‘A chef’s life isn’t a rosy as people think’
“I’m flying to Madrid tomorrow and I have a million and one things to do,” Ping Coombes whispers down the phone, giggling at her hectic schedule. “And I’ve just moved house so I am surrounded by boxes. It’s madness.”
But for the MasterChef champion – who has spent the past two years since winning the 2014 series in somewhat of a whirlwind – packing up a few belongings shouldn’t break a sweat.
Coombes, now in her mid-30s, has gone on to “spread the word” as global ambassador for her native Malaysian cuisine; cooked up a storm up at food festivals around the world, and landed her debut cookery book, the eye-poppingly bright and brilliant Malaysia: Recipes From A Family Kitchen.
“No one really tells you what’s going to happen, because everything is so hush-hush,” she says of her crowning moment on the hit BBC cooking show. “The next day, I had interviews back-to-back and since then, I haven’t stopped.
“But I’m very lucky,” she quickly adds. “It just shows how accepting the British are of new cuisines.”
Malaysian food – a fusion of Chinese, Malay and Indian tastes – has long been a hidden jewel of South-East Asian cuisine, and growing up in Malaysia’s vibrant city of Ipoh, Coombes distinctly recalls a world that revolved around shedloads of the stuff.
“We had big gatherings,” she recalls, mimicking the mealtime call ‘Sek fan la!’ – meaning ‘Come and eat’. “As children, we would always sit down with my mum and dad to eat as a family, and that’s been ingrained in me.”
And having dedicated her book to her family (flip open the first page and a passage beneath a childhood photo of Coombes and her mother reads: ‘Food has the power to create and evoke memories’), it’s a tradition she’s keen to uphold.
“Even though my husband [Andrew] and I may not eat with my daughter [Alexa], because she eats early, we’ll always sit with her to enjoy the meal together, so that she understands mealtimes.
“We don’t have things like iPads [at the table], because we want her to enjoy the food as a family.”
Yet while she remains heavily inspired by her upbringing, Coombes claims she was eager to adapt her collection of 100 recipes – including such delights as Chilli Crab and Caramel Pork Belly – to “fit in with life in the UK.”
“I simplify a lot of the recipes but still retain the flavour,” she says, reeling off the major supermarkets that now stock shelves of Malaysian products.
“People want to try a foreign cuisine, but to cook it, it needs to be simple and delicious. That’s the inspiration behind it; my travels, my childhood, and when I moved to the UK for university 17 years ago… It’s what I have developed in my kitchen and my mum’s kitchen.”
Coombes still hosts supper clubs and pop-ups in the South West, where she resides with her family, and heads up her popular online hub Ping’s Pantry.
“I’m doing more private cooking classes and consulting (she’s consultant chef for Chi Kitchen in Birmingham), and eventually we want to open our own restaurant,” she enthuses. “It’s good to be busy; I’m not complaining!”
Does she ever struggle spinning so many plates, though?
“We cook most of our food from scratch, but I do have cheat ingredients in my fridge,” she confesses of her home life. “It’s impossible to expect people with a busy lifestyle to do everything; I want people to be a bit more realistic.”
Her Instagram account, she says, gives people a sense of “what I do and what my everyday life is”.
“I am keen to show a chef’s life isn’t a rosy as people think,” she finishes, grinning. “Sometimes I can have microwavable rice, and it’s absolutely fine!”
Click through to page 2 to see three of Coombes’ recipes you can try for yourself…