MasterChef Australia finalist Ben Ungermann has found his (culinary) home away from home in SA.
Soy lecithin’, ‘Agar-agar’ and ‘Calcium Alginate’ were the kinds of cooking terms that were totally foreign to Ben Ungermann, a self-professed home cook, when he entered MasterChef Australia in May 2017.
When he stepped onto set, he had to make do and make magic with them. And he did. In front of a global audience of millions, he was soon hailed as the ‘ice cream king’ and his charm, passion and drive made rooting for him to win Season 9 a no-brainer.
Viewers were intrigued: the young Australian, proud of his Indonesian and Dutch heritage, represented so many and resonated with millions. Now, that’s the story he serves. “My love for food definitely came from my ouma (grandmother),” Ben shares.
She was not only his foodie icon, but his inspiration to do more and become so much more using food to tell his story. But life at home was not easy. His immigrant parents both worked full-time to give their three children the best possible life.
Then, his parents – “who are great cooks now” – viewed food as a way to survive and not necessarily as the creative outlet Ben now knows it to be. “They, of course, tried to be as creative as possible using the staple ingredients we could afford at the time. My dad was the one who spent most of the time preparing meals for us,” he shares.
But it was not until Ben moved in with his ouma and oupa (grandfather) as a young boy that his culinary journey really kicked off. Ben’s ouma, like most of our own grandmothers, cooked from the heart. Her cooking fed his curiosity: he’d quiz her on secret ingredients and methods to figure out the meal he had just devoured.
Up until that stage, his only interest had been eating food – and not preparing it. He adored ollie bollen – a classic Dutch family favourite. This deep-fried (sometimes filled) Dutch doughnut would take all day to prepare. The men were tasked with mixing the dough with a large wooden spoon for ages until it was smooth – this bored many of them, but not young Ben.
“I studied every single night, read every book I could find, taking inspiration from the greats to make myself a force to be reckoned with on the show”
Preparing this iconic Dutch treat made his fascination with food grow even stronger. In 2017, 30-year-old Ben felt ready to leave his home kitchen and cook in front of the world – under immense pressure. “Nothing can prepare you for entering a cooking competition like MasterChef Australia,” says Ben. It is not only physically challenging, but it takes a toll on you mentally and emotionally, too, he explains.
“What they don’t tell you is that you’ll be completely cut off from the outside world and fully immersed in the MasterChef competition,” he says. Getting to the finale meant that Ben was away from family and friends for eight months during the show’s filming.
You’re not allowed to have a cell phone, access the internet or go on social media for those long months. This is to prevent any outside help or influence that might affect your recalls. “It was a transformation and learning opportunity that brought me to where I am today.”
As hard as it was, it wasn’t lost on him that he had an opportunity of a lifetime before him: to compete in and learn from creative challenges, compete against top-tier chefs and receive feedback from the world- class judges.
“I became a sponge,” he says. “I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could to become the best.” Ben returned to MasterChef Australia in 2020 during season 12 to compete in the Back To Win special.
However, he did not complete the season after he was charged with sexual assault, which was replaced with one charge of common law assault with the consent of the plaintiff and the prosecutors. Ben will share his story in a documentary due for release in 2023.
Fast forward a few years and Ben has found a new home in South Africa. “I’ve always believed that there’s power in the art of sharing a meal. It brings about a type of connection and sense of love. And South Africans know exactly how to do that,” he says.
Regardless of class, race or age, food almost always manages to bring us together and is a language we all understand, he observes. And he’s wasted no time getting acquainted with local culinary classics. Pickled fish is one of his all-time favourite South African specialties.
“If someone had told me years ago that eating pickled fish on a warm hot cross bun would excite me, I’d probably have laughed at them,” he chuckles. Now, Ben can’t image Easter weekend without the beloved duo.
But you can’t call yourself a true fan of South Africa unless you’ve had your fingers, lips and sometimes your clothing stained by the iconic bunny chow or masala steak gatsby: Ben raves about these dishes and believes there’s nothing else like them in the world.
Ben’s always longing for a taste of home, though. “I feel that both Dutch and Indonesian cuisines are very underrated in the food scene,” he says. So, he decided to put them both on the map. He pioneered the opening of HONG (House of Nasi Goreng), which serves eight kinds of Indonesian fried rice, at Cape Town’s vibrant Mojo Market in Sea Point.
But, of course, he couldn’t forget his other love: ice cream. Ungermann Ice Cream, also at Mojo Market, serves up fabulous flavours such as biltong salted caramel with pecan nut. But he’s not done just yet.
There’s talk of a new restaurant in the pipeline, but his lips are tightly sealed at this stage… “All in good time,” he chuckles. Ben has faced his fair share of trials and tribulations but still encourages young chefs and foodies to “dream big and guard that dream. Surround yourself with like-minded people who will support you. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support from those who help me stay true to me, my passion and my dream.”
In the hot seat
What is your guilty pleasure when it comes to food?
To be honest, it would be as simple as a ton (no jokes) of shucked fresh oysters on ice, with a bit of lemon, pickled or fresh onions and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc to send me straight to foodie bliss.
Since fitness became a big part of your life, what would you call a typical cheat day?
I actually don’t believe in cheat days. If I know I’m going to indulge, I make sure to work out a little bit extra the next day. It’s all about moderation.
Your favourite SA snack.
Biltong! Beef jerkey just doesn’t cut it.
Words by: Chad January