The youngest contestant on this year’s MasterChef Australia, Jess Liemantara is an aspiring pastry chef who thinks the sky is the limit when it comes to creating and plating up intricate desserts. In this interview, you will be able to dive into Jess’ cooking universe, how it all started, and how she managed to get so far in the competition.
The start of her journey
While some of us only start cooking as adults, Jess discovered the world of baking when she was only nine. At thirteen she received her first cookbook for Christmas, Biscuiteers Book of Iced Biscuits, and started building an impressive cookie cutter collection. A couple of years and lots of YouTube cooking videos later, Jess realised that cooking was what made her truly happy. At sixteen she was already experimenting with intricate desserts such as mousses, petits fours, opera cakes, entremets, muffins and scones. It took Jess two years before she learned how to make macarons just right!
“I’ve never been great at school but I excel in food technology. Before I knew it, I had so much knowledge and technique drilled into my head. I just couldn’t stop myself from learning more and more about different techniques such as glazing, tempering chocolate and making macarons.”
On working in the restaurant industry
Jess Liemantara was lucky enough to have a foodie family by her side. She entered the hospitality business when she was only fifteen, as a front of house attendant at her parents’ restaurant, Foodtopia Fusion Café.
“It took me a good year to finally be confident on the ground. Later, I started managing the front of house as well as delegating the back of house operations.”
Her parents closed their business after four years and Jess took on a couple of jobs at various cafés. Before starting her MasterChef journey, she had been working at prestigious Nobu as a waitress.
Curious, I asked Jess about her views on women becoming chefs and the huge disparity between men and women working in restaurant kitchens.
“In my opinion, there is such a growth in equality for women who aspire to become chefs. It’s such a hard industry: the blood, sweat and tears each chef goes through whether they are men or women; it’s still tough for all of us. But if you truly have a passion for the industry, there is no restriction in chasing that dream. Anyone can become a chef if they truly love cooking!”
On her MasterChef experience
After last year’s failed audition for The Great Australian Bake-Off, Jess had lost her confidence and did not want to try her luck with any more cooking shows. With a little encouragement from her friends and family, she gave in and signed up for MasterChef.
“I sent in my audition application and made it as far as short listing, then got into judges’ auditions. That was such a battle, as I got in through the second chance cooking challenge.”
Jess impressed the judges with an orange chocolate mousse, which was the beginning of an impressive adventure to MasterChef’s top 4. As a pastry chef in a competition that focuses on savoury cooking, she was constantly challenged and despite a few downfalls, she kept thriving.
“I had to force myself to create dishes I had no idea how to cook. I was terrified at first, but after a few pushes, I became more confident in exploring new things regardless of whether they sent me home or not.”Of course, I had to find out what it was like to be the youngest contestant in the competition. I’ve always admired MasterChef Australia for its strong team spirit and have always wondered if that was the reality behind the scenes.
“Being the youngest in the competition was definitely hard. I had the MasterChef family who constantly got me through each day no matter how tough or scary it was. I felt like regardless of age, we were a great bunch of contestants who treated one another like their own brother and sister. They made my journey so fun and such an emotional roller-coaster.”
Jess kept on smiling and cooking on until her elimination, last week. She was in top four.
“It is such a blessing to make it to top 24, let alone top 4. I cannot believe it and I am so grateful for how much support I received from family and friends. What a journey it was! I am so glad I tried, even though I was inexperienced. I learned so much during my time in the competition and would surely not change a thing now.”
On developing her plating skills
I’ve always wondered how self-taught chefs learn to plate wonderful dishes, so I asked Jess how she developed this skill.
“I’ve always dreamt of plating up desserts and often stared at plated dishes all over Instagram. Having the opportunity to be creative and try out new things you’ve never done before is why MasterChef is so amazing. I got to experiment and plate desserts however I felt was right and often surprised myself by the result.
I guess the time limit really helped me plate desserts the way that I did. Having paid attention to others really helped me create my personal style of plating.”I then asked Jess about tips on choosing your plate, arranging the elements so that they make sense and look appealing, as well as sketching dishes before starting to plate.
“I personally like simple plates. Black are my favourite. The plates play a huge role in desserts, as colour contrasts influence the overall look of the dish.
I like to picture my plate in my head and sometimes sketch to see whether the elements match in terms presentation.
I think the most important thing about plating which I have learnt through my MasterChef journey is to not garnish the dessert with unnecessary elements that do not have any purpose to the dish.”
On growing up in a gourmet family
Her family and their love of food have played an important role in Jess’ development. The young pastry chef started baking with her aunt, has always helped her grandma make gingerbread cookies over the years and has always followed her parents’ advice.
“Mum and I are the duo who love making simple food and simple marinades. My brother is also a great cook who steps out of his comfort zone to create delicious dishes. […] My mum always tells me that whatever protein you cook, always marinate it in ginger, lemon and garlic because it will take away the protein smell. It really is true. On MasterChef, I marinated everything in those three key ingredients. Dad, on the other hand, always tells me to not overcomplicate flavours and stick to the key ingredients such as oyster sauce, salt, pepper, sugar and sesame oil. He has a way with flavours that you can’t imagine.
Always listen to your parents’ advice. They know more than you know!”
On her favourite things
- Favourite ingredient: Chocolate
- Favourite spice: Cinnamon and Star anise
- Favourite cuisine: Thai
- Favourite kitchen tool: Stick blender and stand mixer
- Favourite cooking tip: Placing a piping bag over a tall glass to make pouring easier
- Cookbooks or YouTube videos?: Both. Dessert Divas by Christine Manfield and Sortedfood.
Jess is now working on her dessert catering business, as well as getting some more experience within the restaurant industry. She recently had a couple of days of practice at Geroge Calombaris’ Press Club. Follow Jess on Instagram.
Want to read more? Check out my interview with Chef Stuart Ralston, owner and head chef at Aizle, a top restaurant in Edinburgh.