Eric Chong is looking at his watch.
The 22-year-old chef isn’t being rude. In fact, I think he barely notices he’s doing it, even though he is constantly checking the time during our interview in the dining room of Canoe restaurant, 54 floors above downtown Toronto.
Chong, the newly minted MasterChef Canada, is in the middle of explaining how his life has changed since winning the wildly popular TV cooking competition, when he jumps up as if he’s been scalded, yelps an apology over his shoulder and runs to the kitchen.
It turns out to be the right move, as the barbecue pork buns he’d slid into the oven minutes earlier have taken on a much darker golden hue than he’d like. A couple more minutes and our lunch would have literally been toast.
“It’s different cooking in someone else’s kitchen,” he says, after wiping the sweat off his brow and settling in for a chat. We’ve spent the morning cooking and talking in Canoe’s expansive (and expensive) digs – a perk courtesy of owner Michael Bonacini, the kindliest of MasterChef Canada’s three judges (compared with the poker-faced Claudio Aprile and blue-haired “demon chef” Alvin Leung). Chong, who has been working all morning on a slice of borrowed counter space amid Canoe’s staff who are doing their daily prep around us, seems utterly at ease.
“I feel comfortable in the kitchen,” he says when I point this out. “That’s where I was born.”
If chefs are the new rock stars, Chong’s coronation is the food-world’s version of a wannabe warbler’s duet with Beyoncé – a once-in-a-lifetime shot at fame and fortune that’s his to leverage, or squander. In just a few short months, he’s gone from fretting over soufflés at home alone to winning $100,000 and cooking alongside some of Canada’s most respected chefs. But spending some time with Chong puts his fairy-tale story in perspective. One plate of lobster pasta (his winning dish in the finale) may have changed his life, but the road to that plate was far from effortless.
At just 22, Chong is one of the youngest contestants to ever win MasterChef, the title of the franchised juggernaut shown in 40 countries, and featuring such money-making spinoffs as branded cruises. The show, which originated in Britain, features a group of non-professional home cooks who face up against each other in culinary challenges. MCC served up ratings success for CTV, which has already renewed the show for a second run. With an average viewership of 1.8 million, and 2.2 million for the finale, the show was the year’s most-watched Canadian program.
The charm of MCC caught me by surprise. Part of that was the casting – the Top 16 was a pleasing menagerie of personalities: the scrappy stay-at-home dad, the soft-spoken tattooed plumber, the smiley chemical engineer (Chong). The scripts were neither cringe-worthy nor corny (hey, W Network, you could learn a few things), and the focus on Canadian ingredients was surprisingly clever. The judges offered warmth beyond the fang-baring brusqueness of American MC judge Gordon Ramsay. MasterChef may be a global franchise, but MCC’s take on it was thoughtful and pretty, well, Canadian. And in true Canuck fashion, in the end a nice guy won the day.
Chong graduated from Hamilton’s McMaster University – where he cooked for roommates in exchange for groceries. “A lot of chicken,” he recalls, “chicken is always on sale” – with a degree in engineering.
He quickly got a job in his field (he’s too nice to mention the name of the company for fear of offending someone), but something felt off. “I really didn’t enjoy driving there every day, suited up, sitting at a desk all day,” he says.
One day, his mother’s hairdresser, knowing Chong’s preoccupation with cooking, told his mother about the MCC casting call. He quit his job and strapped on an apron (“I thought, ‘If I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna go all out’”), studying the blueprint of the U.S. show and dedicating his waking hours to cooking.
Chong’s family was hesitant about his new career path. That is, except for his grandfather, who has cooked with him since he was a boy and who retired from his own culinary post at Hong Kong Bakery in Toronto 15 years ago. The food Chong prepares for me at Canoe is inspired by him: BBQ pork buns and shrimp-crab dumplings, both modern twists on his grandfather’s beloved dim sum. (Grandpa even helped him prep the filling for the dumplings, the delicious result of a complicated multistep process he explains while my eyes glaze over.)
After months of practising dishes at home by himself, with a focus on Canadian ingredients: maple syrup, bacon, duck, lobster, potatoes – “I thought for sure there’d be a PEI potato challenge! A lot of carbs went to waste” – Chong stood out in the open-call auditions in Toronto.
Once on the show, he stood out for his perfected techniques – and manic energy. After battling his way to the final two, he cooked a three-course meal, including that lobster pasta, that netted him the win over stay-at-home mom Marida Mohammed.
“When I practise, it’s not like doing homework,” Chong reflects. “It’s something that I really enjoy, and it’s fun to sit and bake things for two weeks.”
The young chef is riding the wave of his MCC win, using it to amass more technical skills with an eye on opening his own restaurant one day. “That’s the goal,” he tells me as we dip into the dim sum. “But I know I’m not there yet.” After a recent stint on the line at Toronto-based Buca, one of Canada’s best-regarded Italian kitchens, he will travel in June to Hong Kong to work under Leung at his experimental Chinese spot, Bo Innovation. (Incidentally, Leung’s career arc mirrors Chong’s: That self-taught chef, too, started out as an engineer.)
“Before, I never would have seriously thought about working in a kitchen or opening my own restaurant, but now that is suddenly a feasible possibility,” Chong says.
In the meantime, he’s keeping busy cooking for some other important people: For Mother’s Day, his mom asked for the modest peanut-butter tart he’d won a challenge with on the show. He did her one better by making a deluxe shortbread version topped with a peanut-butter soufflé. Not bad for the guy who once feared that his baking blind spot would get him booted off the show.