Mark down this day in Canadian culinary history: Eric Chong has won the inaugural edition of MasterChef Canada.
In winning the title, the young Asian-Canadian chef collected $100,000 and the coveted MasterChef trophy.
More importantly, Chong’s victory over Marida Mohammed in the first-season closer of the reality cooking competition seemed to convince his traditional Chinese family – who watched his finest hour from the gallery – that he was better suited to a career in the culinary arts than his current vocation of chemical engineer.
In simpler terms, this kid was born to cook.
The finale began with a short rewind of the past season on MasterChef Canada, which has been earning weekly ratings in the two-million viewer range since its debut in late January.
Following the highlight reel and brief appearances of contestants who came and went from the series (looking good, Kaila!), the focus shifted to the two finalists and their cooking aspirations.
Once again, viewers were informed that the 41-year-old Mohammed was a stay-at-home mother from Toronto and widely considered “the cook to beat in this competition.”
Known for her cooking precision and plating skills, Mohammed was born in Trinidad and made frequent use of Caribbean flavours in her dishes. Her intention, if she won the grand prize, was to open a restaurant with her twin sister.
And also not for the first time, viewers heard the back-story of Chong, at 21 the youngest participant in the MasterChef competition and the only chef looking to forge his own path instead of the one crafted for him by his parents.
In an interview, the affable Chong said that winning the MasterChef Canada title would finally vindicate his long hours spent in the kitchen.
“This will prove to my dad that I made the right decision,” said Chong.
Once the pre-game formalities were dispensed with, MasterChef Canada got down to serious culinary business.
While their family members and fellow contestants watched from the gallery above, the two finalists were tasked to create a “perfectly-composed” three-course meal, which would naturally be sampled by resident judges Michael Bonacini, Alvin Leung and Claudio Aprile.
Unlike previous outings of MasterChef Canada, the finale gave the last two chefs free reign in deciding what they would prepare for an appetizer, entrée and dessert.
The challenging part: Either chef had exactly one hour to prepare and plate each dish.
Both Chong and Mohammed scrambled madly in the pantry for 10 minutes, and then the cooking games began in earnest. Wisely, both chefs remained true to their culinary roots.
In Mohammed’s case, that meant preparing a traditional Trinidadian soup for her appetizer. She got off to a shaky start when she turned on the blender and spritzed Chef Aprile with the green goop (on the plus side, he tasted the soup off his jacket and declared it delicious).
Likewise, Chong again opted for a crispy pork appetizer, which he prepared at his usual breakneck pace while his grandfather and father watched from above.
In a brief aside, Chong compared his cooking style to that of Mohammed: “I’m like a sledgehammer and she’s like a sword,” he said.
When presented to the judges, Chef Bonacini declared Mohammed’s Pumpkin Callaloo Soup “an elevated Caribbean soup.” Chef Leung said, “The taste is absolutely spot-on.”
The judges were only slightly less enthused by Chong’s Crispy Pork Belly. Chef Leung said, “The dumpling is restaurant-quality.” Chef Bonacini said, “This dish was amazing.”
But Chef Aprile noted, “The pork I had was actually quite dry.”
Although no official scores for each course were presented, the obvious winner was Mohammed, who said, “I totally feel I won the appetizer round.”
The two chefs played it safe with familiar dishes in the entrée round, with Mohammed preparing a Taro-Steamed Black Cod and Chong making Poached Lobster on Egg Noodles.
“I’m stir-frying noodles, I’m back in my element again,” said Chong.
And once again, the judges were impressed by the results.
In judging Chong’s lobster dish, Chef Leung paid him the high compliment of saying, “You’re mixing East and West together and you do it right.” Chef Bonacini said, “You’ve learned to cook lobster to a T. It’s impressive.”
And Chef Aprile paid Chong an even higher compliment by telling him, “Whatever the outcome is today, you need to cook.”
The judges also heaped praise on Mohammed’s fish dish, though Chef Bonacini pointed out, “My big disappointment on the plate is the amount of fish.”
The fact that Chong was the unofficial winner of the main course round appeared to be confirmed by Mohammed’s blunt assessment: “Damn, I should have added another piece of fish.”
And so the whole MasterChef Canada shooting match came down to dessert, which is where Chong’s talent and seemingly boundless energy finally coalesced.
Whereas Mohammed chose to prepare a perfectly acceptable Apple Crumble with Coconut Ice Cream, Chong took a more ambitious route with his Asian Banana Split, served with Green Tea Ice Cream.
And if you thought Chong moved fast in earlier cooking sessions on the series, he was a blur during the dessert segment.
Both finalists added liquid nitrogen to accelerate the freezing of their ice cream, but Chong was doing it with two containers at a time to expedite the process. He was a man on a mission.
In what may have been a fatal error, Mohammed left the skin on the apples in her apple crumble – even choosing to ignore Chef Bonacini’s helpful suggestion that she skin the apples first.
Which of course became an issue in the dessert judging, which gave the definite edge to Chong’s unique spin on the banana split.
Chef Bonacini deemed Chong’s dessert, “A very innovative and high-reaching dish.” Chef Leung said, “I love this dessert!”
And although Chef Aprile claimed choosing a winner was “next to impossible,” it was apparent Chong had demonstrated both ethnic elegance and flair in the final cook-off. Mohammed acquitted herself admirably in the MasterChef kitchen, but in the end her dishes simply had less pizzazz.
The result: Chong was named the winner, confetti fell and the trophy was handed to its worthy recipient. Chong's family members, including his grandfather, beamed and hugged him. The set was suddenly flooded with former contestants congratulating Canada’s newest culinary superstar and Chong exclaimed, with honest emotion, “This is the happiest day of my life.”
The first season of MasterChef Canada was a wrap. In the final moment, Chef Bonacini invited viewers to apply for season two, which begins filming later this year.
Eric Chong is the current king of the kitchen, but the next great Canadian chef is still out there.