By day he runs the Perth office of a top-tier law firm, by night he dons his chef's hat and apron and creates culinary masterpieces. Minters Perth managing partner and Master Chef Australia top 50 contestant John Poulsen dishes up the details to Zoe Lyon
MINTER ELLISON'S Perth managing partner, John Poulsen, can be added to the long list of amateur chefs whose early passion for food was nurtured by those staples of Australian kitchens - the Women's Weekly cookbooks.
Poulsen's mother died when was very young, and he took up the role of household chef at age 11 after realising that cooking was not exactly his father's forte.
"It was out of necessity," he says. "My dad started cooking and he boiled a meatball in oil and stuck it on a plate, and I thought 'I'm not going to eat this for the rest of my life', so I went out and bought two cookbooks - a Women's Weekly cookbook and The Golden Wattle Cookery Book - and it started from there."
But Poulsen, having the driven personality that he does, honed his culinary skills more finely than most, and recently his efforts landed him in the top 50 of MasterChef Australia.
"I love my job," he explains. "This is a difficult market and ... in Perth we're not [making redundancies] and we're not proposing to, so we're really focused on engaging our people and working out ways to keep them busy and motivated. So if I'd disappeared for four months I think that probably would have gone off the rails a bit."
Poulsen's winning recipe, which got him through the first, cut-throat elimination round, was a chocolate tart - a recipe he adapted from one of his favourite chefs.
"I have to credit it. It;s Jamie Oliver's - but with a lot less sugar and using dark chocolate, and putting a coffee shot into it. So it's based on his but a bit more bitter," he explains.
Poulsen says that the first round of the competition was an experience in itself. "It was hilarious," he says. "Even though on the show it makes it look like they started in Sydney, they actually started in Perth, so it was the first day of this brand new show and I don't think they'd realised the logistics of actually having that many people turn up with pots and pans and dishes."
However, the upside was the opportunity it provided to meet other passionate foodies, including recently eliminated top 20 contestants Trevor Forster and Joshua Catalano. "It was nice, because I think that in a lot of those reality TV shows people are very cut-throat against each other, but in this everyone had a common passion for food. It was all really good fun."
Facing the judges, however, was not quite so fun, but Poulsen acknowledges that they had a genuine desire to seek out top culinary talent - and some good tips to share. "They were fairly intimidating, but they were after food," he says. "They were after a personality which could get you on TV, but they were definitely after cooking skills."
For example, in the second round, which saw Poulsen narrowly squeeze through to the top 50, he served up seared salmon with mushy peas, "scrunchy potatoes", roasted tomatoes and hollandaise sauce. "When they tasted my food they were talking about the consistency of the hollandaise sauce, how well the fish was cooked, and how well everything was seasoned, so they were really focusing on food," he says.
"I certainly learned a lot from the judges. What they said about my salmon ... was that someone of my age and sophistication should really have learned by now to keep it simple and not clutter the plate up so much, so that was a really useful comment."
Though he's now back in his seat at Minters, Poulsen has seized on his MasterChef experience as an opportunity to bring his two passions together, and he recently hosted a cooking event for the personal assistants of the firm's clients where he taught them to make his now famed chocolate tart.
He then really put his skills to the test by catering the Federal budget round table dinner for Treasurer Wayne Swan in Perth, in which he, his wife and his executive assistant served up a 5-star dinner for 12 discerning guests. "When [Swan] left, he said it was the best meal he'd had in a long time - so that was great," he says.
Poulsen admits that, looking long-term, he wouldn't rule out a career change, which could involve a family business. "My son is about to start a post-graduate degree in micro-brewing and he wants to start his own micro brewery, and ... he says the only way they work is if they've got a really good food outlet as well. So I could do the food and he could do the beer," he explains. "It's on the cards - but down the track when he's got a bit of experience."
However for now, he thinks he's got the best of both worlds. "I've been a lawyer now for 30 years and managing partner for three and I've loved every moment of it. I've especially loved being managing partner because you can make such a difference to an organisation," he says.
"And the nice thing is, cooking is something you can do to de-stress. On the weekend I'll always cook and we do a lot of entertaining, and we always have a big family dinner on family night which usually I cook - so I think the balance is about right."