In her own words, Amina Elshafei was never supposed to be a TV star.
“I am a plus-size girl. I do not feel glamorous enough to be on TV. I’m a tall girl with a hijab and stick out like a sore thumb,” she says.
Yet a star was exactly what she became after appearing on MasterChef Australia in 2012 as its first Muslim contestant. Despite any reservations she might have had about how she would be perceived, Elshafei, who was knocked out of the final 11, went on to become one of the show’s most popular and memorable contestants in its five-year history.
The 29-year-old paediatric nurse from Sydney is bringing her take on Middle Eastern dishes with a twist to the capital as part of the 16-day Gourmet Abu Dhabi festival.
A regular visitor to the region, Elshafei has a huge following across the GCC, where the show’s fifth series has just concluded, as well as in Pakistan and India.
But nowhere is she more popular than in Australia, where she is still regularly stopped on the street by people who recognise her two years after she was on the show.
Melbourne’s Herald Sun described her as “perhaps the most generously supportive, calm and optimistic contestant, always pitching in on team challenges”.
Venusbuzz.com called her “Australia’s breath of fresh air” and The Australian Women’s Weekly said she was “everyone’s best friend”.
“It has been humbling,” says Elshafei. “It was at the back of my mind [how I would be perceived] but I hoped people would see who I am.”
The nurse says she was not intimidated when she went on the programme as the first contestant in a hijab and decided to let her food do the talking.
Her brand of cooking is a reflection of her unique background. Born in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to her Egyptian father Mohamed, 60, and Korean mother Injoung, 56, she and her sister Eman, 25, were brought up in Australia on food from both cultures.
The family table was as likely to be laid with kimchi as it was with tagines and stews – sometimes at the same time. “My parents and grandmothers are my inspiration,” she says. “I cook the food I love to eat and by taste and flavour rather than by the book. It is the generosity of food I love to cook for.”
But she was banned from going to culinary school after her accountant father and mother, a nurse, insisted on a university education.
Elshafei, who began cooking as a teenager and once blew up a microwave while attempting to bake a cake, carried on cooking as a hobby, whipping up dishes for her friends in her spare time.
Egged on by her sister, she applied to MasterChef Australia with comical pictures of herself carrying a watermelon and with vine leaves stuck between her teeth, expecting her application to end up in the bin.
But after three rounds of auditions, in which she made stuffed grape leaves and a kofta tagine with fattoush, she was among the 24 contestants selected from 7,500 applicants in her city alone.
“I was stunned to be called back,” she says. There were more challenges to come: Elshafei had to cope with the stresses of living in a shared house with the other contestants for six months without phone or internet access, with only a few hours to see her family once a month.
“We walked into each episode unaware of what was going to happen,” says Elshafei.
“As the show became more serious and harder, we became rocks for each other in the house.”
She bonded with Audra Morrice, a fellow contestant with Chinese and Indian parents who had also adapted her style of cooking from her parents’ mixed heritage.
The pair organise pop-up restaurants in Sydney, while Elshafei holds cookery classes and is expecting to publish a cookbook this year. She has also just launched a halal food app called Amina’s Kitchen.
Elshafei has returned to nursing but says she would love to open an Arab mezze restaurant in Australia: “I am very proud of the cuisines I was brought up on.”
• Amina Elshafei will appear at The Westin Abu Dhabi’s Culinary Creation Stage on Friday and Saturday. For more information, visit www.gourmetabudhabi.ae