Among the sensationalism of reality TV – the cruelties and tensions about who will be the ultimate winner – lies a thoroughly human side-effect – the characters we fall in love with along the way, who evoke our sympathies more deeply because they fall at the final hurdles – even better if they’ve already won our hearts prior to their dramatic exits. One such character is the effervescent Alvin Quah, whose appearance as a contestant on Masterchef revealed him to be perfect TV material – in every instant his expressions betrayed his emotions, yet he rode each terrifying culinary challenge with a good-natured innocence which charmed households around the country. Indeed I was compelled to interview Alvin because my 4-year-old son identified with him so much, that whenever Alvin appeared my son would exclaim, “that’s me Dad”. And here’s a typical Australian family’s response to Alvin’s demise due to his spectacular failure when attempting to reproduce the Adriano Zumbo V8 cake:
“My family and I were devastated Alvin went last night. I realised we watched it mainly to see him. He was absolutley gorgeous and now out because of that ridiculous cake any master chef would struggle with. We will miss you Alvin. Now I have to stop my daughter crying about poor Alvin.”
One thing I love to interview people about is their favourite cafes and restaurants ~ but Alvin had nothing to reveal about the bar scene ~ because it ain’t his world ~ further enhancing perceptions of his endearingly down-to-earth nature, he declares “cool people look through me”.
In your early appearances in the media spotlight, you’ve mentioned the influence of your mum’s cooking. What are the dishes that you most clearly associate with your childhood?
Two dishes echo my childhood clearly – ‘Pong Teh’ and ‘Onde Onde’. The first is a casserole dish made with salted soy beans and consists of pork and chicken in this rich gravy-like sauce that is to be eaten with rice and some homemade sambal – I’m salivating right now just thinking abut it! The second is a dessert made with glutinous rice flour and infused with pandanus extract, rolled into a ball encasing a palm sugar filling and coated with dessicated coconut.
Growing up in a Buddhist household in Malaysia, am I right in thinking that your mum’s cooking was and is completely vegetarian?
No we did not grow up in a vegetarian household. There are some religious days where we had vegetarian meals but most of the time, we’re omnivores.
Reading over your website, I didn’t realise that being on Masterchef involved having to stay in a Masterchef house away from your partner Brian Long – that must have felt really weird being in Sydney but not allowed to go home!
It was tough. But I suppose it allowed us to focus completely on the food and we had to rely on each other for support.
You’ve been living in Sydney for the last 2 years – do you have favourite restaurants or cafes that you’d love to recommend to people?
Believe it or not I’m still finding my way through Sydney. There are some great restaurants like Red Lantern and Akhi’s that I would recommend. Some great Malaysian places I would suggest are Mamak’s, Makan at Alice’s, Temasek and Sambal.
And before living in Sydney you did 15 years in Melbourne – what cafes or restaurants there would you recommend as your absolute favourites?
My all-time favourite Malaysian cafe is Jade Kingdom in Heidelberg Heights. As far as restaurants go anywhere on Gertrude Street is fab – Cutler and Co, Ladro’s, Enoteca.
If you were having a dinner party at home, first question is, if you could invite anyone in the world, who are the 6 people you’d invite?
This question always gets me!! Let me see … I would invite Pink (I love her style), Gerard Butler (no brainer there), Heston Blumenthal, Poh from Series 1, Matt Preston (because he would be a great story teller) and Drew Barrymore.
And secondly, what would you cook them? Would you pull out your pork belly, or would it be something completely different?
The pork belly is a must! I will make them my hot and sour soup and for dessert, taro and pumpkin sago custard.
What are the 3 ingredients you’re most likely to come out of a gourmet shop with?
Gelatine leaves, XO sauce and Jamon.
Has the Masterchef experience dramatically affected your home cooking?
A little, I’ve been shying away from desserts, I used to cook a lot of desserts but I think I’m a little shell-shocked by all the phenomenal pastry chefs out there (including some of the contestants).
When it comes to beverages, what’s your inclination? Are you a wine man, beer, cocktails, mineral water?
Mainly water but on a good night, wine. And on a great night, cocktails.
And which way do you lean as far as hot liquids go – tea or coffee?
Both – coffee in the morning, tea in the evening.
Any great bars or nightclubs in Sydney or Melbourne which are essential regular hangs for you?
I am such a dag I don’t hang out at nightclubs. I was never cool! In fact, cool people look through me.
What about desserts – I guess you won’t be making a V8 cake any time soon, but are you an ice-cream man, a cake man, or a hot dessert aficionado? And any desserts from your cultural heritage you’d like to put on the table for us Aussies to become cognisant of?
I love my desserts, I believe we all have in-built separate stomachs for dessert! One of my ultimate desserts remains Onde Onde and my second favourite is my mum’s steamed sago cake.
You plan to still continue your old job as scientific affairs manager part-time – won’t that seem strange, trying to get your head around your previous normal ‘everyday Alvin’ after the Masterchef adventure and the fall-out from that – your phenomenal popularity with people from all walks of life?
Actually I think the key is balance – as much as the culinary world feeds my creative soul, my work as a scientific affairs manager feeds my cerebral soul. I need them both to survive and to stay sane. Popularity is fun but never underestimate normalcy.
You’ve talked about maybe starting an Asian-style tapas bar, however being in one place and running such a thing would be a huge commitment and never-ending work – surely for the moment you’re having a great life appearing at events around Sydney and Melbourne – as well as on TV and in magazines – could this Alvin juggernaut go on for quite some time yet?
I am hoping it will! The Asian tapas bar is still a tangible dream. At the moment, i have to sort out what I want to do and what the public expects me to do. I am looking towards a TV show and doing more cooking demonstrations.
Is there anything unexpected on the horizon for you – a book, maybe an Alvin Quah branded mortar & pestle set. I could imagine you doing something quite left-field to keep the excitement at fever pitch – maybe your own cooking game show? Or maybe you’ll appear as a judge on Masterchef?
The aim is my own TV show although now you’ve got me thinking about my own brand of mortar and pestle … any takers??
Finally are you into organic food or wines, or gluten-free foods? Or are you more of a gluten-all-the-way-baby kind-of cook?
I’m proud (and a little embarrassed) to say that it’s gluten all the way for me! I do promote organic foods whenever I can though.
And you must be enjoying this series of Junior Masterchef – do you have any tips for budding chefs of the 4 or 6-year old variety?
To be honest, I’ve only watched one episode of Junior MasterChef. My tips for young budding chefs is to keep it real. Enjoy your childhood, think about cheffing later on in life! Go to the park, play catch or have a game of footy!
To find out stacks more about Alvin, check out his great website www.alvinquah.com.au/ which has heaps of articles and radio interviews with him as well as details of his forthcoming public appearances. Get yourself a slice of that Alvin vibe!