Expressing Asia

Appearing in over 150,000 Australian kitchens a month is just one of the many achievements of Marion Grasby.

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Published Selector Spring 2014

When you’re interviewing a senior politician and find yourself thinking about the amazing new recipes you’d like to try, it’s time for a career change. That was the conclusion Marion Grasby had come to when, in 2008, she waltzed into her ABC radio editor’s office and told him, “I’m leaving and I’m going to do a course in gastronomy.”

While journalism seemed the right choice to satiate her love of travel, when Marion ended up ensconced in Adelaide’s food and wine scene, the lure of working with the wok outweighed the news desk. This wasn’t a decision made on a whim, though. Marion has a lifelong passion for food and cooking that was instilled by her mother, Noi. A trained chef, Noi enjoyed having her daughter help out in the kitchen, where, Marion says, “we loved to experiment, pick out recipes; it was lots of fun.”

Being from Thailand, her mum cooked a lot of Thai and Asian food and, Marion says, “One of the greatest gifts she gave me was to learn how to make Thai curry. I love how making Thai curry paste is so natural and beautiful and has these amazing big ingredients like garlic and shrimp paste and chillies that combine to make something really harmonious.”

Gastronomic gamble

Experiencing Thai food wasn’t just restricted to the home kitchen. The Grasbys took regular trips to Thailand to visit Noi’s family. “Deep down, I always felt like Thai culture was home”, Marion says, “even though I’d never lived there.”

Marion’s love of Asian food shone through during her time on Masterchef in 2010. In a cruel twist, however, it was a satay sauce that poured defeat on Marion’s hopes of victory in what was described as one of the season’s biggest upsets.

No-one was more disappointed to see Marion knocked out than the judges, but George Colombaris, in his parting words, was buoyant about her future. “You’re already on the food radar in this country, trust me, you’re going to be amazing.”

Marion didn’t let her Masterchef exit end her dreams. Instead, on the back of the recognition she’d gained, she and her husband, Tim, launched Marion’s Kitchen in 2011. Today, this series of 14 meal packs sees over 150,000 Australians per month cooking Asian meals from Singapore laksa to Thai basil and chilli stir-fry in three or four easy steps.

While it sounds like a simple idea, it was a huge risk. As Marion describes, “When we started, it was tough. We put everything on the line, mortgaged houses, borrowed money, everything to make it work.”

The gamble has certainly paid off, so what’s been the secret to their success? “It’s all about trust”, says Marion. “People trust the fact that someone is making this food for them, tasting it and putting their reputation on the line. My head’s on the block if it tastes terrible. I don’t want people swearing at me in the kitchen!”

In the beginning, a lot of the focus of Marion’s Kitchen was on Thai food, so in 2012 Marion and Tim moved to Bangkok. Since visiting as a child, Marion says she has seen a lot of change, particularly the food scene. “One of the things I love about Bangkok is that the street food is just phenomenal; the mum and dad canteen-style shops on Khao San Road.

But now there’s a big trend towards Surry Hills-style fine diners, or New York loftstyle bars and restaurants. I can literally go out and have noodle soup from a street cart and then head out for martinis at a rooftop bar. I love that contradiction.”

The tools for taste

Being in the business of providing home cooks with exciting new flavours means Marion spends her days immersed in food.

As she describes, “Designing products has to start very organically. So I go to the markets, I seek out restaurants, I seek out dishes, I travel all over Asia and India to find the flavours and the dishes I might want to turn into a product or a recipe.”

The result of her tasting and travelling has not only been the expansion of the Marion’s Kitchen range, but it’s also seen the launch of her cookbook, Asia Express .

This book, she says, came about from listening to feedback from Marion’s Kitchen fans. “People would say, ‘I really love to cook, I really love to make things that are tasty for my family, but I just don’t have the time.’ So Asia Express was my idea of giving people even more tools to create tasty things that don’t take up too much time, that don’t mean that you have to run around finding the ingredients to go in ten different stocks. I wanted to make it not only easy to cook, but easy to shop for and prepare.”

The book features recipes from Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Vietnam, Burma, China and Korea. But they’re more than just recipes, Marion adds. “They tell a story about where I’ve been and the places I’ve loved.”

“For example”, she says, “Travelling to Korea was phenomenal. I kept thinking, ‘I have no idea what that is, but it tastes amazing.’ The Korean seafood pancake recipe that’s in the book, I had that in this little market in Seoul, sitting crammed up with 100 people in a 20-seat restaurant.”

That’s not to say that Asia Express is full of exotic ingredients, Marion adds. “I set out a pantry list at the beginning of the book and what I tried to do was use ingredients multiple times because there’s nothing worse than buying a $15 sauce and having it sit in the cupboard because you’ve only used it once.”

Heading stateside

With the launch of a cookbook on the back of a strong business, some people would rest on their laurels. Not Marion. This year sees the launch of Marion’s Kitchen in the US where they have a few hundred retailers ready to stock the range. Unlike Australia, however, Marion doesn’t have a profile there. “I’m sure there’s not a person alive over there who knows who I am”, she says, “It’s a challenge and I think as much as I would love to be the person that goes, ‘this is great, I’m going to sit back and enjoy things’, I’m the kind of person who needs a challenge and this will be the next big thing.”

Turns out, George Colombaris was spot on.

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