Raised in Mackay and educated in Townsville, MasterChef 2017 finalist Tamara Graffen is a true NQ girl at heart. We tracked her down to chat all things food, Tavel and earrings, plus life after the MasterChef adventure.

Congratulations on your success in MasterChef 2017 and making the top four! What do you think it is about MasterChef that captures the hearts and stomachs of so many Australians?

I think the show is relatable for most Australians. Sure, we do some pretty crazy stuff on the show, but we all started out as home cooks. I only started to learn how to cook after I moved off campus from James Cook University, so quite late by a lot of standards. I think it shows that if you have a passion for something and are willing to work for it, the sky is the limit.

There was a smorgasbord of celebrity chefs on MasterChef this year. Who was your favourite and why?

I can only narrow it down to three: Yotam Ottolenghi, Peter Gilmore and David Thompson. Yotam made me love the simplicity and beauty of vegetarian food. Peter serves super refined dishes that aren’t pretentious, and are all about flavour and the balance between texture and taste. David is the king of Thai cuisine, and his attitude toward finding the perfect harmony between bold ingredients was inspirational.

You grew up in Mackay and attended JCU in Townsville, so you know your way around North Queensland. What are some of your fondest foodie memories from Townsville?

I loved Gyo Japanese restaurant for their gyoza! A Touch of Salt was always my pick for a special occasion. I also really love establishments like Bambini, where I think their consistency and simple, honest food is the key to their success. I was also a massive fan of the coffee from Coffee Dominion.

When you’re not cooking up a storm in the kitchen, how do you spend your down-time?

I love to be creative, not just in cooking, but in craft as well. I sew, letterpress, crochet, screen print… I love to try new things and I am constantly exploring new art mediums. I’m currently working with resin, and I also hope that I can start producing a range of my own handmade earrings soon too. I had so many comments on my extensive earring collection on the show!

You met your husband Tim in Townsville and have since moved to Broome. When are you coming back to visit us?

I’d love to come back to sunny North Queensland, especially since some of my best friends still live there. I’m starting to schedule in some trips around Australia hosting dinners, events, cooking demonstrations and classes… so if you’ve got something exciting coming up in Townsville, get in touch, I’d love to be there!

What have you been up to since wrapping up filming of MasterChef?

I couldn’t wait to get into some of the best kitchens to start learning hands-on, and this led me to do some work in Melbourne and Sydney at Om Nom Kitchen, Lune Croissanterie and Peter Gilmore’s Quay Restaurant in Sydney. I’m now looking at café opportunities, and planning on hosting some events, dinners and cooking demonstrations around the country. My dream is still to ultimately open up a boutique café where I can combine my love of handmade craft with fun, simple, delicious food.

Describe your ultimate four-week foodie holiday.

The trip to Japan with MasterChef was amazing, and even though it was my third visit to Japan, I feel like you find something different every time you visit and it’s a place I can never cross off my bucket list of destinations.

I’m actually planning a two week ultimate foodie tour of Japan for May 2018, inspired by the best parts from the MasterChef trip, and my experiences through my previous visits. It’s for small groups and I’ll be teaching some master classes along the way.

I love exploring everything from the tiny yakitori street stalls, to the traditional kaiseki haute cuisine; the precision and perfection in Japanese cuisine is inspirational. Whether it’s ramen, gyoza, tempura, sushi, okonomiyaki, tokatsu, yakitori… I’ve never had a bad meal in Japan!

What does the rest of 2017 have in store for you?

I’m doing some dinners, exploring opportunities to open my boutique café, holding a couple of pop-ups, doing some classes and demonstrations, getting some more work experience, designing some earrings… I really feel like I’ve landed my dream job, because I wake up and every day is different and the possibilities are only limited by my imagination!

What was the last thing you cooked?

Cannoli. I’m testing some fun food for a pop-up I have in mind… cannoli and coffee go perfectly I think!

Chicken or fish?

Hmmm… tough choice. I love a bit of steamed barramundi, served simply with some soy and finely julienned ginger! But I have to say chicken, I am a fan of using the whole of the chicken. Spend five minutes watching a Youtube video of how to debone a chicken, which means that you can buy a whole raw chicken for about $5/kg from the supermarket and get enough meat for two meals plus the carcass of the chicken to make the most amazing homemade stock for many more.