Khanh Ong’s mates must be a fortunate bunch. “I love food and I cook for my friends all the time,” says the DJ turned MasterChef star, who’s well equipped to serve up his Vietnamese dishes accompanied by the perfect playlist.
And the 25-year-old sees parallels between spinning tunes for a living and appearing on Ten’s high-stakes reality cooking show. “Being a DJ, you deal with high-pressure systems a lot, you make split-second decisions when all eyes are on you—one wrong move and you lose the crowd,” says Khanh.
“And here, one wrong move and you lose the judges.” So far, so good—Khanh has impressed with his balanced flavours, including a Vietnamese salad dressing George Calombaris called “harmonious but above all delicious.”
But Khanh concedes he can’t believe he is even on the series: “I wasn't expecting it. I’ve seen the calibre of everyone, so it was so surreal to make it in.” It was Khanh’s friends—his appreciative dinner crowd—who encouraged him to apply for MasterChef. He laughed it off at first—“I’d never thought I was good enough”—but then, “on a whim,” he decided to go for it. Since then, “it’s all just been crazy!”
Life has always been about contrasts for Khanh, who was born to Vietnamese parents Dzung Chau and Tam Ong in an Indonesian refugee camp. When he was 2, his family immigrated to the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, and he wasn’t much older when he began cooking meals with his mum, growing up amid the scents of lemon grass,ginger and chilli that characterise the cuisine. “That’s how I learnt,” reflects Khanh, who has a sister, Amy, 20. “I always spent time in the kitchen with Mum.”
Tragedy struck when Khanh was 15 and his father died of liver cancer, a diagnosis he had kept hidden from the family “for a good year and a half,” he shares. “It was a shock to us that he’d known for a while and we only found out when he had a couple of months left.”
Looking back, Khanh believes his father had his loved ones’ best interests at heart. “Dad was always about putting our futures first, so I think he felt like he had to get our future set up, when that probably shouldn’t have been priority No. 1,” he says, and admits that in the wake of losing his dad, “I kind of ran away and spent six months in London when I finished high school ... I think Mum found me hard because I wasn’t really dealing with it.”
He “fell into” DJing soon after, when he was around 20 and working as a stylist’s assistant. “The first time I played I’d never touched a piece of equipment before. It was just a fun, jokey thing at a nightclub—I didn’t know what I was doing!” Still, regular work began to pour in and, four years ago, he went full-time.
To date, the job has taken him overseas to music festivals and seen him play at private parties for stars including Justin Bieber during an Australian tour. “He was really cool,” says Khanh, who favours hip-hop and R&B. “It was really intimate ... more for him and his entourage to wind down.”
The MasterChef Australia 2018 finale airs on Ten on Tuesday, 31 July, 7:30 pm