Jamie Oliver and the making of Brent Owens

Jane Willson
16 September, 2014

He taught himself to cook watching food shows, snared the MasterChef 2014 crown and now Brent Owens is madly working on his cookbook, Dig In! Yep, he’s pinching himself.

MasterChef fans know Brent Owens as the bobcat operator. And the season 2014 winner. When we talk to him, he’s crazy busy writing recipes and planning lunch: “Eggplant chips with kewpie mayonnaise and sriracha” (yep, it’s in the book).

He bought a laptop, which he takes everywhere. Between commitments (there are sure lots right now), he’s writing recipes. “Every chance I get, I might pop into a cafe and get a recipe written. Plus late nights in bed. It’s the most constructive way to do it.”

The pressure’s on: he’s looking at a whirlwind turnaround for his first book, Dig In!, which is out in November in time for Christmas.

What’s the vision? “It’s going to be pretty simple. Food I love to eat. Dishes from memories from the past that I have jazzed up a bit.” Essentially, the kind of food that anybody can achieve.

Brent, of course, is one very good story: beyond the abandoned excavation gig; the partner who convinced him to go on the show (in exchange for her having a go at Australia’s Top Model); the easygoing charm; is the tale of the self-taught 25-year-old who found himself writing a cookbook, driving a shiny new Alfa, and banking $250K.

Behind the scenes at the Dig In! shoot. Partner Madison Ancrum is pictured with home economist Caroline Jones

Food wasn’t really so important in his household growing up (“we always had meals at the family table, but it was never extravagant”) but, in his late teens, he decided he wanted to learn more.

By the time he’d finished school and (quickly) bought his own place in Melton, the routine of his day was set. Work, home, watch cooking shows, cook, eat, sleep. “I ended up watching them [cooking shows] for hours on end,” he says. Which shows? “I was always a huge fan of Jamie Oliver’s stuff, and Heston.”

He reckons he was something of a blank canvas – his words – at the start of the show, but “the picture started to paint itself throughout the competition”.

He spent his nights (seven months’ worth) in the Melbourne MasterChef house reading cookbooks. “We had a small library in the house that was chock-a-block full of books. I would look at those to teach myself to plate up.” Towards the end, when he was in the final three, Brent became enamoured with London chef Sat Bains’ book, Too Many Chiefs, Only one Indian. Why did he like it? The elegance, the pictures. “[But] It’s pretty cheffy, I can’t see it being a bestseller.”

We catch up in person at the photo shoot for his book. Asked about his stress levels, he says, with disarming calm: “What’s to be stressed about? The hard part is done.” Winning the show was the hard part? “Yep.”

Partner Madison Ancrum, who is also at the shoot on her day off, says sure, she is into the cooking thing (or, at least, the eating part) but, before the show, it did get a bit tiring at weekends. “He used to say, OK, I’m going to cook dinner, but it would start at 3 and not be served till 8.”

Reinforcing the influence of those cooking shows, she says the couple had never eaten “a fancy meal at a proper restaurant” before the show. Really? Really. “I mean, we’d go to a local restaurant and have a parma … [but] it’s incredible he can put it all together, just from watching …”

Madison is frank when asked about the trajectory they are on together: “He had the option of taking over the business [from her dad] and we would have kept living that lifestyle, waiting for the next step.” But he put his entry into MasterChef – half an hour before the cut-off no less – instead. Now, she says they’ve made a deal to move closer to the city by Christmas.

As for plans beyond that, Brent says he's in talks with his web developer and brand manager. He'd like to develop a pre-made meals line "that actually tastes nice". And he's in early discussions about a television show that would have him driving around in a food truck, visiting people working different trades, "and trying to change they way the eat".

We asked Brent to share one of his favourite recipes from the book. Always a tough call. But this is the one he came up with.

Vietnamese lettuce cups

Great, great, great sharing food. Guests assemble themselves, it’s fun, and it’s delicious. Hard to go wrong with this dish, full of flavour, add your own amounts of chilli. Crowd pleaser guaranteed. There’s no exact measurements because it’s all up to you. I love heaps of mint, coriander and lime, but others don’t.

Serves 4


  • 1 iceberg lettuce
  • 150 g chicken mince 
  • 150 g pork mince
  • 1 garlic clove, grated
  • 2 cm piece ginger, peeled and grated
  • 2 eschalots (French shalots), grated
  • 60 ml (1/4 cup) fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • Handful unroasted, unsalted peanuts
  • 100 g rice vermicelli noodles
  • 4 large round rice paper wrappers
  • 100 g enoki mushrooms, separated
  • 160 g (2 cups) bean sprouts
  • 1 small Lebanese cucumber, thinly sliced
  • 1 carrot, peeled and julienned
  • Handful Vietnamese mint or fresh mint, torn
  • Handful coriander, roughly chopped
  • 3 long red chillies, thinly sliced
  • A few lime cheeks to serve


Peel individual leaves off the lettuce, trying not to tear them. Rinse thoroughly to remove any grit.

In a large bowl combine the chicken mince, pork mince, ginger, garlic, eschalots and fish sauce. Season with salt and pepper then combine together thoroughly with clean hands. 

Place a wok over the highest heat possible. When it is smoking add half the oil. Add half of the mince mixture and stir-fry constantly until crumbly and golden brown.  

Transfer some half of the mixture to a sieve over a bowl and strain out the remaining liquid. Discard the liquid and repeat the process with remaining mince.

Reduce the heat to medium, add the peanuts to the wok and fry until lightly coloured, about 1-2 minutes.

Put the noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water. After 2 minutes, or when the noodles are tender, drain well. 

In a frying pan over high heat, fry the dry rice paper wrappers in the remaining oil, one by one, until toasted. Once cooked, crunch them up into small pieces to fit into the lettuce cup.  

On a platter, make a stack of your rice paper pieces, then a stack of lettuce cups, the individual salad items (mushrooms, beans, cucumber and carrot), a bowl of the mince mixture, the toasted peanuts, the mint and coriander, the chilli, the fresh lime cheeks and the noodles.

Dig In! is out in November and published on Cooked.


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