Culture //

Cooking up racial expectations

Chefs can find it hard to escape cultural stereotypes, writes Ada Lee.


The doorbell rings. You wait at the strangers’ door, not knowing what to expect. When it opens, two small Asians stand timidly before you, their eyes bright with excitement and fear. You might not say it or even think it, but your tastebuds are expecting oriental dishes for dinner tonight.

“Talking to all the other contestants, they all expected, the minute they saw us, that we’d cook Asian food,” says Shannelle Lim, recalling her team’s first round instant restaurant on reality TV show, My Kitchen Rules (MKR).

Advertised as the “Newlyweds”, Shannelle and Uel Lim were the only Asian team on MKR 2014. They represent a small but growing minority of people of colour making their way onto Australian reality TV.

Despite expectations, they cooked Western food in the first two rounds. Both times, they received poor marks. That’s when the “hints” from judges, Pete and Manu, started emerging.

“They kind of said, ‘Cook from your tradition, cook flavour combinations that you’re comfortable with,’ so we kind of thought, you know what – if you really want Asian food that bad, we’ll cook it for you,” Uel says.

I asked them what food they actually are more comfortable with. “Well, now, Asian food,” Shannelle says.

From then on, their Asian cuisines received high praise, taking them as far as the top nine.

Shannelle, 23, was a North Shore private school girl, born and raised in Sydney by Indonesian parents. Uel, 25, was born in Singapore to missionaries and spent half his life in Tasmania and Spain before moving to Western Sydney 10 years ago.

As embodied through their lemongrass soufflé and Uel’s recent photography exhibition, the “Modern Australian” is from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds.

“We thought we’d be able to break out of the mould and cook a variety of different things but I guess on a whole, even looking back on the journey, our Asian food was received a lot, lot better,” Shannelle says.

Uel agrees. “I think after a while, you’re kind of afraid of cooking anything but Asian food because you’re not sure if they’re going to take it well and Asian food just seems to work.”

This expectation seemed to weigh heaviest upon Shannelle and Uel. No one assumed the Greek twins, Helena and Vikki, would cook Greek food. In fact, when they did, they were sometimes criticised for playing it safe. Similarly, no one ever questioned why the two Caucasian surfer dads, Paul and Blair, often decided to cook Balinese cuisine.

Shannelle and Uel, when asked why they think this was the case, share a long pause. “I don’t know,” Shannelle finally says. “I think the twins, no one really expected them to be the Greek twins that cook Greek food and because of that [lack of] expectation, people were like ‘Why are you always cooking Greek food?’ Because it’s not as blatantly obvious in terms of appearance and things like that maybe.”

Overall though, Shannelle and Uel loved being on the show. When Queensland contestant David asked early on why they weren’t cooking Japanese “Tem-pan-yaki”, they laughed it off. “I didn’t really feel offended by it by any short stint,” Uel says. He seems optimistic about Australia’s multiculturalism. “I think the racism, in Sydney particularly, has been broken down to an extent. Maybe not in the wider Australia but in Sydney particularly, I feel really comfortable calling myself Australian.”