Hello, my fellow foodies, fans, friends and aspiring chefs. You may have read my intro section on the website, and you have probably seen me on MasterChef of course, but, I thought it would be nice for you to learn more about me – how I got here, what makes me tick, my inspirations, my mentors, my life, family and well, what makes me…. me. We are, after all, multi-layered and complex creatures made up of childhood memories, favourite times and places and most importantly dreams and aspirations. Where we find ourselves in life is largely shaped by our experiences, so how did I end up on your television screens doing what I love so dearly? Let’s go back to the start…….
I’m passionate about many things, but two of my loves in life are art and cooking; they’ve both been there as long as I can remember. Both go hand in hand and have always provided a wonderful creative outlet for me. It is certainly safe to say that both these areas of my life have been heavily influenced and nurtured by my family. My maternal grandfather, my ‘Opa’ was Dutch and a photographic journalist with the Dutch army, he met my ‘Oma’ in Dutch Indonesia – they married and spent some time in the Netherlands before relocating to Australia. They finally settled in South Australia where my mother was born and grew up, working hard, helping tend to the fruit orchards on their property. Opa enjoyed work and took pleasure as a painter, was passionate about timber and made the most wonderful furniture and so many clocks. I feel that some of my love for all things visual and artistic must come from my Opa. After graduating university I spent some time as a freelance photographer, and I feel very fortunate to have shared this passion with him, I still occasionally use one of his cameras from the 1930s.
My Dad’s dad, my Pop, along with my Nan owned a family butcher shop in Panania; I suppose you could say that this would be one of my first direct links with something food and produce related! It was not the life my father wanted. However, he finished school and trialled nursing in Callan Park at 18 years of age (quite an experience and at least a whole chapter’s worth of stories in a book that I’ve encouraged him to write). In the late 1970’s my Nan relocated to Noosa. Having travelled around Adelaide, Perth, Darwin and Sydney, both my mother and father decided that Noosa was for them as well and established the family home in Tewantin in the early 80’s.
My parents founded a scuba diving business in Noosa, and some of my earliest and happiest memories include swimming and playing with my sister and the river kids in the Noosa River just near where their shop was located. The business tended to both the local community and tourists – providing ocean exploration and scuba diving education courses. This kind of lifestyle on, in, or near the water provided us with a wealth of fresh seafood which I was learning to cook with from a very young age; I think crayfish were amongst some of my most favoured ingredients. The Scuba diving business also introduced me to education – watching dad teach new divers and learning myself all about sustainability, respectful fishing and being mindful of our oceans and finite resources and beauty in general. Growing up here gave me such a passion for fresh, local produce; it gave me an underlying connection with seafood. It helped me appreciate how lucky I am to live in Australia – a place so abundant with such a variety of foods, a climate so majestically able to produce such nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices.
We were encouraged to try all foods a few times, even when we didn’t think we liked something. This instilled an openness, bravery and fearlessness when trying anything new, which I thoroughly appreciate. I was cooking whole family meals by the time I was 8-10 years old, though consuming them may have been out of politeness, I cannot verify their quality.
My Mum always wanted both my sister and I to spread our wings and see what was beyond our family home in Noosa. With my passion for visual arts always actively encouraged by my family, I relocated to Sydney at 17 and graduated from the Fine Arts College UNSW with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, majoring in Photo media. Following this I took a foundation year in Science – Psychology at Macquarie University then completed my post-graduate degree in teaching from the University of Technology, I thought, for a little while, that a career in art therapy might have been for me as I place much value on creative expression as a method for self-healing and general approach to good health.
During all this learning, I took some time out and honoured my desire for creativity – I became a freelance photographer – working weddings and events etc. and exhibited my fine art photographs. It was a wonderful time, and I learned a lot about myself, my art and the industry. Interestingly, my aunt (my dad’s sister) was also a photographer and graduated from the same university as me; she even taught me in one subject during my first degree. I have incredibly fond memories of my aunt who, sadly, is no longer with us. She was enormously creative, and I feel she had a huge influence on me, some of which I’m still learning about. I always looked forward to her birthday and Christmas gifts as a child as they would almost always be something ‘artsy’. I think my Dad wanted me to be a musician and encouraged guitar playing from a young age… I much preferred drawing and as soon as guitar practice started to hurt my fingers and impede on my drawing capabilities, I gave it up promptly! I think it is fair to say though that with all members of my immediate and extended family providing tremendously varied influences throughout my life in music, visual arts and cooking, I have a developed a deep appreciation for everything creative, I see all three vocations as a completely universal language – something we can all use to communicate regardless of our heritage, spoken language, place or time in the world.
Just before MasterChef, I had been working for eight years at a High School northwest of Sydney. I was the acting headteacher of Creative and Performing Arts, and I absolutely loved my job. So much so, that a great deal of my work since MasterChef has continued to include teaching and educating. It is something rooted deep within me, a desire to educate and learn with and from others and to constantly grow and develop myself.
I think that takes care of some of my biggest childhood influences. In recent years an on-going battle with my general health has also pushed me further to pursuing a career in food. Coming to understand some of my health issues has deepened my passion for food and how it can affect our bodies. How we can nourish ourselves well, how we can provide our bodies with the right fuels to be the best we can be. You can read more specifically about my health journey on my blog ‘I have a complicated relationship with my body’.
My health journey has been a long and sometimes frustrating one – I won’t bore you with all the details here, I’ll just provide you with the important facts and some of the most wonderful ‘aha’ moments, which have been both uplifting and relieving.
From a young age, I suffered from the craziest of stomach aches, I didn’t sleep well as a child and had a hyper response to sugar. My Mum used to create lots of things for me that would be sugar-free and delicious, she always did an excellent job of that and as such I didn’t feel too much like I missed out. Although, let me just say, ‘dairy-free, sugar-free ice-confection’ is only satisfying as an ice cream substitute until you’ve actually tasted real ice cream! My Mum’s cooking was always delicious and nutritious, and some of my fondest memories as a child include sitting on the kitchen bench watching her prepare my favourite meatballs, chop suey, egg and lettuce salad or crumbed lamb cutlets for dinner or getting involved with little prep jobs she would give me according to my ability. You know those foods you love as a child, comfort foods which you feel like your Mum has only ever made and will only ever make for you? Well, mine was Promite, alfalfa sprout, cheese and tomato grilled toasties and my goodness were they delicious!
Aside from the issues with sugar, I still suffered from the stomach pains and at the age of 16 was diagnosed with wheat intolerance – boring! What would I eat now?? This only spiked my interest in food and cooking as I was determined to find new ways to enjoy food without gluten, I refused to miss out on anything yummy. I began experimenting with my recipes and teaching myself about alternative ingredients. My late teens and early twenties saw a whole host of other issues, and in 2001 I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome. I couldn’t help but think that there had to be a link between all these things – reaction to sugar, wheat intolerance and now this? I read, researched and investigated until I ended up sat in front of one of the world’s leading endocrinologists in Sydney. Leading the way in research into endocrine system health, to say that he offered me a wealth of knowledge and answers is an understatement – where had this man been all my life!? He was able to literally time-line all my symptoms based on his research; it was truly mind-blowing. My sugar issues were as a result of insulin resistance which in turn can cause polycystic ovaries. Regulating my sugar intake and understanding my intolerance for gluten helped me regulate my body and almost eliminate the need for medications. I quickly became increasingly aware of what foods optimized and assisted my health rather than hindered it, and my passion for the science of cooking and body nourishment grew and matured.
I actually auditioned for MasterChef season 7 in 2014 but didn’t make the final cut. I see this as a blessing in disguise. It gave me another year to learn, grow and hone my skills as a chef. In that time I also met my super supportive partner Eric, whom I now live within Sydney, he is my personal and incredibly professional recipe taste tester, a job I think he has taken to quite well, a seat well-warmed over the years by my head cheer leader and sister, Alexandra! In late 2015 I went back to audition for season 8, and it has been a whirlwind ever since. An incredible journey, an experience of a lifetime and ultimately the final piece in the puzzle for me – confirmation for me that food and education are where my heart is. So, that’s it, that’s me… in about 2000 words anyway. The most important things to me, the things that make me Elena are; the people in my life both now and who are no longer with me; all of our trials and challenges, our memories, the places we have been, the places we continue to go together and the stories we tell and have told. Throw on top of that our nutrient-rich land, our glorious seas and MasterChef of course – these are the things that brought me here, providing you with, what I hope to be, body, brain and soul nourishing food inspiration as well as instilling a lifelong love of learning for you all.