Adam Liaw, Australian cuisine on the road to recovery
Cookbook author and television presenter celebrates the bounty of Australian produce and the resilience of farmers in his recent projects.
By Kirsty McKenzie, photography SBS Food, recipes and styling by Adam Liaw
In the pre-pandemic world, Adam Liaw was supposed to spend a sizeable chunk of 2020 travelling overseas in his role as ambassador for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Australia Now program. His brief was to “cheerlead for Australia” promoting not just our many attractions, but also our innovative and creative skills and our rich multicultural heritage. But as with so many of us, the universe had different plans for the one-time lawyer and MasterChef Australia 2010 winner turned cookbook author, TV presenter and UNICEF Australia’s nutrition ambassador. He found himself confined to barracks in Sydney, grappling with the fallout not just of COVID-19, but the bushfires that ravaged vast swathes of food-producing regions during the summer of 2019/20 and before that, the drought that crippled farmers all over the country.
“The collective impact was devastating not just for the farmers, but for all Australians, not to mention our image overseas,” Adam explains. “The last images most people both in Australia and other countries saw of the bush was of devastated people and landscapes. Without the stunning scenery and the food, the main drivers that encourage people to visit the regions, there appeared to be no reason for going there. ”
So Adam, with the support of SBS Food, decided to do what he does best, tell the stories of people affected by natural disasters and chronicle their road to recovery. The resulting series, Roadtrip for Good, covers the fire-affected regions across four episodes and can be viewed on SBS On Demand. In it, Adam and his crew visited farmers in northern Victoria, the Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island in South Australia as well as the south coast of NSW.
“The aim of the show was two-pronged,” Adam explains. “We wanted to show people in the regions that we haven’t forgotten them. But we also wanted to show Australians and people from overseas that when they can travel again, that the affected regions are recovering, their people are resilient and there is still plenty to see, do and eat as things come back.”
For Adam, who spent much of his childhood in the Adelaide Hills, the program was deeply personal. Among the people his visited was his old friend, Udder Delights cheesemaker Sheree Sullivan. “The fires came right to the edge of her property,” Adam says. “It cut the power to the fromagerie, so 36 tonnes, or about $2 million worth of cheese had to go in the bin.”
On Kangaroo Island, Adam connected with honey producer Peter Davis, who lost more than 500 hives in a day in the fire that destroyed almost half of the island. “It was devastating, but it’s amazing how communities pull together at times like this,” Adam says. “It was inspiring how people from parts of the island that weren’t affected rallied to offer space to accommodate the remaining hives. Obviously, when the country is burnt out, there’s no pollen for the bees to collect and it’s crucial for nurturing young bees.”
Adam presented showcase the garlic farmer and volunteer fire fighter Shane Lehay had in the one storage shed he managed to save from the fires. In Victoria’s East Gippsland district, he visited the Forge Creek Free Range farm, where he collected eggs for a Japanese-inspired chawanmushi, while the Peking pork rib recipe was inspired by a visit to Berrima in the NSW Southern Highlands where Adam sourced the all-important tomato sauce from the Little Hands Stirred Jam shop. Vietnamese banh mi, Korean fire chicken and oyster omelette are among the other dishes Adam shares as a result of his travels.
“I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t a challenging series to shoot,” he says. “We managed to squeeze in the filming between lockdowns. But it was heart-warming to see the perspective the farmers had and their optimism for recovery. The smiles on people’s faces are still there and it’s my hope that viewers will be inspired to get out as soon as they safely can and visit the regions.”
Since the program aired, Adam has been keeping busy working on The Cook Up, a mammoth 200-episode series that will air on SBS week nights during the first half of this year. In it, he and his guests, both professional and home cooks, share their tips and tricks for preparing dishes with flair and flavour. “I enjoy the story telling as much as the cooking,” Adam says. “I love meeting people from different backgrounds and learning about what they like to eat and how they cook it. There will probably be a book at the end. I usually end up doing the stills as I’ve always been a keen hobbyist photographer. I’ve always been a bit of a generalist, but these days you’ve got to wear multiple hats to survive. So what I used to think was my fatal flaw of dabbling in too many things has now become a strength. It helps if you stay open to opportunities and are prepared to grab them when they come along. It’s also handy to know a good story when you find one. And there are plenty of those in regional Australia.” AC.