Khanh Ong has a lot on his plate. Fresh from his second innings on the latest season of Masterchef Australia – the show that first made him a household name in 2018. Now Ong has released a cookbook, A Gay Guy’s Guide to Life, Love, Food, has a weekly cooking show on his YouTube channel and recently signed on as brand ambassador for the ANZ & Mardi Gras Community grants.

Masterchef this season has been great for me and has really cemented my love for food,” 27-year-old Ong told Star Observer.

The importance of being one of the few out gay Asian LGBTQI people on Australian television screens is not lost on Ong.

“Anyone who puts themselves in the public domain has to take on the task of being a role model because people are looking at you, they are watching you. When I was younger, I wish I could have seen a gay Asian male like myself, or a person of colour on screen, but that definitely didn’t happen in the 90s when I was growing up,” said Ong.

Ong credits Masterchef as one of the shows that has pushed diversity on Australian TV. “In programs like Masterchef, diversity is not tokenism. Diversity is there because the way that we cook is celebrated. We are not there to fill a culture slot. That’s what I love about Masterchef. Each season we saw contestants from the LGBTQI community, we saw people of colour, we saw people from a diverse range of cultures, and I think that’s totally needed in film and on television.”

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 Asked about the controversy that erupted, when fellow contestant Reynold Poernomo’s past homophobic comments on online forums came to light, Ong is forthright that it hurt a lot of people.

“I will keep it short, because I don’t think that it needs to have anymore air time. The comments that were made by Reynold in the past are not the views that he currently shares, and he has expressed that. He has been totally apologetic about those comments. It’s not his current view, and I totally support that. I have spoken to him and I know that he’s very supportive of myself and the community. It was quite hurtful to a lot of people but I do know that he is very apologetic. He has changed, he has grown up.”

As a restaurant owner (Ong is a partner in The George On Collins), in the middle of Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown, Ong’s concerns are around the business and his staff.

“The hospitality industry took a massive hit from COVID-19. Obviously we can’t serve as many customers as we would like. At my restaurant in Melbourne due to the COVID-19 restrictions we are doing a lot of takeaway instead of dining in. We have a lot of staff on working visas that are not eligible for JobKeeper or JobSeeker. We have been kind of rustling them to do the deliveries so that they can still work. It’s been really hard,” the chef admits.

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 Khanh has spoken previously about being born in an Indonesian refugee camp, coming to Australia in the 1980s with his parents, who set up a butcher shop in Melbourne, and growing up gay in a Vietnamese family. Minus18, the LGBTQI youth advocacy group, is one of the organisations, he says, helped him in his coming out process. When the ANZ and Mardi Gras Community Grants program approached him to be their brand ambassador, Ong said, he jumped at the offer knowing that Minus18 had been one of the previous recipients of the grant.

“I was born in Indonesia in a refugee camp. My parents were Vietnamese. It was always a little bit scary for me to come out but I was really lucky to have really supportive parents. My mom especially has been very very supportive of me.  So I didn’t have that hard a time coming out but there are a lot of young kids that still do to this day,” recalled Ong.”I think organisations such as Minus18 can really help young people feel comfortable and that’s why the ANZ and Mardi Gras Community Grants Program is a great tool because it helps facilitate organisations to help change.

Ong has also fundraised in support of Minus18, with part of the proceeds from the sale of t-shirts with the message “You are loved” that he wore on Masterchef, going to the charity.

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 Other than appearing on Masterchef Australia: Back To Win, the first half of the year also saw Ong releasing his cookbook, A Gay Guy’s Guide to Life Love Foo: Outrageously Delicious Recipes (Plus Stories And Dating Advice) From A Food-Obsessed Gay.

“Everything that I love about food, about my family, my friends, about dating, about heartbreak,  the recipes that I use all the time are all in there,” said Ong. “I think food always plays a role in every person’s life, even if they don’t want to cook food brings back memories, it brings back certain emotions and times in your life. And that’s what my cookbook is about these memories and emotions that I feel when I cook these dishes and I think that applies to everyone, there’s always going to be dishes that remind you of your home or your family or remind you of your relationship.”

Reach out, there is help available is Ong’s message to other LGBTQI youngsters who may be living in families or circumstances that are not supportive.

“If someone is reading this and they do need the support and they’re not growing up in a very supportive environment do reach out. There are communities and organisations such as Minus18 that are still operating, have virtual events and counsellors.”

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