There were thousands of people lined up outside, hoping, jostling, angling for the opportunity of a lifetime. In South Australia, the MasterChef judges were despairing of ever getting something decent to eat at the auditions for season one of the program. “We were pretty brutal,” judge Gary Mehigan says.
Inside, Poh Ling Yeow’s pan-fried chicken breast with pancetta and sun-dried tomato aioli was a queasy flop. “Messy and oily. No,” Mehigan said with a shudder. It looked so unappetising as it collapsed on the plate that George Calombaris refused to even try it.
And yet, the judges saw something in Poh. “Just that little glimmer of, you know, potential,” Mehigan says now. “It was just that little moment that we looked at each other and go, ‘She knows more than she is letting on.'”
They gave her a second chance. Trailed by television cameras, she hightailed it to her mother’s house, raided the pantry, came back and served abacus beads — a traditional Chinese dish she had never made before.
And a star was born. From that moment, the woman who had always felt like an “alien” that was “beamed in from somewhere” captivated the country as she careened wildly between brilliance and disaster, tragedy and triumph, chaos, panic and recovery.
Bouncing back is something Poh has been doing all of her episodic life. Ever since she was a child immigrant arriving from Kuala Lumpur at the age of nine and started shedding “all the things that made me feel different”, she has had an ability to move on, reinvent, not look back.
It is a journey that has taken her from Malaysia, to Adelaide, to the Mormon town of Provo in Utah, an awakening in Canada, converting to and then leaving a religion, through two marriages, and from being a struggling artist to a media personality and famous cook. “I embrace things going wrong because that is where all your learning happens,” she tells Australian Story. “Here’s an opportunity to reinvent and start from scratch again. I always find that quite exciting.”
Poh is a pragmatist, says her friend Andre Ursini, also a contestant on MasterChef Australia season one. “She’s overcome a lot of things in her life,” he says. “Her early days with religion, her upbringing and her struggle with her identity have all made her highly resilient. She’s extremely independent, extremely driven, a perfectionist.”
When she was a child, Poh fantasised about being under bright lights. She used to pretend she was on a TV cooking show, chatting to an imaginary audience in her kitchen, “the cooking equivalent of singing into [a] hairbrush”, she once said.
Secretly, she suspected she was destined for something special. “I’ve always had this feeling that cool things were going to happen to my life. It’s a really odd thing to say out loud.”
Although Poh appeared to be cooking warm nostalgia from her mother’s kitchen on MasterChef, she was actually learning the Asian recipes on the fly. She had so successfully embraced Australia and shed her birth culture that she had become “a really bad Asian”, she says. “I can’t speak the language.”
She says her knowledge of traditional food was “terrible”. “MasterChef was very much about me reconnecting with my Chinese Malaysian culture,” she says.
Now, food is emotional and spiritual for Poh. “When I’m cooking ancient foods like dumplings, noodles and pastas, that have travelled through eons to get to me, there is something about the transference of knowledge that I can still hold in my hands now.”
Even though she lost MasterChef to Julie Goodwin over a chocolate dessert – after ignoring the recipe – Poh was already a celebrity. Within a couple of weeks she had an offer from the ABC to make her own television program, Poh’s Kitchen, which ran for three seasons. It was her childhood fantasy come true. “It was pretty mind blowing,” she says. “Something of my wildest dreams but not dared to even speak aloud.”
Poh spoke to Australian Story at her quirky, art-filled home in Adelaide where she retreats to paint and garden. “The TV stuff is a love-hate thing,” she says. “I do love it, but I’m also such a homebody. I really miss my garden and my dogs and pottering around and having alone time. I really miss the solitude.”
She has made her house, Ursini says, “into the most unique art installation in Australia, probably. There’s so much to look at and marvel over”. When her fridge got dinged, she made it into art. Every fibre of her being is about creativity, using her hands. “Everything I love to do is connected to my fingertips,” she says.
‘Shedding’ the Poh
Poh’s parents had brought their two children to Australia for a better education. She remembers being awe-struck by the golden Australian children, their confidence and freedom.
“I remember watching a kid hop off the monkey bars, which I thought was so amazing. Then she walked to the tuckshop and I watched her buy a Sunnyboy [ice block] and eat it, and seeing the sun hit the blonde hairs on her arm. I remember thinking they look so beautiful and golden and I would never be cool enough to eat a Sunnyboy like she’s eating a Sunnyboy. I felt like a different species from her.”
So desperate Poh was to “shed” all the things she disliked about herself, she even dropped the name Poh Ling and adopted the Western name her parents had given her — Sharon. And it stuck until her university years.
“I think it just took one kid to say, ‘Let’s go bowling Poh Ling.’ I was like, ‘OK, done. We’re going with Sharon!'”
Poh’s parents were strict. She was rarely allowed to go to friends’ houses. “When all the kids were getting into boys and able to socialise and things like that, I just had no idea,” she says. “Hence, I acquired a crush on every single one of my brother’s friends who came over.” Lonely, she would draw. “It gave me this magical feeling of belonging in the world.”
When she was 16, the family were going through financial issues with their newsagency business. They were at a vulnerable moment when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints came calling. Poh and her mother ended up converting to Mormonism. Her father and brother Casper followed a year later. Church was a community, a place, Poh says, “that was safe and welcoming”.
And she was partial to the “handsome young American boys”.
“They were just so kind and so gentlemanly. And I really loved the wholesomeness of it all. I was such a nerd and so sort of socially underdeveloped.”
When Poh finished school, she felt the need to bust out of home. Her first priority was to get a job and save up some money “so I could get away from my parents”, she laughs.
Hoping to find a “nice, decent” Mormon husband, she went to Provo, a Mormon university town in Utah. Instead, she managed to attract a “hellraiser” in leathers who zoomed around on a Harley. In her rebellion, he was “the antithesis of everything that my mum and dad would want for me”.
She was naive and had no experience with boys. “We had this sort of torrid love affair,” Poh recalls. “He popped my cherry. He turned out to be a male escort.” He also had girls all over town.
Running out of money, she went to stay with family in Canada, where the world opened up to her. She worked in a huge restaurant with people from all over the world. “My first best friend was trans, nearly every granny I knew in the restaurant smoked pot,” she says.
Leaving the church and a marriage
Poh was already questioning her religion when she met her would-be husband Matt at church back in Adelaide. They had long philosophical conversations about church doctrine “to flesh out all the grievances we felt”.
The relationship was combustible from the beginning, “tumultuous”, she says. “He’s got quite a bombastic personality and I can be quite fiery.”
After three years together they did what their families expected and got married. Then they did what their families did not expect and left the church. “It was incredibly controversial,” Poh remembers. But a “huge cloud lifted. Probably for the first time in my life. I felt completely free”.
Matt would encourage her to be a professional artist, finding her a gallery to hold her first exhibition. “He would dare me to do things I just never imaged possible.”
But Poh says as a couple, “Matt and I absolutely murdered each other.”
She remembers a “nuclear” fight where she threw a packet of muffin mix in his face. “It was just on. We were screaming at each other like absolute lunatics.” Mid-fight, she looked out the window and saw their neighbour leaning against his fridge with a glass of wine, “toasting us”. It took ages to get the muffin mix out of the nooks and crannies of the house.
Poh had met her friend Sarah Rich on her first day at university in 1996. They were both doing a visual communication degree. “We just gravitated together,” Poh says, “Me, Sarah and Matt. We became a bit of a trio. We didn’t have any money so we couldn’t really afford to go out, so we just used to hang out and watch TV together.”
Poh doesn’t remember any point in their relationship where she and Matt didn’t fight. After a decade together, she left the marriage. But the trio would stay together. Matt moved across the road and in with Sarah. “It was just kind of a natural progression,” Sarah says. “Nothing really changed except I was with Matt now. It sounds very bohemian, but at the time it just seemed kind of natural.”
“It was hard to swallow at the beginning,” Poh says. “But, like, I could actually see this calmness that Matt had around Sarah. I thought I would never be able to bring that out of him. We just don’t work like that.”
‘Love blossoming across smell of baked goods and gnocchi’
It was Sarah who suggested that she try out for the reality cooking program MasterChef. “I just knew she would win it or get very close to winning,” Sarah says.
In the MasterChef kitchen, she would meet Jono, who was working on the crew. “Love was blooming across the smell of baked goods and gnocchi,” former contestant and friend Andre Ursini remembers.
Poh recalls this, “very, very handsome man” staring at her. “He had this really open, beautiful energy. He was like this really gentle cheer squad, always happy. It was just straightforward.”
After the show ended, they exchanged numbers and before they knew it Jono had come to visit, and never left. “He turned into this maniac handyman that did all sorts of crazy things around the house,” Poh’s brother Casper says.
Eight years ago, Poh lost a baby to miscarriage at 12 weeks. “It was really heartbreaking,” she says. “I actually went through a full labour at home and I saw the baby. It was probably one of the most horrendous things I have ever been through.”
To this day, she keeps a photo of the ultrasound on her fridge “which people find a bit creepy”. “I think it’s really healthy,” she says. “I don’t like to bury anything. I think it is something that people should talk about. It’s this silent grief that women go through all the time.”
Poh chose not to try again with IVF, and another pregnancy “just never happened”. After 12 years together, she and Jono parted, “really amicably but with irreconcilable differences”. But “we’re still good mates”, she says.
Now she goes to Jono and Matt for dating advice. “It is very funny, it’s just so frank. I love it because there’s no-one that would know me better, right?”
Becoming friends with uncertainty
At nearly 50, Poh is content on her own in her garden and studio. As long as she is creating; whether it be with food or on the canvas.
She, Matt and Sarah have a market stall, Jamface, on Sundays at the Adelaide Farmer’s Market. “I absolutely adore it. I call it my church. I bake all day Saturday from morning till night. I love the closed-loop cycle of cooking something and taking it to market, setting it up, selling it to customers, wrapping it up and giving it. Everyone loves a baker.”
For Poh, gardening is a kind of religion. “It kind of replaced God for me. Nature is the number one thing that inspires me most. It gives me this sense of connectivity to something that is bigger than myself. The colours, the forms, the cycles, it teaches you the impermanence of it as the seasons roll by. You become really aware of being a speck in the firmament.”
She even finds weeding profound. “There’s so many wisdoms to be discovered in nature. If you are watching and listening, it helps you develop this sort of sensitivity to things that aren’t always loud but you have to discover them yourself.”
When she thinks back on the luck and accidents that have guided her life, the good fortune and opportunity, she sees it as “a wild journey”. “I think one thing that stands out with all the experiences I’ve had is that I’ve learned to become really good friends with uncertainty,” she says.
Watch Australian Story’s Life of Poh on ABC iview and YouTube.
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