Poh Ling Yeow Doesn’t Want To Be “Pigeonholed As Asian” — & She Shouldn’t Be

For the first time in the history of MasterChef Australia, there are two female judges on the panel — food critic and journalist Sofia Levin and cook and former MasterChef alumnus, Poh Ling Yeow. The two women follow in the footsteps of Melissa Leong, who was a judge on the hit cooking show for four years until her departure last year.
Poh Ling Yeow is the second woman of colour after Leong to take the reins as MasterChef Australia judge. However, the television personality, author, and artist asserts that her aim was never to "prove a point" about Asian representation on screen.
"I don't know if I've ever completely set out to prove a point about being Asian and female," she tells Refinery29 Australia of her judging appointment.
Instead, the MasterChef Australia judges emphasises that she wants to be known and recognised for her abilities, not just her Malaysian-Australian identity. She explains that she has actively resisted people "pigeonholing" her. "I have actually shied away from being pigeonholed as Asian," Yeow says. "I just want to be recognised as someone who is capable."
And capable, she is. The now-MasterChef Australia judge might have found her roots on the cult cooking show, but since her debut in 2009, she's gone on to host multiple cooking shows including Poh's Kitchen, Poh & Co., and Adam & Poh's Great Australian Bites, where she teamed up with fellow MasterChef contestant Adam Liaw. In addition, she has also run her own food stall and is a prolific artist.
While Yeow appreciates the conversations surrounding identity politics, ultimately, she says that the discussions can sometimes be reductive, particularly if she's confined to the label of 'Asian female judge'.
"Sometimes we focus too much on the labels and in the process, we're almost diminishing that that person is good at what they do — not as a woman, but just as a person," she explains. "There are definitely discussions that are necessary in that department, but sometimes I feel we overstep it to the point where it almost takes us backwards."
Instead, Yeow longs for a world where attention to her identity is unnecessary because seeing people like her on screen is commonplace.
That's not to say that the Malaysian-Australian jack of all trades isn't in tune with her culture — she is. Influenced deeply by her migrant parents, Yeow explains just one of the ways that her culture has shaped her. "I think there is definitely culturally a real 'good girl' trope," she says of her upbringing. "I think often with migrant families there's a lot of that, even if it's unspoken. You understand the sacrifices that your family have made and so you want to make something good of yourself."
Speaking of joining the MasterChef Australia kitchen, Yeow explains that much of the pressure to succeed came from within. "It's really strange how many people have said that they thought we'd fit well on the panel, but I had never thought that," she shares. "I've just always thought that my vibe has never been a 'front of room' vibe."
She explains that coming onto the show, she was initially quite nervous due to her past ways of working, especially in front of cameras. "I'm very go into my home, into my little kitchen and watch the chaos unfold," she shares, referencing her own cooking show. "Usually one camera. I've always worked with a very intimate and small crew of three people... so being part of a big, monolithic crew has been very intimidating."
"When you're front of room, you definitely have to have that real gravitas... I didn't feel that I have that," she says. "But I definitely found my groove."
Rather than her identity, Yeow shares that her superpower on the show is her ability to empathise with contestants, given that she's walked in their shoes before. "Being an ex-contestant, my ability to empathise and watch people's body language and how they're cooking and what they're cooking," she says. "I know what's happened very intimately."
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