Meet The New Faces of The Food Network & Asian Food Channel: Michele Lean and Sarah Benjamin.

If you remember from my previous post, the Asian Food Channel and the Food Network were looking for fresh faces to host their upcoming shows.   I would've tried out if I had the chance because talking about food and trying different cuisines is like THE dream job!

Luckily, I got to talk to these two lucky ladies who triumphed over hundreds of talent hopefuls during the search for the next 'Food Hero'.  Meet Sarah Benjamin from Singapore and Michele Lean, a Malaysian based in Beijing.

Hi Sarah and Michele! First of all, congratulations for winning Food Hero.
Michele: Thanks Joei! And thanks for taking the time to speak with us!
Sarah: Thank you!

Hello also Sarah! :)

Michele, they told me you received a culinary scholarship from Le Cordon Bleu in Canada. That's very impressive! Can you tell us more about it?
Michele: I’d wanted to attend Le Cordon Bleu for a while but felt like I had to ‘earn’ that experience. I did some research and found out that The Culinary Trust in New York and The James Beard Foundation both offered annual scholarships to various culinary institutes – one of them being LCB. I had just missed the James Beard Foundation cut-off date but was able to apply to The Culinary Trust.
What happened next?
Michele: A few weeks later, I received notification that I’d been shortlisted for both the LCB Paris and LCB Ottawa scholarships I’d applied for and would have to prep for phone interviews with two culinary experts who were heads of leading culinary institutes. I was so excited but also extremely nervous because I didn’t know what to expect!! This next part is a little stalker-ish but I wanted to be prepared! I went through the list of past scholarship recipients and learnt that the previous year’s Paris LCB scholarship winner had a blog called Purple Foodie. I contacted her and she was so sweet! She gave me some great advice that really helped to calm my nerves -- I love how foodies are always so supportive!!
Yes, that's true.  Foodies are really just happy happy people!  So how did you end up in Canada?
Michele: I pretty much blew the LCB Paris phone interview because I was so nervous and put far too much pressure on myself to say the ‘right’ things but in the LCB Ottawa interview, decided I had nothing to lose. I was a lot calmer and spoke from my heart. Waiting for the award recipient list to come out was insanely nerve wrecking! One of my sisters suggested I give up something I love until the results came out so even if I didn’t receive the award, I would still gain -- I gave up meat!!
Give up meat?? Wow!  That takes a lot of willpower!  Can you share the recipe of your favorite dish? If it's not a secret.
Michele: In all honesty, one of my favourite dishes in the world is my mum’s fried mee hoon. My mum is always happy to divulge her recipes and techniques, so please feel free to ask her but I can never get it quite right!!! I will however share a simple salad recipe a French friend taught me. It’s a salad from her childhood. My entire family finds it weird (and refuse to eat any more of it) but I love it. I’m on a mission to convert people to this salad. It’s a little bizarre but when you can get fresh mushrooms, they’re amazing raw.

Sonia’s Nana-Shroom Salad 
Serves 4-6

                                  300g peeled, thinly sliced, raw, white button mushrooms
                                  3 ripe bananas sliced on the diagonal
                                  1⁄4 cup whole cream
                                  2-3 lemon juice
                                  salt and pepper to taste

Combine all the ingredients and mix carefully. The bananas and mushrooms should be lightly coated in cream and lemon juice flavor so it doesn’t overpower the natural sweetness of the banana and flavor of the mushroom.

Thank you for sharing this!  What a unique combination, bananas and mushrooms. I'll give this a try although like you, I may not be able to get it the way your Mum makes it ;)

Michele is really good in the kitchen and even received a culinary scholarship from Le Cordon Bleu!

Sarah, your interests are very diverse! From studying sociology and politics to playing the piano and the cello. How did your love for food begin? 
Sarah: Well, I grew up in a food-obsessed household. Every time we have a family gathering, the table was full of different dishes that could probably feed twice the number of people there. I’ve also loved to read since I was a child, and reading cookbooks was my first real introduction to the huge variety of cuisines and dishes out there. I began to collect so many cookbooks, and learning about different cooking styles, so my parents encouraged me to get in the kitchen from a young age and experiment. In university, I started Kitchenhoarder, my food blog, so that I could share new recipes and foods that I’d learnt about or things that inspired me to create new dishes. From there, my passion for cooking, food styling and photography really took off, and I’m so happy that I get the chance to do this with the Asian Food Channel now!

Sarah and I have the same interests.. Politics, music, and FOOD!!

I also heard that you cook. Where did you find the time to learn to do that with everything that you are involved in? I'm a lawyer and although I want to learn, I can't seem to find the time! 
Sarah: Cooking and food are real passions of mine, and I always made time for it. When my friends and I get together, sometimes I’ll invite them for a home-cooked meal rather than going out to a restaurant. This gives me the perfect opportunity to do some cooking, and some willing mouths to feed! I think learning to cook starts with learning to eat and taste, if you know what I mean. Just get yourself out there and try different foods, expose yourself to different cultures and be adventurous! Then just experiment in the kitchen and discover what you like to create. Cooking and eating are all about personal taste, and you have to know what you like first in order to cook good food. Even quick recipes can be delicious and impressive, so it doesn’t need to take lots of time!
That's true.  I'll take note of your tip and try to find quick recipes to learn :) Any family member who inspired you to cook? 
Sarah: Well, my whole family is really food-obsessed, but my Grandaunt who helped to bring me up has been a real inspiration to me. She lost her eyesight at a young age, but that never stopped her from learning cooking and being active in the kitchen. In fact, when I was a child, she used to cook for my whole family, with classic dishes like Chinese Rice Wine Chicken. Although she couldn't see, she taught me the importance of using other senses like touch, taste and smell in the kitchen.
Wow, your Grandaunt is really something!  What was the first dish she taught you how to make? 
Sarah: The very first thing I did in the kitchen was helping my Grandaunt make Abacus Dumplings made of yam, which have to be rolled and then pressed down to make a dent in the centre. But I remember cooking a whole meal for my family at the age of around 10, with Carrot and Ginger Soup for starters, and Tarragon Chicken for the main course.

One of Sarah's passions is cooking and she always makes time for it.

Michele, I heard you have a cat. I have a cat as well and it's pretty interesting to meet other people who have one because cat people understand each other, if you know what I mean ;) What's your cat's name?
Michele: I had a cat. Her name was ‘Meow’ (haha! It was the only name she would respond to and it stuck) but she passed away 3 years ago from a brain tumor. I loved her so much, I couldn’t bring myself to get another cat. I felt no other could ever replace her and if I did, I worried I’d always compare. 
Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. I lost a cat a while back as well and I couldn't get myself to get another one for years!  Do you have any other pets?
Michele: After much deliberation, we adopted a puppy called ‘Milou’ this year. He’s a Beijing street pup with plenty of sass! 
Milou, what a cute name!  My family adores dogs as well so they all just have to get along :D  I also heard that you like to travel. What are your favorite destinations and why? 
Michele: I LOVE to travel! I don’t have a favorite destination because every journey has been special in some way but off the top of my head, I think that everyone should visit Xinjiang, for the vibrant colors each ethnic minority group brings to the mix, Myanmar for its tranquility and the stunning stupas in Bagan, New York because the city’s energy is contagious and you’ll feel more alive than you’ve ever felt and Sipadan because the underwater world there is magical and it feels like you’re living out a David Attenborough documentary.

Michelle and I both love cats and dogs and to travel.

So tell me, how was it during the auditions?  Tips for next time in case I get the courage to try out ;)
Michele: After the submission video, we were shortlisted to 10 and then 4 applicants. Shooting for the Top 4 in Singapore was fun! I think we all initially thought we’d be pitted against one another but from the start we were assured that wouldn’t be the case and were able to just enjoy the experience. It was fantastic -- from shooting at Tekka Market to cooking in the kitchen and then cooking with Chef Ivan from Bacchanalia. 
Sarah: I created my audition video with a friend’s help in a day, so it was a really quick process for me! I just sent it off and didn’t think about it until I got a call to be part of the Top 4. The time we spent filming for the Food Hero Top 4 was really fun – the 4 of us got on so well, and I was really happy that we all supported each other through the filming, and there was no competitiveness or anything like that. It was a whirlwind weekend to say the least though, and the whole thing passed by in what seemed like the blink of an eye!
What was the biggest challenge you had while trying out for the Food Hero? 
Michele: Waiting for the decision -- that was the hardest part. From Top 10 to Top 4 to the final two -- I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly the entire time and was always on edge. I think not knowing is the hardest thing because you don’t know whether to hope or not to. 
Sarah: It was my first time in front of a camera, so I was pretty nervous when we were filming for Food Hero. I really wanted people to relate to me and think of me as a friend, so I think the biggest challenge for me was to be natural and charismatic on camera and get that across. It’s so weird because you don’t actually know how what you do is going to turn out on screen, but I hope to get better at it with more practice!
Before we end, can you both tell everyone about the shows you will be hosting? 
Sarah: My show, Must Try Asia, was so much fun to film! My co-host, Chef Malcolm Goh, and I got to travel to six Asian cities, taste their signature dishes and then recreate them in the kitchen. We went to Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Manila, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. I absolutely love traveling and discovering more about Asia, so I really loved this opportunity, especially to visit Vietnam and the Philippines, which I hadn’t visited before. And learning to prepare iconic dishes like Pad Thai, Pho, Chicken Rice, Adobo, Dim Sum and Nasi Lemak was so amazing for a foodie like me. I hope that I managed to recreate those dishes and that everyone will enjoy watching us as much as we enjoyed making the show. Must Try Asia will premiere on the Asian Food Channel on 10th December at 9pm, so please do join us! 
You'll love adobo! Hope to see you when you visit the Philippines :)  How about you Michele?
Michele: I’ll be hosting the Asian version of Food Wars, based on the existing US-based show hosted by Camille Ford. I’m really looking forward to finding the best two restaurants for each specific dish and challenging the chefs to roll up their sleeves and face their toughest competition! Reputations are on the line!
That sounds exciting! Thank you for your time Sarah and Michele. Looking forward to watching you both on the Asian Food Channel and Food Network. Good luck!
Michele: By the way, I love how you rock red lippie!  It inspired me to don my 'Red Lizard' lipstick (in the pic) for you.
Awww thanks Michele!  My favorite shade is 'Lover' from Chanel and I don't leave my house without it.  You rock your red lipstick too!  And your sign is awesome. I'm into arts and crafts (when I have the time) so I find what you did really cool.  Hope to meet you soon so I could keep it ;)

Catch Sarah's show 'Must Try Asia' on the Asian Food Channel and Michele's show 'Food Wars' on The Food Network soon!  

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♥ joei