You only need to take one quick look to recognise Poh Ling Yeow behind the dazzling smile and the explosive energy of the artist-turned TV presenter-turned cookbook author. She’s very hard to overlook.
Poh is a fifth generation Malaysian born Chinese from Kuala Lumpur who feels she really only found her feet from the day she turned 9 years old and became a resident of Australia. Adelaide in fact.
In what she describes as a ‘light bulb moment’, she realised that her new home in Adelaide, with its background noise of warbling magpies and the smell of eucalypts, made sense of everything and she fell in love with it.
That her future would include cooking as a way of bringing her culture back to pass onto future children wasn’t always obvious when the freshly westernised schoolgirl Sharon opened her school lunch box and was dismayed to find fried rice in the place of what she really longed for, a Vegemite sandwich and a handful of sultanas.
Although she was considered academically challenged at her Malaysian school, Sharon/Poh thrived at school in Adelaide, despite the lack of Vegemite. She graduated from Seymour College and began a Bachelor of Design degree at the University of South Australia. She became an artist and worked as a graphic designer and illustrator, then turned her talents to makeup artistry.
Poh credits her family and the unconditional love and support they gave her for any success she has had.
‘My brother Casper, is a brilliant artist – I idolised him,’ she says. ‘He was obsessed with drawing so I spent a great deal of my childhood mimicking everything he did. Mum Christina is a perfectionist who taught me to bake and craft and pay attention to detail at a very young age. Dad is creative and a dreamer with an incredible work ethic which I have also inherited.’
Last but not least, it was the love and support of Poh’s Great Aunt Kim, a faithful Buddhist who devoted her entire life to Poh and Casper and passed on the lessons of kindness, generosity and ‘immaterialism’, that gives Poh her base.
Poh was a mature age student at UniSA. ‘I had already done all my travel and I went in with a complete focus on my studies,’ she says. Despite being at City West which was then at the wrong end of town, Poh found what she calls ‘a fantastic learning environment’ with great lecturers who she still keeps in touch with and were a major creative influence on her.
She became a full-time artist in 2002 working mainly with acrylic paint on canvas. Her painting explores notions of belonging and origin and reconciling her Asian heritage with her western identity. Poh has participated in 28 exhibitions, 20 of which have been solos. She appears in many corporate and private collections in Australia and abroad.
Slaving over a hot stove was yet another attempt at reconciling her eastern and western personas. Another was removing Sharon from her name.
In 2009 Poh’s life was turned on its head when she came second runner up to Julie Goodwin in the first season of MasterChef Australia. But she had made her mark and the following year was offered her own cooking show, Poh’s Kitchen on ABC television. More television and cookbooks followed.
She is currently filming a new series of Poh & Co for SBS which celebrates Poh’s love of food, family and friends. Poh’s ‘life in progress’ in fact.