Is Adam Liaw Australia’s most popular (former) reality star? It’s a claim that’d be hard to argue with… With four cookbooks, three TV shows and columns in Good Food, The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal, he hasn’t exactly faded into oblivion since taking out the Masterchef crown in 2010. He’s an author, a TV star, a businessman, a UNICEF Ambassador, a mad sports fan, a chef, a dad and, with over 250K followers, he’s a bonafide Legend of Social Media™.
When I met with Adam on a rainy day in Sydney, he was midway through photographing his next cookbook, due out just in time to add it to your Christmas wish list. The studio/test kitchen smelled of teriyaki and freshly baked cookies - arguably two of the greatest smells known to the human nose.
“Try one,” Adam said, showing me a gorgeous photo of some Japanese shortbread, plated- and - as they might say on Masterchef - “cooked to perfection”.
[Scandinavia’s] got the really high-end food which is Noma or any of the other (45) Michelin starred restaurants but it also has these fantastic experimental places which are all doing really interesting things.
But I wasn’t there just for the free lunch, nor to discuss Japanese cuisine: I was there to chat about Adam’s upcoming series on SBS. Taking us from the stylish dining rooms of So-Hot-Right-Now Copenhagen to the laavu’s (huts) of the nomadic reindeer herders on the edge of the arctic circle, Destination Flavour: Scandinavia is a fascinating look at one of the most interesting - and important - foodie scenes in the world today.
After two successful series focussing on Japan and Australia, Adam says Scandinavia was next because it’s where all the major food trends are happening.
“It has a huge influence on the way we eat and speak and live, but we don’t know much about it,” he said. “[Scandinavia’s] got the really high-end food which is Noma or any of the other (45) Michelin starred restaurants but it also has these fantastic experimental places which are all doing really interesting things. My wife is Japanese and she says it’s the European Japan. And she’s right.”
Nordic Cuisine, Adam says, is truly changing the way we think about food. “I think what we’re starting to see is a more sensible approach. People are no longer giving up whole aspects of their diet but instead understanding there are really great parts of being sugar/dairy/gluten free etc and then incorporating that into what works for their lifestyle. That’s very Nordic. In Scandinavia the philosophy is, ‘don’t say that something is bad - say that something could be better, be that in the preparation, the cooking or the ingredients themselves.”
While the series gives us some very cool Scandinavian food moments, (Reindeer carpaccio, anyone? How about some Arctic sea kelp?) it’s more than just a cooking show - it’s about how food and culture are interlinked, be it in Scandinavia or here in Oz. One minute Adam is fulfilling a childhood dream of learning how to fight like a Viking and the next he’s in a hut making traditional bread with his sparring partner.
“Food says so much about geography and culture,” he explains. “There are two different food movements existing in Scandinavia - you’ve got the very homely, hearty kind of traditional - that has a lot of custom and culture behind it, and then you’ve got the new Nordic on top of that which is almost modern to a fault - very natural, very sustainable, no huge complicated processes. It’s just presenting ingredients in front of you.”
It’s that contradiction - a respect for the past with an eagerness to embrace and shape the future - that Adam says is at the heart of Scandinavian culture.
Being at the forefront of world cuisine also means that Scandinavia is in a position to take risks. At one point in the series, Adam visits a restaurant that uses no electricity - food is cooked over coals and dinner is served by candlelight.
“There have always been restaurants which have cooked over coals,” he says. “But in that case, instead of going to a restaurant and saying ‘I’ll have something from your grill section’ - the grill is the whole thing. Niche to me is really exciting.”
In Scandinavia the philosophy is, ‘don’t say that something is bad - say that something could be better, be that in the preparation, the cooking or the ingredients themselves.
Another “niche” restaurant Adam tries is Sweden’s Bloom in the Park, where not only is there no menu, they don’t even tell you what you’re eating when the food arrives on your plate, which is definitely something of a novelty.
“Look at it in a wine context: people say when you’re drinking wine to never read the tasting notes because you end up hearing that there are blueberries and that’s what you taste. It tricks you into informing what is there. If nobody is telling you what you’re eating, it’s a very fresh experience. It’s very interesting.”
Sure, but are they just gimmicks, I ask? Style over substance, or are they enhancing the experience?
“Restaurants need to differentiate themselves. They’re businesses at the end of the day,” Adam says. Furthermore, there are gimmicks that are just gimmicks, like going to Japan and eating at a restaurant served by Robots or Ninjas, which is an actual thing.
“That’s just part of the entertainment, but then - as with Bloom in the Park - there are places where instead, a philosophy is sharpened.”
And chefs like Heston Blumenthal (who Adam has been known to poke fun at on Twitter) - where do they sit?
“You can’t turn every meal that you eat into a sad piece of art,” he says. “You’ve got to have fun with it and I think that’s where that kind of Heston/molecular gastronomy sits. I love Heston’s shows. They’re very entertaining. But 10 years ago people were predicting that everyone was going to have a sous vide machine. At that stage they were $2000 and everyone was going ‘imagine what it’ll be like when they’re $200’. Well, now they are and we still don’t have them.”
There’s a fascinating part of the series where Adam gets to sample a 200-year-old Mahogany Clam. For a chef, tasting weird and wonderful cuisine pretty much goes with the territory, yet Adam is visibly torn by the concept of eating something so old.
“The idea of that being sustainable didn’t compute with my idea of what sustainable is. I’ve always thought that the younger something is the more sustainable. That’s not necessarily the case. That mahogany clam at 200 years old is probably more replenishable - if that’s a word - and more sustainable than spring lamb. And more environmentally friendly. Besides, it’s had a good life. I wanted to ask it some questions!”
For Adam, one of the key things he learnt from his Scandinavian experience was to question previously held beliefs. “Food is a very visceral thing and it can bring up a lot of emotions and a lot of prejudices,” he says. “That’s one of these recurrent themes that’s very strong in Nordic cuisine - whether it’s food trends or health - just to constantly question what you think/believe/do/say is correct.”
Before I let Adam get back to his cookbook, I have to take a moment to ask him about social media. With over 250,000 followers, his presence is considered the most influential in the Australian food industry. Whether it’s sharing dinner recipes, snarking about pollies on Q&A or hilariously live tweeting the Melbourne Cup, Adam isn’t afraid to speak his mind online. So how important is social media, I ask, when it comes to building and maintaining a career in food today?
“It’s very important but only if it’s authentic,” he explains. “There are almost no celebrity accounts that I find in any way interesting because they’re brand extensions. For me, what I do like about social media is that it lets me have an unfiltered voice - to be very honest, which I think is very cool. I don’t have to check with an editor and ask ‘Am I allowed to say this?’”
So does he get trolled?
“I’m an Asian person in the media!” he laughs. “Of course I get trolled - daily! I don’t mind. I have a thick skin and I don’t engage in it, unless I’m in a bad mood. And if I engage it’s only because I’m right and they’re wrong and I need to make that clear to them!”
I’m an Asian person in the media! Of course I get trolled - daily!
Considering he’s a former lawyer with an interest in everything from the American election to the Academy Awards, would he ever properly go into politics or public policy?
“I would consider myself a generalist… I certainly like being engaged with what’s going on in the world. In the long history of failed lawyers I think a lot of them feel limited by having to work 14 hours a day and not indulge their hobbies or see their families… And certainly that was the case for me. So I’m not looking for a change sometime soon but if and when it eventually comes I’ll embrace that the same as everything else.”
So then what does he like best about what he does, I wonder. One minute he’s shooting a series on a snowmobile in Sweden, the next he’s testing out recipes for a new cookbook. In addition to that there are the columns, the appearances, the actual cooking - it’s a pretty varied life.
Adam nods and smiles and says simply, “What I genuinely like best is that I don’t have to decide what I like best.”