazy throughout. At the end of a hard day you want to go home to somebody, somebody whom you can share your day’s experiences with. It is very hard to live separate from your loved ones. But I tried my best to not let these things hamper my performance in the kitchen. In fact I tried using this to my advantage. I used the positive memories to create dishes. Those were my little homage to them. I have been away from my sister for the last eight years and I miss her every day. She was often the first person to taste my food while we were growing up. So there were many dishes that were inspired by memories of the time I spent with her. I really love to serve memories on the plate. Food is all about connection.
So, talking about memories, what would be an ideal Sunday at the Duggan house?
Having ginger beer and fish and chips by the river. In fact, that is what inspired my Ginger Beer Battered Fish and Chips recipe that got me through in the auditions.
Apart from these, what has influenced your taste buds and cooking style?
I had quite a variety of people inspiring me as far as my cooking is concerned. My grandma was Indonesian and my grandpa was Dutch and on my dad’s side, my grandma was a vegetarian. So I had different kinds of cuisines and flavours to inspire me.
But seafood seems to be your specialty…
I was born in Cooroy, Queensland and grew up near the Great Barrier Reef. Seafood is an integral part of the culinary culture there. Also, my parents are in the scuba diving business. So we always had very good supply of fresh fish. But the way I experimented with seafood on MasterChef was something I never did while cooking for my family. Whenever I have my own farm café, I would definitely love to incorporate some of my seafood items on the menu.
What is your comfort food?
Tomatoes and cheese on toast or avocadoes on toast. And if I am in the mood for something more extravagant, I would go for a good roast chicken or quail, and if it is a celebration of any kind, it has to be seafood!
From HT Brunch, August 29, 2016
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