Dessert queen and lover of all things sweet, Jess Liemantara was the youngest contestant on this years MasterChef Australia. This week, Jess shares about her MasterChef Journey and the power of connecting people through food!

Photo: Jess Liemantara

Tell us a little about your background. How did you come to apply for MasterChef?

I was born in Perth Subiaco along with my older brother Jeremy, then we moved down to Melbourne. Both my parents are from Surabaya hence why I speak mostly Bahasa Jawa. My parents opened a restaurant in Perth called, “Taste of Java”, and later reopened another restaurant in Melbourne called, “Foodtopia Fusion Café Restaurant”, in Bayswater which was a fusion of Thai, Malay and Indonesian cuisine. My brother and I both helped my parents in the restaurant, I managed floor operations, till management and barista ring and my brother worked as the chef along with my dad. My mum took on the role as the Boss and inspired my bother and I to purse being entrepreneurs ourselves.

We opened the restaurant for 4 years and decided we all needed to move on to venture new opportunities and skills. I started working at Nobu as a food and beverage attendant in July 2017 and was amazed by the authentic Japanese cuisine and the way the chefs work in the kitchen. Being on the other side as a waitress is much different the level of intensity, and is not as stressful as being the kitchen. The chefs work extremely hard to make sure food is consistent and of high quality.

The opportunity to audition for MasterChef 2018 came along and friends and family pushed me to audition for the show. I didn’t feel fit enough for the opportunity just after not going further in my recent audition for the Great Australian Bake Off. After many nagging and support from family and friends I decided to give it ago. I handed in my application and after a month received an email requesting to schedule in an audition. From then on I was short listed to the top 50 contestants to cook for the three judges. To this day I still cannot believe the amazing journey that got me to that very special day.

What’s life like post-MasterChef?

Gosh I would have to say I had a couple of tough months where I felt out of place and didn’t know where to begin just after being away for so long. Having quit my previous job as a waitress, I wanted to pursue my passion as a chef. I searched for work experience and was lucky enough to do be able to undertake professional experience at the Press club and Omnom. The amount of technique, skill and precision in these two businesses are phenomenal, it was such an amazing experience.

I’m currently working at Omnom sometimes it still surprises me that I am now on the other side of the business having people say “yes Chef”, makes me feel like I’ve achieved that one step closer to a new beginning. I’ve always dreamed of being in the kitchen baking and doing what I love most. But it’s not always funs and daisies, there will be tough days in the kitchen but I am willing to learn and get back up when things don’t go to plan.

Working casually along with taking custom cake orders I’ve realised how much time and energy cooking takes out of you. There are days when I just want to sit and relax but all you can think about is what I have to do next, what needs to be prepared and what if it doesn’t work or I don’t have enough time. There are no regrets, I still love what I do and will continue to pursue my dream of one day supplying my cakes to businesses. Taking it slow and as George said, “don’t climb the mountain to high to come down crumbling”. I am hoping to finish off my cookbook by December 2018.

Photo: Caramel Porcini Mousse Balls with Fried Enoki by Jess Liemantara

Can you tell us a bit about your time on MasterChef? What was your favourite thing about the experience?

My MasterChef journey was one of the hardest things I’ve done. The audition process to get to top 50 was so much fun, scary, but so fun. Cooking for the judges for the first time was even more stressful. After not receiving an apron on the first day I was devastated and didn’t have a lot of faith that I would get in on my second chance cook. The opportunity to cook for the second time was such a blessing I got to show the judges I really do want to fight to the very end. Finally, receiving the apron on the second day was such a life changing experience, until I was in an elimination that week.

It tore me to pieces to think being the youngest in this year’s MasterChef that I was in the very first elimination. I have to fight a little harder to catch up to such amazing cooks. Day after day I’ve learnt so much about cooking and about life. The other MasterChef contestants are amazing and made the journey so fun and memorable.

My favourite thing about my MasterChef experience would be having the opportunity to be in 12 eliminations, 5 pressure tests and 7 normal eliminations. I was able to cook over 50 times, really helping me create my menu and find my style of cooking.

The friendships made with the caring and like-minded souls that love food as much as I do is so surreal. We non-stop talk about food. I can never forget the amazing mentoring from the 3 judges, Matt, Gary and George who continuously work hard to make me a better chef and a cleaner one too. I am so glad to have been in MasterChef 2018, the challenges and the professional chefs we met is just mind blowing I cannot thank the Lord enough for guiding me through this amazing journey.

Photo: Masterchef contestants Jess, Brendan and Reece

How does your/your parents Indonesian background influence or inspire your cooking?

My parents Indonesian background helped so much in times of desperate cooking situations. From marinating with simple ingredients, peanut base sauces and our love for chilli. My dad and Grandma love making Roti isih and I am so glad I was able to make Deep fried sandwich to represent my Indonesian background. As Indonesians, we cook a lot of Thai food due to our past experiences of opening up a restaurant. Watching my dad cook inside the kitchen using just simple ingredients such as mint, lime, chilli, garlic, ginger and other aromats to make beautiful salads and dressing is what got me through my MasterChef journey. My Mum always said to marinate any protein in ginger, lemon and garlic and that’s what helped to get me through.

What are your future culinary hopes/aspirations?

I hope to have my own café one day with a production kitchen and degustation lounge. I’m also hoping to publish my cookbook by December and to hopefully get my brand out there in supplying cafes with the desserts I create. There is not one day where I don’t think about cooking or owning my own café, or even getting my desserts tasted by the public. As they say, the way to success is to dream big and continuously talk your dreams to make them happen.

Photo: Cake created by Jess

What do you love most about Indonesia?

I love how fast businesses grow in Indonesia and the creativity and art put into making a restaurant or attraction so beautiful. I always wonder how fast things pop up, from big new luxurious shopping centres to the never ending beautiful restaurants and cafes that are now booming in Indonesia. Oh and it’s also the best place to shop, I love Mangga 2, Galaxy Mall, Grand Indonesia and Ciputra World.

Any hopes for the Australia-Indonesia relationship/how people can become connected through food?

With such growth in the presence of Indonesian culture here in Melbourne, I’m sure we all meet in the same places whether it is for Ayam penyet, Soto ayam or Bakso, you are bound to see another Indonesian. I think there is such a diversity here in Australia and it’s so great to see so many cuisines and different cultures uniting people food that really brings us all together and grows friendships through sitting down and eating together in your favourite restaurant.

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us Jess!

See what Jess has been up to on InstagramFacebook and Twitter. Keep an eye out for more interviews in the coming weeks!