Michele Lean is the newly-crowned winner of Food Hero talent search with a massive appetite for food and vicarious exoticism.
IT’S no mean feat, beating 300 other aspiring TV hosts to be the victor of an Asia-wide talent search for the Food Network. But then again, Michele Lean is no amateur. Thanks in part to her wholesome looks and Fun Taiwan host Janet Hsieh-like effervescence, the 32-year-old has amassed a diverse range of acting experiences, from small roles on the silver screen to full-blown hosting gigs for China Central Television.
Now that Lean has won Scripps Networks Interactive’s inaugural Asia-wide talent search, she will also host the Asian version of Food Wars, a programme on Food Network which pits two of the best restaurants in Asia against one another in a culinary showdown.
Filming hasn’t even begun yet, but it’s no big surprise that Lean is raring to go. A self-confessed foodie, Lean knows a thing or two about eating her way – literally – across the globe.
“I’ve organised my travels to revolve around food, including a road trip along the coast of Brittany just for oysters or Nova Scotia for lobsters,” she disclosed in an email interview.
“I am also a little extreme and take it as far as scheduling layovers so I can head out of the airport and eat in the city – takoyaki off the street in Tokyo, wonton noodles from Mak’s in Hong Kong, Amsterdam for bitterballen or the best kuih lapis in Jakarta.”
Born in Kuala Lumpur to a family of bankers and raised in KL, Sarawak and Hong Kong because of her father’s career, Lean has led a semi-nomadic lifestyle ever since she could remember.
What has remained constant is her love for food, nurtured in part by her mother and grandmother.
“My mum and gran are very good cooks and they would always involve us in the process,” said Lean, who recalled learning how to make sophisticated stuff such as roux and béchamel sauce even as a little girl.
“I just referred to it as creamy cauliflower sauce because my mum would make it, pour it over steamed cauliflower and bake it with cheese.”
At 17, Lean – who also held an Australian permanent residency – moved to the land Down Under to study at the University of Melbourne.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in Media and Communications, she then relocated to Beijing in 2007, where she has been living for the past seven years.
It’s in one of the world’s most populous cities that she landed her first hosting gig, for China Central Television’s English-language travel show. The programme – Travelogue – simultaneously quenched Lean’s thirst for adventure and gave her the opportunity to indulge in her acting fantasies.
Powering her way across China with a Colgate smile and impeccable English, Lean entertained – and informed – viewers by introducing them to the republic’s big city charms and little-known ethnic minorities.
The show’s first stop, Xinjiang, remains one of Lean’s favourite regions for its cultural diversity, colour, music, breathtaking scenery and archaeological sites.
“It’s also the place where I experienced the worst plumbing in my life – I won’t go into details but I can say that after that, no toilet in China will ever faze me,” she said.
There is also that “wow” moment which every travel host will inevitably experience at some point in their careers.
Lean’s happened while she was spending time with the nomadic Kazakh – an ethnic minority in China – in the mountains of Altay, riding horses from location to location, and feasting on lamb’s ears.
“One of the ways they honour their guests is by serving whole lambs, and according to tradition, the youngest person at the table is required to eat the lambs’ ears as it signifies being ‘ting hua’ or obedient in Chinese. As I was the youngest person on the team, that privilege fell to me – for many days of that month,” she recounted. “To be honest though, they were pretty good.”
While the whole experience was, according to Lean, “like a scene out of a movie”, the harsh realities of life began to set in after several days.
“We bathed in ice-cold water and grew tired of eating so much lamb.”
Nevertheless, the producers at CCTV-9 must’ve been impressed; other offers soon began to pour in and Lean found herself hosting several other programmes including a music variety show, a current affairs programme and even a gala show for Chinese New Year.
Of course, there’s a whole other side of Lean that viewers don’t get to see – the girl whose longstanding obsession with food drove her to pursue a culinary scholarship from Le Cordon Bleu, the girl who would happily whip up a meal for her beau when she’s not on the road and – perhaps this is where her Chinese-Malaysian roots kick in – the girl who would go the distance for good food.
“One of the best places to travel for food is Hong Kong,” she revealed.
“The people there are extreme foodies and are very particular about their food – a bad restaurant would never survive in the city for long.
“I love Cantonese food and constantly crave wonton noodles from Mak’s, goose and century eggs from Yung Kee and seafood from Lamma Island.”
Back home in Beijing, Lean usually cooks – zucchini salad and seared salmon happen to be a favourite, throw-together meal – but she also has a list of go-to restaurants when she’s not in the mood.
Incidentally, all the controversy surrounding food safety and hygiene in the republic doesn’t make her nervous.
Instead, Lean has credited her iron-clad stomach to time spent in China.
“The first time my grandmother visited me in Beijing, she’d heard about a food scandal involving fake eggs. She refused to eat any eggs during her visit! I’ve lived in Beijing for seven years and to be honest, I’ve never encountered a fake egg, a newspaper-filled char siew pau or an exploding watermelon, but I think I’ve also been careful. I’ve been going to the same vendors at the market for years and they’ll tell me what’s fresh or in season.”
When it comes to eating and cooking, she believes in being fearless.
“Try everything – eat it even if it sounds, smells or looks bad; you may just surprise yourself and like it. And cook anything without worrying about messing up a recipe; you’ll get there in the end.”
While no one can deny that Lean has enough guts and gumption to rival some of TV’s zaniest food-and-travel hosts, Food Wars is the type of show that relies neither on exoticism nor spectacle to reel in its audience.
But who knows, the show, when it debuts on one of TV’s most highly-rated food channels, might finally give this girl her big and, not to mention, well-deserved, break.
And if it does ... well, watch out, Rachael Ray.