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‘My Heart Was In Being A Contestant’: Why Poh Is Most At Home Behind The MasterChef Bench

When it was announced that three new judges would be joining MasterChef Australia in 2020, fans immediately began dream casting the perfect trio.

As discussions took place on social media, between colleagues at work, or in family Whatsapp threads, it was Poh Ling Yeow’s name that kept rising to the top of everyone’s list -- a seemingly natural successor given her history as the Season 1 runner-up, and as a regular guest and recent mentor on MasterChef.

But when it was revealed that Poh was joining MasterChef: Back To Win as a contestant, and not a judge, it was a pleasant surprise that soon started making complete sense.

Speaking to 10 daily ahead of the new series, Poh explained that she wasn’t even approached to join the MasterChef judging panel.

“I didn’t get asked, actually!” she laughed. “What was really funny was, when the rumours were flying, I had to actually consider it just in case it did happen,” she said.

“But I wasn’t invested in it, I was like, ‘If it did happen, I’d still have really big decisions to make’ because it would mean relocation and I don’t know if I was the best man for the job.”

While Poh’s time as a mentor on Season 11 of MasterChef inspired contestants successfully through immunity challenges, she admitted that the hands-off role gave her a desperate case of kitchen FOMO.

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“I did the mentorship and my heart was in being a contestant, like truly,” she said. "I was so distracted by thoughts of what I would be doing in their position that I found it a difficult job," she added.

Since coming second in MasterChef back in 2009, Poh has gone on to host cooking shows on the ABC and SBS, continued her work as a visual artist, and founded Jamface by Poh -- a market stall based in Adelaide that sells delectable treats like Matcha lychee chiffon cake and fig, honey and mascarpone tarts.

Poh has always followed her nose, chased her passions and challenged her skill sets -- even before MasterChef, she worked as an illustrator, in the fashion industry and as a hair and makeup artist.

“I just want to always pursue things that I’m interested in, it’s a very simple life philosophy,” she told 10 daily.

"If you’re interested in something, just go and see how far you can take it and that’s what I’ve always done."

Although Poh has lived many lives across many creative disciplines, there’s nothing capricious about the decisions she makes, with each new step ambitious, but also very carefully considered.

“I thought really long and hard about why I want to do this and it had to be for a really good reason,” Poh told 10 daily of joining Back To Win.

“It’s really to show how I’ve evolved, I guess to showcase my style of cooking and it’s changed a lot in some ways but not in others.”

Poh explained that her culinary philosophy is very much centered around home cooking and explained that she plans to revisit some of the ideas she first started working on during Season 1.

“There’s going to be actually a lot of dishes that I pull out that had its genesis in the first season,” she said.

“It shows the grain of something good has stamina, you can keep developing it, evolving that same dish,” said adding that a lot of her early MasterChef ideas can be spotted in her cookbooks and in her repertoire as signature dishes.

Poh has added layers of acquired wisdom, experience and flavour to recipes she first started tinkering with a decade ago -- but the stories she tells and the philosophy she holds around food remain the same as always.

“One of my favourite dishes that I made was probably the congee… for the book cover challenge,” she said. “I did this congee with little steamed pork and century egg dumplings so it was a bit controversial because I think George nearly gagged on them,” she laughed.

“Century egg is an acquired flavour but I just wanted to make a statement that the world of food is so huge, there’s so much to be discovered still and I wanted to show something that was very much from my culture and that a lot of Australians might not have seen before.

“Not necessarily my best dish but I think it was a statement about what I wanted to represent,” Poh reflected.

From 2009 onwards, Poh fostered a close bond with former judges Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston and the boys had a comprehensive idea of her flavour palate.

But with new judges Jock Zonfrillo, Andy Allen and Melissa Leong, Poh will get the chance to start afresh -- something that appealed to her when she realised things would be a little different in the MasterChef kitchen in 2020.

“I think it’s going to be really interesting because I feel like that whole thing of going through the journey for the first time with the judges is happening again,” she said.

“It happened in my season because it was the first season and now I feel like it’s the same feeling again, so it’s really exciting,” she added.

Poh told 10 daily that although she’s friends with Andy and Jock and has met Melissa before, she’s still going in completely unaware of their judging style.

“Even though I do know the judges, I don’t necessarily know what their palates are like and what are their irks, so that’ll be really fun to discover together.

“I think it’s going to be great for them to get to know all our individual styles of cooking because obviously, they don’t know us,” she added.

MasterChef: Back To Win is coming soon to Network 10.