When I told my husband I’d be interviewing Adam Liaw for my final Family column of 2017, his response was: ‘Try not to gush too much.’
Well, I tried (for a second) and failed: This guy’s a lawyer (his last post was at Disney Interactive in Tokyo, where he met his wife Asami), a cook (he returned to Oz for season two of MasterChef – and won), a writer (and not just of cookbooks – though his clever and unfussy style is my favourite, as is his rendang), a presenter (Destination Flavour Japan is the best series of its kind I’ve seen on the country), and an ambassador (he’s Unicef Australia’s National Ambassador for Nutrition and a Goodwill Ambassador for Japanese Cuisine).
Yes, Adam Liaw is something of a renaissance man – but perhaps the nicest thing about him is his devotion to family; the ones he was born into (those episodes with his Mum in Singapore) and his own (scan Adam’s Instagram for more delightful snaps of his kids Christopher and Anna, they are ridiculous).
So thank you, Lucy, for letting me quiz Adam on parenting, food, and tradition – and thanks to all of you for reading along this year. Wishing you a blissful summer break with your families!
You’re currently researching the next instalment of Destination Flavour, which will take you to China from February through May of next year (I’m hoping for a feature on Lu cuisine). You travel a lot for work, but remain an incredibly engaged parent – what’s your secret? How do you support Asami when interstate or abroad?
It’s a bit of a feast or famine approach with me and parenting. I’m as engaged as I can possibly be when I’m here, but the demands of my work mean I’m on the road around half of the year, and that’s really hard. We’ve a lot of FaceTime, phone calls, and serious ‘Papa has to go away for a while’ conversations.
My wife and I don’t have family in Sydney, and my work is quite varied, so we’re constantly adapting our approach. There are times when I might be shooting for a week or two and the family can come with me, but a series like Destination Flavour is full-time for three to four months, and on the road is no place for kids. So Asami will often take Christopher and Anna back to Japan (where her parents live), and while I’m filming in China they’ll probably spend a bit of time with my mother in Beijing so I can visit them more regularly.
It’s hard not having grandparents in the same city, but there are lots of expat Japanese families in Sydney that are in the same boat. So there’s support from friends locally, then family interstate or abroad.
With clan across Australia and Asia, you also do a ton of family travel. I was impressed to hear of you taking Christopher on a San Sebastian pintxos crawl until 1am! Have you and Asami had to change the way you holiday at all post-kids?
When flying with kids, the game is really won or lost with flight choice. Within Australia is generally not a problem, but a long overseas daytime flight with grumpy kids is the worst. For anything over six hours, it’s best to find an overnight route.
You do need to compromise when travelling with children, but it’s also important not to become their slaves. Plan something for the kids one day, but make sure you’re doing something for yourselves the next. AirBnB is fantastic as you get a bit more space to slow down in, and we get evening babysitters a lot when we’re away (it’s much easier than you’d think; try expat online communities for English-speaking sitters). Leaving the sleeping kids behind while you go out for a nice dinner is infinitely better than trying to silently eat room service in a darkened hotel room.
Fostering a good relationship with food – in your children, and all children through your work with Unicef Australia – is extraordinarily important to you. How have you encouraged Christopher and Anna’s excellent palates? Have you any advice for parents of fussy eaters?
The most important thing for kids’ nutrition is to lead by example (that probably goes for every part of raising children). You can’t expect them to eat well if you don’t eat well yourself.
It might sound trite, but after that cooking is what it’s really about. The more you cook, the more responsive you are to what you eat (and what you feed your kids). I think a lot of the fussiness we perceive in children is actually quite easy to tackle.
The first step is seasoning; even something as simple as cooking vegetables in lightly salted stock instead of water can be a game-changer for kids.
Texture is the other big one. If Christopher and Anna aren’t into boiled carrots, I’ll try serving them shredded and raw, or roasted – and usually that will clinch it. You can also try serving new foods when you have people over, as kids are less likely to be fussy when their friends are around.
Finally, if they’re not having a bar of any of it, I’ll just move on. There’s no point making a piece of carrot a battleground when children are likely to change their minds about it in a month’s time anyway.
You’ve shared your family’s Chinese New Year tradition of tossing Yee Sang into the air with chopsticks (the higher the salad, the more luck for the year), how do the Liaws celebrate Christmas? Do you involve your kids in any festive cooking? (My son and I recently baked your salt and brown sugar Christmas cookies – they were a big hit!).
We keep Christmas pretty classic. Usually a whole leg of ham, some prawns and lobster, and a pavlova for dessert. We have a big family and some years we can have up to 50 people on the day, so there’s always a lot of food. I remember one year we had a full ham, an eight-kilogram turkey and a 12-kilogram suckling pig, plus seafood and sides. It was like a Roman feast.
The kids sometimes help, but Christmas cooking is pretty straightforward as there’s a big centrepiece. For other holidays like Chinese New Year, the food is a bit more involved, so then it’s definitely all hands on deck.
On Christmas Day, we do presents in the morning then a big, long lunch. We eat too much and then spend the afternoon watching old kung fu movies with my grandma.
Instead of a recipe, I’ll offer a tip (but it’s a good one). The most common point where people go wrong with pavlovas is not dissolving the sugar well enough. If the sugar doesn’t dissolve, the meringue won’t be stable – this is what causes weeping or collapse. You need to add the sugar a little at a time, then keep whisking (use a stand mixer) for about five minutes until you can’t feel any sugar if you rub the meringue between your fingers. Do that and you’ll get towering pavlovas every time!
When you’re at home in Sydney, how does your day start and end with Christopher and Anna?
The kids generally get up around 6am and we’ll chat for half an hour about the day ahead. Then it’s breakfast (which the kids usually help make as it’s quite simple – fruit, yoghurt, and kaya toast) and the mechanics of getting them dressed and off to day care.
In the evenings, the house is pretty manic. I try to get dinner ready before everyone gets home, and we eat around 6.30pm or so, depending on the season. Then it’s bath, play, and TV time for a couple of hours until stories and bed around 8.30 or 9pm. It’s a pretty common routine but when you travel as much as I do, it’s the kind of thing you really miss when you don’t get to do it.
Moving across time, what kind of adults might you like them to grow into? How would you like them to remember you to their own families?
I do my best as a Dad, and love my kids to death, but I live by the philosophy that my life is mine and theirs is theirs. I want them to have every opportunity in life, but I think sacrificing every part of yourself to your kids is just as unhealthy as neglect, as you end up putting all the emphasis and pressure on them to live both your life and their own.
If they remember me as a good father who did his best to show them how to be themselves, I’ll be very happy.
Nightcrawler Co is a very cool, local kids brand.
IKEA’s Bekväm stool. It’s the ultimate tool of twenty first century kids’ independence.
Activity or outing
We love the beach in summer, so we’re there at least once or twice a week. A good shade, packed lunch, sunscreen, and some beach toys and the whole family’s happy.
We love to eat outdoors, so there’s nothing more perfect for me than having the whole family sitting out on our back deck on a balmy evening. The birds come by at around 7pm and sing in the trees as the sun goes down, it’s magic.
Book, film or show
There’s a Japanese picture book called Mama ga obake ni nachatta (Mum became a ghost) that my daughter always wants me to read to her. It’s a fantastic book, but very emotional. I cry every single time.