Interview with Masterchef Canada's First Winner - Eric Chong

Step out of your comfort zone. Follow your passion. Do what you love.

Easy to say, but difficult to execute. And yet these are the inspirational sayings that Eric Chong, the first winner of Masterchef Canada, has lived by to get him exactly where he is today: being the proud owner of his very own restaurant R&D alongside his business partner, Michelin Star Chef Alvin Leung. These culinary milestones may not have been realized had he not taken a leap of faith and submitted an audition tape to participate in the inaugural season of a cooking competition with no measure of success at the time of its filming. South of the border, Masterchef is one of the biggest cooking shows and competitions, with millions of people tuning in every week. However, the success of American-based reality TV shows does not always translate to success with Canadian viewership (think Bachelor Canada. Yes, there really was a Canadian spin off, and you haven’t heard of it for good reason). It was a shot in the dark for Eric, but as it turned out, it was a risk well worth taking.

Recently, Eric was invited to this year's Redpath Waterfront Festival, which welcomed the Royal Canadian Navy for the first-ever Urban Fresh Navy Cook Off . Top Naval Chefs from coast to coast were selected from their chosen formations to participate in the final stage of the 2-hour competition, which took place in the galleys of the HMCS Goose Bay and HMCS Kingston docked at Harbour Square Park. This exciting Navy Cook Off was then live-streamed on a large screen in the park where four judges, including Eric Chong, chose the winning team. Similar to the Mystery Box Challenge from Masterchef, the two Naval teams were required to create an entrée and dessert incorporating ingredients from a standard pantry along with ingredients from a mystery box, the contents of which were kept secret until moments before the challenge began.

While the Navy Cooks toiled away in the kitchen, I had the chance to sit down with Eric one-on-one at the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel to talk about his journey from aspiring chef to successful restaurateur. We started our interview with where it all began for Eric—season 1 of Masterchef Canada—and his belief that he could win it all after he took that initial step of submitting his audition tape that would forever change his life.

"I strongly believed that when I filmed it—the audition tape—that I could win it all. Probably as the competition started, my confidence slowly dipped off because it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be and a lot more stressful," Eric recalled. "With all the behind the scenes stuff, it was quite difficult. It was still a good experience, and I would do it again."

It wasn't all peaches and cream being part of a cooking competition that was televised to millions of Canadians every week. Not only did Eric have to cook his heart out each week or be in fear of being eliminated, but the logistics of filming was something he did not expect to be so challenging.

"I’d say just the hours and the time it took to put the show together," he said when asked about his most stressful times. "You are locked in a hotel, no phone, no Internet for about six weeks, and then you have to wake up early, drive, commute to the studio, do all the make up, and film for about 12 hours for only half an episode." Eric also shared how he wished he could eat more during the filming of the season, or at the very least, sample the food the other contestants would cook up. "I’m not going to say they didn’t feed us. It’s just you really don’t get to eat that much. I know it’s funny because it’s a cooking show, but you never get to eat much of your own food let alone anyone else's. You cook it, then you just leave, walk off, and then break."

This has always been one of the most intriguing parts for me when watching a reality TV show: the action behind the scenes. What actually happens when the cameras go off?

"Cameras off, you are actually sleeping or reading cookbooks, or practicing cooking in your own kitchen," Eric revealed. "Fortunately enough, the hotel that they put us in had a kitchen, and it was like a suite. It was good to practice. I think everyone was just way too nervous to just relax, so it would either be just reading up on cookbooks, practicing recipes, or just catching up on sleep." One thing that Eric confirmed is that the contestants really have no idea of what the challenges would entail ahead of time, and that, when they were only allowed an hour to cook a dish, they did not get a second more. "A lot of people don't believe that when they say 60 minutes, you only get 60 minutes. And when they reveal what we're about to cook in that week's episode, that's the first time we've ever seen it."

If you have seen Eric's season of Masterchef Canada, you would remember that he was very upfront about his parents not entirely supportive of his pursuit of becoming a chef. Prior to the show, Eric studied Chemical Engineering at McMaster University (my alma mater!), and his parents hoped he would eventually find himself a stable, well-paying job in this area. As they saw it, being a chef was not as glamorous as being a lawyer, doctor, or an engineer in his case. However, the tides turned after Eric won the title of Masterchef Canada and the accompanying $100,000 grand prize. So what exactly do his parents think of him now as a full-time chef?

"They are 100% supportive now. I definitely wouldn’t have gotten this far without having won Masterchef Canada. I think had I not won, for sure I probably would still be an engineer. If I didn’t win, then of course Alvin wouldn’t have partnered up with me, and that was a big swinging point for my parents’ support."

After the show’s conclusion, Eric partnered with Masterchef judge and 3 Michelin Star Chef,  Alvin Leung (a.k.a. the Demon Chef), to open R&D (short for Rebel & Demon), a modern Asian restaurant in downtown Toronto. With a nickname like the Demon Chef, one has to ask just how intimidating Alvin really is.

"He’s probably the most eccentric guy you will ever meet. He takes his work extremely seriously. You can’t get 3 Michelin stars without being a perfectionist," Eric stated. "He runs his business like a dictator, he demands what he wants, he gets what he wants, and anything less than that will piss him off severely. But outside of work, he’s probably the nicest, most generous guy you will ever meet. The demon chef is a good name. He is extremely serious and scary in the kitchen, but outside of the restaurant when we go eat, have dinner at each other’s houses, he is super nice, super generous, and a really funny guy. Loves to joke around."

Bearing an uncontainable grin, Eric also mentioned that Alvin is something of a kid at heart. "He's like a big kid sometimes. He’s a huge Batman fan, collects all the Batmobiles, action figures, movies, all kinds of Batman memorabilia. He’s like a kid in a candy store when he is shopping for Batman."

It's now been over a year since R&D opened alongside Alvin, and Eric noted that since its unveiling, his biggest challenges have been the management of costs and maintaining the quality of his dishes. "The most key thing in a restaurant would be consistency. If I were to cook a dish, and a new guy were to cook that same dish, the customer shouldn’t know the difference. So that is a pretty scary thought when you think of it that way. I need to train him to be just as good as me, if not better. So definitely training the cooks for consistency is a huge challenge in running a restaurant."

During this time of our interview, the Marlant team from Nova Scotia and the Marpac team from British Columbia had already begun duelling it out for the Navy Cook title, and it was up to Eric and his fellow judges to decide on the winner. So just what was Eric looking forward to most about being on the other side of the fence as a judge?

"I think it’s just exciting to see new blood cook food. I know they have a senior cook and a young aspiring one, but it’s just exciting to see what they can come up with, especially in that super small kitchen. It’s Hong-Kong-style small. Very impressive."

There are two prototypes of extremes of judging on a panel. The “Simon Cowell” judge—blunt, outspoken, and critical—and the “Paula Abdul” judge—kind, supportive, and encouraging. When asked which role he would likely assume, Eric laughed and said he would probably be more like Paula Abdul.

"It really depends on the competition and the type of cooks. I mean, these guys do not cook professionally by any means, so I don’t expect Michelin-Star-quality dinner. I think it would be a little cruel to be like a “Simon Cowell” in this scenario, especially when this is just to help motivate them and to help fuel their passion for cooking. You definitely don’t want to crush their dreams. I think a little bit of positive encouragement will be good."

As a seasoned professional when it comes to intense cook-offs, mystery ingredients, and beating the clock, Eric stressed the importance of cooking efficiently and not underestimating the power of beautiful plating when trying to create that perfect winning dish.

"You eat with your eyes first. The plate really needs to look nice, and it needs to be clean. I’m curious to see how they plate because I know in the navy they just have it buffet style, so I’m actually quite intrigued to see how they plate up their dishes,” Eric indicated. “Delegating tasks properly and cooking efficiently is also very important, as this is a tag team, you need to go in with a plan. As I saw for the brief moments, one chef was doing pastry, the other chef was doing savoury so that’s really a good plan in my opinion. In Masterchef, you get about one hour to cook one dish, and now they each have two hours, so if they split up the work it should be pretty good." He also added that creativity goes a long way. "If they did something that I never thought to do, then that would probably give them a lot of bonus points."

Eric revealed that later this August, his restaurant will see a menu flip that will incorporate new and exciting modern Asian dishes. However, we all might have to wait a little longer if we expect a future Masterchef Canada collaboration between Eric and this season's winner, Mary Berg, who also resides in Toronto.

"I only spoke to her briefly during the restaurant takeover episode. I don’t think we’d be doing any collaborations. I mean, I know how it is after you win. You kind of want to do your own thing, you don’t really want to have a boss or be in someone’s shadow, so I think she’s just going to do her own thing and I hope the best for her."

Time and time again, we’ve seen that Eric is no stranger to creating works of art from simple ingredients, although he revealed that beautiful plating is the last thing on his mind when cooking for himself in his everyday life.

"I don't always go all out, but I do love pasta," Eric declared. "I'll make a pasta, make a sauce. Being a chef, I try to stay healthy, try to go to the gym, so I’ll usually just have oatmeal for breakfast, an omelette, something simple, and then when I go home, like a smoothie. Whatever is quick, because usually I get home at about 1 AM. I’m not going to make a huge feast. On days off, I’ll usually cook if my girlfriend’s eating with me; if not, I’ll just go out.”

Keeping with Toronto's ever-changing culinary scene, Eric said he tries food from different restaurants each week, and described it as a good way to find inspiration from other local chefs. At the time of the interview, Eric had a dinner reservation at Omaw.

"Every week, I try a new restaurant with my girlfriend. It’s good to stay up to speed with what restaurant is good, what food they are doing, just so you can then add your own little Asian spin on it.”

When queried about his thoughts then on the best restaurant in Toronto right now (besides R&D, of course), Eric proclaimed, “Alo would be my number one for sure, probably the best meal I had in Canada. Alo is phenomenal.”

For his quick eats, Eric explained that he enjoys frequenting restaurants located in his neighbourhood. “Sansotei Ramen, Yutaka Sushi, Three Little Pigs for sandwiches, just anything close by. For higher end, I have a little favouritism towards Buca because I worked there for a few months.”

After filming Masterchef Canada, Eric spent a few months working at Buca to really get a feel of what it would be like to work inside a restaurant day-in and day-out. His employers had no idea he had won the title, as the airing of Masterchef had not yet concluded, but Eric’s pure talent landed him a full-time job.

"Alvin said that before we opened that I should work at a restaurant besides his own to see how other restaurants operate, and I was fortunate enough to get into Buca, arguably the best restaurant in Toronto. I was really fortunate enough to work there. I love their food." Eric then goes on to say that after this first experience working at a commercial kitchen, it was then when he truly knew he loved being a cook. "It was incredible. A lot of home cooks would say they would love to be a chef but that they can’t actually work 14-hour days, never sitting down once, barely eating, but I honestly enjoyed every second of it."

Step out of your comfort zone. Follow your passion. Do what you love.

You'll never know what could happen if you do these three things. It worked out for Eric and it could very well work out for you.