Elena Duggan’s appetite for cooking good food started when she was a toddler, sitting on the kitchen bench and helping her mother prepare meals.
It is a passion that grew, culminating in the 32-year-old art teacher winning the coveted MasterChef crown in the last year's Channel 10 series, in a fight-to-the-finish against 27-year-old coffee roaster Matt Sinclair. The $250,000 prize money will allow her to leave teaching and pursue her dream of working with top chefs and starting her own garden restaurant.
But she will miss her Galston High art students and colleagues almost as much as they will miss her, judging by the reception she received when she returned for an impromptu visit.
Among the most avid watchers of the program were Elena’s art students and colleagues, as well as the hospitality students who had the popular teacher give them a few pointers in the school’s kitchen when she popped in soon after she won.
“We are very proud of her, the students are excited she won,” Principal Jillian Tourlas told SHL. “It was her teaching experience and her maturity that helped her work well under pressure. She proved that she is not easily flustered.”
Hospitality student Chloe Morrisby said the teacher’s win was “inspiring” to students of cooking. Fellow student Kayla Sillery said the win showed that “if you have a dream, you can achieve it”. Hospitality teacher Jill Gray said her students were able to see that cooking was pleasurable and was an achievable career.
“They watched every show and the first five minutes of class were taken up with discussing what Miss Duggan had cooked on the show the night before,” she said.
But her art students were the most excitable when Miss Duggan visited the school for the first time since leaving in May to start on the show.
“We are proud of her but we miss her,” Amy Hollis, a Year 12 art student, said. Amy, Sarah Pernice and Tamara Young gave their former teacher big hugs and were delighted when she sat with them to answer their eager questions.
Elena said she was sad to be leaving the school but a new path had been set after her win.
“This gives me the chance to work with chefs I admire, such as Alla Wolf-Tasker at The Lakehouse in Daylesford (near Melbourne),” Elena said. “I might even get some work experience in California, where I have relatives. My ultimate dream is to start a farm café similar to Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop in South Australia.”
For the first two nights after, Elena took a rest from elaborate food. “It was steamed broccoli on the menu at home,” she laughed.
Part of Elena’s prize is a monthly column in Delicious magazine, and further down the track there will be a book. The vibrant MasterChef is taking all the attention in her stride.
“I have been inundated with requests for guest appearances and for charity events, but I can’t do them all,” she said. “And with all the media attention, it has been fairly hectic.”
She has also been approached by fans of the show, although they have been respectful if she has been out dining with other people.
Elena was determined from the start, having just missed out on appearing in an earlier series.
“I had been short-listed for the earlier series, which my sister pushed me to audition for, and it was after I missed out that I realised how much I wanted to be on the program, so I worked hard for it for these auditions,” she said.
Being shut away in a Melbourne house with her fellow contestants for the two-month duration of filming really tested her mettle. But with her easygoing manner, she got on well with her housemates. Elena became firm friends with her runner-up Matt Sinclair, even helping him when one of his dishes went awry.
In the house, the 24 contestants who start out on the program share ideas and try to support each other, although they have to focus on just their own efforts when performing for judges Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris. Elena enjoyed working with the judges who were friendly and approachable.
“They each have their different ways but were easy to get on with. They were often cheeky,” she said. All of her family and friends joined in the excitement and backed her all the way.
“My partner Eric, who is a builder, was very understanding and supportive. While in the house, there is no internet but we can write letters,” Elena said. “To occupy my time, I painted watercolour postcards — I ended up doing 60.”
Growing up in Noosa, where her parents still live, Elena took an interest in cooking from the age of two.
“Mum would put me on the bench and I would help her with tasks according to my ability, starting with throwing in ingredients and stirring,” she said. “Parents should involve their children in cooking so they build a healthy relationship with food. It is also a fun way to connect with each other.”
From childhood, Elena had a healthy respect for good, home grown and cooked food.
“Food also brings people together, it is a way of connecting and it fuels body and mind,” she said. “It is important for me that I grow my own food, and I have a vegie patch now that I have moved to Warragamba after living in Castle Hill with my sister for 12 years.”
Elena is passionate about young people learning about nutrition and how to prepare healthy meals.
“I love what Jamie Oliver has done in educating young people about healthy eating and how he gives young people who are considered unemployable jobs in hospitality,” she said. Elena said it was important to teach people of all ages that cooking is not a burden, but a joy, and essential to good health.
Despite the elaborate dishes prepared on MasterChef, Elena prefers simple food.
“I sometimes just grab vegetables out of the garden and eat them raw, or cook them simply,” she said. “I love to eat fresh fruit and vegetables, although I am not strictly vegetarian. I prefer savoury to sweet foods. I really love seafood, especially crustaceans. I like to cook one-pot meals and get the most out of every ingredient, not wasting any part of a vegetable.”
Certainly, Elena’s everyday cooking, even for guests, would not resemble the madness of the MasterChef challenge, with recipes that would challenge less creative cooks.
As a creative person, Elena enjoys formulating recipes and bringing them to the plate for appreciative guests. Dishes she prepared on the show included Twice Cooked Lamb with Lamb Jus, Macadamia Nut Puree, Pickled Beets and Vegetables, Marron Two Ways with a Smoked Vegetable Salad and a Dashi Dressing,Modern Australian Tuna Nicoise and Apple, Cheese and Bickies — all mouth watering, but challenging to the novice.
“Further down the track, I hope to write books in which I can pass on my tips,” she said, providing that possible lifeline to us more mortal cooks. ❐