The need to impress as a contestant in one of Australia’s most popular reality cooking shows can make even the best chefs sweat in their aprons. Now imagine having to do that from dusk to dawn surrounded by bright lights and cameras.
They may have missed out on the grand finals of My Kitchen Rules’ current sixth season, but Eva Lean, 32, and Debra Ch’ng, 26, should be high-fived for making it look effortless. Of Singaporean Indian and Malaysian Chinese descent, the Perth-based pair are marketing colleagues at an energy company whose cuisine is – no surprise – Asian.
The gastronomic starlets initially blew Aussie judges away with oh-so-familiar dishes like nasi lemak, cauliflower curry and pandan crème brulee, but they were eventually beaten by blonde cousins Jac Bakhash and Shaz Sellings.
Being booted out of the competition hasn’t dampened their spirit in the kitchen. On the contrary, the pair seemed bubblier and more driven than ever, as we discovered in a recent phone interview.
What are your earliest memories of food?
Debra: From a young age, I always helped my dad and grandma cook. But I started cooking independently at the age of eight. I loved to bake. The one thing I enjoyed making is pineapple tarts every Chinese New Year with my grandma.
Eva: My mum cooked a lot at home. The kitchen has always been the heart of the house, where everybody hangs out. One of my earliest memories is of me lying on the kitchen bench while my mum cooks. I remember hanging out with her and helping out. I would pound ingredients for her, like her garlic, ginger and spices. And now, using the mortar and pestle reminds me of those days; it’s very sentimental for me.
What drove you to apply to be participants on the show?
Debra: Eva and I are workmates, we sit next to each other and we have been big fans of the show for many years. We follow the seasons quite religiously and, previously, we would meet up just before lunch and discuss the show and wonder what we would do if we were contestants. When we signed up for real, it was more for fun and giggles. We did our audition tape and we got the call from the executive producer within two days. The next minute, we were on the show. So, it happened very, very fast.
What excited you most about being on the show?
Eva: To actually be in it, seeing how much hard work you have to put in and how challenging and how much you have to push yourself, physically and mentally, to make it as far as you can in the competition. I think that was such an experience for us.
What was the most difficult challenge and why?
Debra: We didn’t do very well in the fifth Instant Restaurant and we pretty much just scraped through to get through to the next round.
Eva: I think why it was so hard was because we weren’t used to the format; there were a number of camera crews around and the producers kept asking us a lot of questions. We don’t talk much in our day-to-day cooking but this time, we had to say every single thing that was on our mind.
What was it like watching yourself on television?
Eva: It was quite surreal. It’s a real thrill to see yourself on TV because, obviously, it never happened before. It’s great! We love it!
How did your friends and family react when they found out you were on the show?
Debra: I think our family and even our friends were quite speechless that we’d done a whole television show and it’s nationwide and now going worldwide. I think, even today, they are really proud of us but also shocked at the same time. Would you say so, Eva?
Eva: Absolutely. It takes a lot of guts to wear your heart on your sleeve and be on TV for all the world to judge you. It’s not an easy thing, but lucky for us, people actually like us. So, that was good.
What is one behind-the-scene thing you wish people knew about the show?
Debra: It would probably be the long hours of filming just to produce an hour-and-a-half long episode. For example, for the instant restaurants, they might finish at 6am in the morning, depending on the contestants. It’s very, very long, and it could take up to over 12 hours just to film one dinner.
How stressful was it?
Eva: Oh my god. It was so stressful. I think it was probably the most stressful thing Debra and I have ever experienced. First, you’ve got the long hours, and second, you have to prepare mentally for the next day’s challenges, all your Instant Restaurants and whatever else. It’s really gruelling and I don’t think you see that on TV. Debra and I are workmates and friends, but during the show, you spend so much time together that your relationship is really tested. Fortunately, we are closer friends, like sisters, in fact. It’s so stressful, beyond what you can imagine.
Were you exposed to any new techniques and ingredients while on the show?
Eva: Because everyone has a different style of cooking, you learn very quickly how to cook well, efficiently and in a smart way, too. We were cooking Asian food, but Asian food comprises techniques like balancing flavours, using traditional methods, and technical skill, but some people obviously gravitate to modern techniques, which is fine. That is what makes the show so great, that you get different people from different walks of life using different techniques.
What would be your perfect meal?
Debra: I am a sucker for noodles, so anything with noodles and roasted pork.
Eva: For me, it’s curry and rice. It reminds me of my mum and home.
What are your plans now?
Debra: We would love to pursue our dream to be in the food industry. So, we are working very hard now to get our cookbook out within the next year. We are also trying to get a non-perishable line, but we are open to other opportunities. We also hope to pitch to any TV channels if they are willing to take us on a cooking show where we can go back to our homeland, Singapore, Malaysia, India.
My Kitchen Rules runs from Monday to Thursday, and on Saturday on DIVA Universal (Astro Ch 702).
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