The opportunity to head in to SBS and join adored chef Adam Liaw on the set of his show The Cook Up, during office hours, falls firmly into the work-perks category of a job description. So, perky I was to join Adam at his kitchen bench, taking a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show while making pizza.
Well into its fifth season, The Cook Up is the channel’s most-commissioned series. Bringing celebrities from both the culinary world and further afield to Liaw’s kitchen-away-from-home, the show’s format is a winner: great recipes and great conversation. “I think the goal for any TV show is just to try and make it better and better and better,” Liaw tells Broadsheet. “The show’s really about the guests, and the food they’re making. This season really is our best.”
While I flexed my well-honed (and technically impressive) pizza-topping skills, Adam chatted food, making successful television and his love of parsley.
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Adam, what do you think makes this season of The Cook Up the best yet?
[Along with having] some incredible guests, we’re getting better [as a team]. Some of the crew have been on from the start. A show has its own personality, and I think we’re at the point now where we understand the personality of the show.
Which recipes do you think resonate best with your audience?
The stuff that is clever and simple. The most cooked and clicked recipe from last season was a shepherd’s pie with potato gems on top. Looking at this season, Alison Roman made a rhubarb cake that I think is going to be really popular; a few steaks from a steak-dedicated episode; and a braised-mushroom noodle dish I did a few weeks ago.
What is something that you think every Australian could cook one night this week?
For about two months, I timed myself making dinner every night at home, and it takes me on average 18 minutes. We recently had Astrid Jorgensen from Pub Choir on, and I made ricotta eggs on toast, kind of like a ricotta omelette – super, super simple and quick. Those eggs turned out so good, basically half the crew were like, “We’re gonna make that”. Anyone could do it, literally any night of the week, as long as they’ve got some eggs in the fridge and some ricotta.
What have you learned the hard way in the kitchen?
Everything? Usually, things don’t work out the first time you make them. Don’t worry about it, basically. I think that’s probably the key, people get worried when something fails. But failure at cooking is part of the process, I don’t think we should be scared of it.
Do you have a go-to meal that you cook if you’re needing some comfort?
[One of my go-tos is] a Hawaiian shoyu chicken, it’s like a simple version of teriyaki. It’s just so simple: throwing a whole bunch of stuff into a pan, turning on the heat and taking it out. There’s nothing fancy about it.
How do you plan your meals for the week?
Most of the time I’ll go to the shops with an idea of what I want to do. It’s all very much ingredient-driven. Like, if I feel like steak and there are no good steaks, or they’re too expensive, we’ll change tracks and cook something else. It’s always good to go to the shops with a plan, but if you don’t deviate from it you’ll miss a lot of good opportunities to save money, make tasty food, make interesting food.
Roughly how many recipes do you develop each year?
It’s probably around 600 a year, on average. This year I think it’s gonna be a bit more because we’ve done a couple of seasons of the show, plus all the other recipes that I write. This year will probably tap out about 800.
Whoa, that’s monumental. What’s your creative process? Do they just pop into your mind?
It’s all in the Notes app, every idea I have. I just keep writing notes: is this a good idea? Here’s a nice meal I had out in a restaurant, let’s see if we can do an adaptation with those flavours. You know, there’s no shortage of recipes in the world – it’s not as hard as you might think, to come up with new recipes. Particularly when you have so many great cooks coming into The Cook Up sharing their knowledge with you.
In the kitchen earlier, you mentioned that parsley gets a bad rap. Is there anything else you think does too?
Chicken stock cubes. Everybody’s like, “Get liquid stock because it’s better” or “Make your own stock”. Using a stock cube or powdered stock is fine. Honestly. You can use MSG if you want. Parsley gets a bad rap because [people] think it tastes like nothing, but it adds so much to a dish. Beautiful aroma, a bit of acidity and bite to it, the astringency cuts through fatty tastes. Parsley’s really important, it’s one of my favourite ingredients – particularly curly parsley. We’re all kind of flat-leaf people these days, but I love curly parsley, it’s got a lovely delicate texture.
What are your top three tips for successful cooking at home?
Number one: keep it simple. Home cooking is supposed to be simple. In fact, if you’re cooking like a chef at home, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Let’s make that number two: don’t cook like a chef, cook like a home cook. Chef-style recipes are designed for one very specific workflow: a lot of prep so you can finish it off very quickly. Home recipes are the opposite – as short as possible prep, and they will usually finish cooking quite quickly as well. Or, you throw it in the oven and wait for a few hours and let the oven do the work.
Number three: cook what’s cheap. Because what’s cheap tends to be what’s in season. You don’t need to make your food expensive for it to taste good.
What are your favourite cookbooks?
The Reader's Digest Kitchen Handbook from 1973, that’s a fabulous cookbook. But to be honest, my most used cookbooks are the ones I write. This is not a plug for my cookbook. Quite honestly, the recipes that I write are the things that I actually cook at home. And having a reference of the things that I actually cook is very useful.