Before winning MasterChef Australia S9, Diana Chan was an accountant crunching numbers in an office. Then, thanks to her boyfriend who encouraged her to trade her calculator for an apron, the Melbourne-based Malaysian-born left her full-time job as a senior analyst in accountancy to join the reality cooking competition.
That gamble paid off — the dark horse of the competition took home top honours with her signature Asian-inspired nosh (psst, you can still catch re-runs of MasterChef Australia S9, Sat, Lifetime (Singtel TV Ch 302), 7pm).
Naturally, we are curious about how she plans to spend her $256k prize pot. Would she be savvier than most folks about utilising that enviable sum? (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.) So we caught up with her when she was in town recently to cook a sumptious lunch for journos at a Singtel TV event.
Although she’s a quarter of a million bucks richer now, some things have not changed. She still stays in an apartment with her Australian boyfriend, Tim, in Windsor, Melbourne, and takes Uber.
In her “old” Gucci wallet, Diana keeps membership cards from shops like Nespresso, plus an ang pow in which she stashes Malaysian ringgit for when she goes back to Johor Bahru to visit her parents. Oh, and a handwritten love note Tim.
“I don’t keep his photos in my wallet; I had his picture as my phone wallpaper until he changed it to a cow ’cos I was nagging at him,” she deadpans.
8 DAYS: Congrats on your recent MasterChef Australia win! How have you spent your AU$250k ($256k) prize so far?
DIANA CHAN: I haven’t used it, actually. I just invested it in personal shares (laughs). Because MasterChef Australia has opened a lot of doors for me, I haven’t had the need to dig into those funds. Hopefully I can contribute [the returns] to the restaurant that I want to open in the future. It’d be casual dining with balanced meals and fusion flavours.
Why not open a restaurant now with the prize money?
It’s not that I don’t want to, but I think now is the best time to capitalise [on my win] and build my profile first. That’s why I’m investing more time into building a brand and doing a lot of media interviews and appearances.
Maybe next year when I open my restaurant, the money would come in handy. I don’t want to rush into this ’cos it’s such a big commitment. I’m realistic about the food business; it’s not easy and there’s so much hard work involved. Wages in Australia are high. The harder I work now, the brighter my future will be.
You have clearly thought this through, like a true accountant.
My boyfriend is in the food industry too — he runs a few food outlets. Hopefully we can be a good team with his operational expertise and my financial expertise. I want to be very involved with the menu, so I’d be creating the dishes. If only we don’t argue! Tim and I argue over making even a chicken sandwich; I cut it into rectangles and he cuts it into triangles (laughs).
How do you plan on building your own food empire?
I start small, do it well, and get people to talk about my restaurant, then I open another branch offering the same things or something different. Chefs tend to change their style of cooking over the years. I’m one of those. Food evolves, and I want to be up-to-date.
I did consultancy when I was an accountant and saw a lot of businesses going under, so I know what not to do (laughs). The reason why some food businesses fail is because they didn’t maintain their quality, and they didn’t keep up with the food trends. I want a queue at my restaurant every day for the next 10 years.
Would you ever go back to accountancy?
I’m mostly involved with charity work for [my former company, accountancy giant] Deloitte now and try to give back as much as I can. I don’t do any work involving clients. I want to pursue my career in food ’cos it’s my passion and it’s a waste to let this whole MasterChef thing go when there’s already a platform for me. So right now I can’t see myself going back to being an accountant.
But I won’t say never, since I can’t predict what my life will be like in five or 10 years. Who knows? But my degree is something I can fall back on if I need it. I’ll leave that option open.
Most people would hesitate to leave a well-paying job at a Big Four accountancy firm.
I have a choice to go back to my nine-to-five job, but why do that? What I’m doing now is so much more exciting (laughs). I get to create something new every day and meet different people every day.
I also have a Plan B, of course. I still want to continue being a bit of a personality. I love doing appearances and I want to continue being on TV.
On the topic of food, what can we find in your last food delivery order?
Er… Nando’s. I love Nando’s (guffaws)! My boyfriend and I always get the hot grilled chicken — but I get mine extra hot ’cos he can’t take the spiciness — and spicy rice and chips. I’d make a salad at home. We probably spent around $40. It’s not cheap.
What was your last grocery bill like?
I spent close to AU$90 (S$92). My basket is mostly filled with chocolates, nuts and cheeses for my mum in Malaysia. I usually get only cleaning supplies and toiletries from the supermarkets, maybe milk and pasta. For fresh food, I always buy from the farmers’ markets!
Catch reruns of MasterChef Australia S9, Sat, Lifetime (Singtel TV Ch 302), 7pm.