Right from the start of the second season of MasterChef Australia, Marion Grasby was the crowd favourite to win. The talented cook’s calm demeanour and sharp wit not only tempered the high stress level of the competition, but also made her incredibly likeable to viewers. Her stories of learning how to cook from her mother, a trained Thai chef, were endearing but they were not just lip service — the food she produced, episode after episode, was testament to her skill and willingness to learn.
Although Grasby didn’t win — the 2010 crown ultimately went to Adam Liaw, who is of Malaysian descent — MasterChef Australia was a life-changing experience for her. She took advantage of her fame and popularity on the cooking reality show to launch her career in food and entrepreneurship. Food company Marion’s Kitchen was established the same year, a cookbook came out 12 months later and her digital presence one of the fastest-growing for an Australian.
And to think food was never part of her original plan. “It was my childhood dream to become a journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). To get the job, I studied journalism and law. I worked really hard at my job and did it for three years. After a while, I realised that what I loved most was the storytelling part of the job, although I didn’t think I was particularly good at telling any serious stories,” Grasby quips. “My mum is a chef and I never considered a career in food — the plan was always to read law and be a journalist. It eventually occurred to me that I could do the food thing and the journalism thing too, once I worked out how.”
Much to the chagrin of her mother, who was extremely proud of the fact that her daughter was on TV, Grasby quit her job at ABC to pursue a master’s degree in food and wine history, and had worked her way up to the graduate diploma level when she was accepted for MasterChef Australia. After leaving the competition, going back to her old life in academia didn’t seem like the right move, so she and her husband launched Marion’s Kitchen with the aim of giving consumers better-quality spice and paste mixes than were available then.
The range, which is sold in Malaysia too, includes meal kits, sauces, spice mixes and salad dressings. We cannot recommend her Coconut Sriracha enough — you can find it at Jaya Grocer, Qra and a few other select grocers. “The coconut Sriracha is one of my favourites too! Australians tend to find it a bit too spicy but I wasn’t going to dial it down. This is the way it’s supposed to be,” she grins.
Although the timing of the launch of Marion’s Kitchen was somewhat of an accident, Grasby had thought long and hard about its raison d’être. “Honestly, I was a little let down by some of the Asian ingredients available in supermarkets. They were such poor interpretations of curry pastes and spices. I wanted to bring the really good traditional stuff to as many people as possible, and I wanted everyone to have green curry like my mum made it, or a pad thai sauce like hers. But if well-made and authentic sauces and pastes were more expensive, well so be it — at the time, there was this idea that Asian food was really cheap. I don’t think it is at all! It’s something so special and you need to pay more to get the quality ingredients to make really tasty food.”
She pauses for a moment. “In the last 12 months, we have sold five million products. That’s a lot of homes that have me in it. I find that really amazing, and that feeling never gets old. I am so grateful for it, and I so humbled when people say they have tried or enjoyed one of my products.”
Grasby’s recipes are as popular as her products as they cover a wide range of Asian dishes that make clever use of unexpected ingredients. A personal favourite is her Cacio e Pepe, a traditional Roman dish consisting of spaghetti, cracked black pepper and cheese but which she makes with Sichuan peppers and fresh wantan noodles instead. Italian nonnas may be a’gruntin at this, Chinese food purists may baulk at her Spicy Garlic Butter Linguine — which combines Oriental aromatics with pasta — as well.
“There are vanguards of cuisine who stick to the traditions and there’s a huge role for them, but it’s not entirely who I am,” she says thoughtfully. While she does cross-pollinate the food staples she grew up with, she also displays a commitment to authenticity and staying true to the spirit of a particular cuisine. This is a result of her education in food and wine history. Although she did not complete her degree, time spent studying the basics of food has deeply informed her approach to cooking, which is a balance of respect and creativity.
Grasby, who has two young children, gets her worldly point of view from her parents and her blended heritage. Born in Darwin to a Thai mother and Australian father, she spent some years growing up in Papua New Guinea and would holiday with her family all over Southeast Asia as a child. “We loved to eat, so everywhere we went was about the food. My father is a white man from Melbourne, but he travels like an Asian,” she laughs again. “All those experiences made me very inclusive — I don’t see boundaries; I just see beautiful, tasty things. I always respect the cuisine, and the education I got while travelling is really important to me. But what’s also important is to recognise that food evolves and changes all the time. The way I cook comes naturally to me as a Thai-Australian global citizen because that’s who I am.”
While Grasby had visited Thailand often, she wanted to experience her mother’s homeland as a local and decided to move her base there temporarily. The move also made running Marion’s Kitchen easier as her food products are made in that country. There is a good reason for this, she says. “To me, lemongrass in Australia simply doesn’t taste the same as it does in Thailand; neither do the chillies. I don’t know why, but they don’t! It was important to me for the products to be made where they are from, so they are of the best possible quality and taste.”
Grasby and her family made Bangkok their base once she was done with MasterChef Australia in 2010. A few years after launching the products, she ventured into making videos. After all, she had the skills to be in front of the camera and a working understanding of broadcasting. The team set up a temporary studio in the office boardroom, but the casual “let’s see how this works out” effort soon became a game changer for Marion’s Kitchen — the cadence of her voice, the comforting nature of her food and her signature wit was a winning combination to establishing her brand’s digital presence.
“The videos went absolutely bananas. They were way more popular than we could have ever imagined,” she recalls. “Very quickly, we climbed to six million subscribers and 42 million views every month across all our channels. It’s crazy! We have gone from a food company to a media publishing company that happens to be involved in food, which was a total accident.” Last March, as it became evident how serious the pandemic was going to be, Grasby and her family moved back to Australia on the advice of the government. She assumed the move would last two to three months; it is now coming to a year and a half.
Today, Grasby runs her company from two locations — Bangkok, where the products continue to be made, and Noosa, Queensland, where her studio is located. The rapidly growing broadcasting empire sits under Marion’s Kitchen Media. Telling authentic and relatable food and lifestyle stories across seven digital platforms, she inspires an audience of millions every month with fun, honest and informative video content. Although well behind chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay in terms of subscriber numbers, at 4.1 million, she’s ahead of Nigella Lawson, Rachael Ray, Martha Stewart and her MasterChef Australia cast mate, Liaw.
The pandemic did more than move Grasby’s physical base, it also inspired a slightly different direction for the recipes that she shared online, based on feedback from her fans. “People wanted a lot more comfort food, and to cook food at home that made them happy. If you can’t go out and see family, you’d want to bake bread or make ramen from scratch, or maybe watch someone bake bread and make ramen from scratch,” she quips.
“My take is that more people were keen on making noodle soup broth or dumplings themselves, which I find very interesting because even though they couldn’t go out to restaurants, it wasn’t necessarily resto food that they were craving. We took the opportunity presented to us by the pandemic to make more complex foods with no cheat sheets. If the emphasis before was on making good food really quickly, which will never change because there’s always a need to get a meal on the table fast, now there was a chance to show our subscribers how to make a curry paste from scratch, for example, or a flavourful broth.”
Grasby also wrote her second cookbook during the pandemic and it is now available for pre-order at marionskitchen.com. “Next on the agenda is a beautiful range of non-food products because I want to be able to use my creativity in ways that go beyond food,” she says excitedly. “This would look like ceramic tableware, cutlery, linen — stuff my viewers can see me use in my videos and then buy quite easily.” She hopes to bring out the range next year.
Any news on completing that master’s degree? She grins mischievously when I bring it up. “It’s been 10 years; maybe I should finally give that a thought.” Even if she doesn’t, Grasby’s hands-on experience in food and lifelong exposure to various cultures put her well ahead of typical graduates, who mostly have their noses buried in books. A truly enriching career in food comes from living well, eating often and celebrating the food you cook, which makes her a winner on all counts.
This article first appeared on Oct 18, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.