MasterChef Stars On ‘Smelly’ School Lunchboxes & Taking Pride In Homemade Food

MasterChef Australia: Fans & Favourites contestants Jenn Lee and Steph Woon have opened up about how their relationship with food has helped form their sense of identity from a young age.
Lee, who migrated to Australia from Taiwan when she was six, recalls her school lunches and other snacks being a point of different between her and her classmates.
"I still remember when kids had birthdays you'd bring a cake from school. Everyone would bring in mud cake but then my mum would make a Taiwanese-style sponge cake to bring in," she tells Refinery29 Australia. "And people take interest in things that are different."
Image courtesy of Channel 10
MasterChef Australia: Fans & Favourites contestant Jenn Lee
Lee says taking Taiwanese food to school attracted mixed reactions of curiosity and confusion amongst kids around her. She tried to use it as an opportunity to educate others and make friends in a new country, and even to this day tries to turn others' ignorance into a positive.
"I would share some of my food and they might not like the look of it, but over time they realise it's really yummy and then we become friends before you know it. Food has really helped me connect with everyone and settle in," she explains.
"Sometimes the attention's bad, sometimes it's good but it's always been a conversation starter for me. My lunch [at school] was always quite different to my peers. I would be bringing fried rice or dumplings to school and all my friends were eating sandwiches.
"I know a lot of people have experienced teasing or bullying from that because sometimes Asian lunchboxes can be quite smelly, but I actually disregard all of that negativity and the people I've met along the way are generally a little bit more interested than disgusted."
Co-star Steph Woon, whose MasterChef dishes are often inspired by her Malaysian heritage, says she also remembers taking warm lunches in thermos flasks — perfect for soups — to school and feeling different from her friends eating sandwiches out of lunchboxes.
"I remember, I think it was grade one, and I went to school with one of those thermos flasks," she says. "It was so embarrassing but at the same time it was warm food on a cold day and even though I hated the fact that I had to eat out of a thermos, I loved the fact that it was warm food."
Image courtesy of Channel 10
MasterChef Australia: Fans & Favourites contestant Steph Woon
Growing up in a South Asian household, I can relate to Lee and Woon's experiences. I remember classmates' raised eyebrows and scrunched noses when I took out my Tupperware in the playground, containing Bataka Poha — a traditional Indian rice dish rich with aromatic spices.
These days I still hesitate taking curries into the workplace due to their strong smell, even though no colleague has ever told me they dislike the smell of Indian food. But seeing the likes of Lee and Steph speaking openly about their stories and showcasing their cultural cuisine on national TV gives me a sense of comfort, reassuring me that it doesn't always have to be like this.
Lee says a lot of the Taiwanese food she's grown up eating at home is not often found in restaurants, but is just as rich in flavour and symbolic of family, identity and culture.
"I think it's been absolutely amazing having this opportunity on national TV to cook food that the majority of people don't know about, but is really close to my heart," she says.
"It's what I grew up eating, and having the appreciation for it on a national platform has been a very transformative experience."
Lee and Woon are competing in a freshly formatted season of MasterChef this year, featuring 12 contestants from previous seasons (favourites) competing against 12 amateur home cooks (fans).
Image courtesy of Channel 10
MasterChef Australia: Fans & Favourites judges Jock Zonfrillo, Melissa Leong and Andy Allen
The favourites include Julie Goodwin (Season 1), Billie McKay (Season 7), Sashi Cheliah (Season 10), Alvin Quah (Season 2), Michael Weldon (Season 3) Mindy Woods (Season 4), Christina Batista (Season 5), Sarah Todd (Season 6), John Carasig (Season 7), Aldo Ortado (Season 10), Minoli De Silva (Season 13) and Tommy Pham (Season 13).
In addition to Lee and Steph, the other fans are Ali Stoner, Chris Tran, Daniel Lamble, Dulan Hapuarachchi, Harry Tomlinson, Keyma Vasquez Montero, Matt Landmark, Max Krapivsky, Melanie Persson and Montana Hughes.
Image courtesy of Channel 10
The cast of MasterChef Australia: Fans & Favourites
MasterChef Australia: Fans & Favourites airs Sunday to Thursday at 7:30pm on Channel 10 and 10Play.
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