TORONTO - Eric Chong says it is "really, really satisfying" to become Canada's first MasterChef.
The chemical engineer from Oakville, Ont., nailed the title along with $100,000 in a sizzling finale Monday night that saw him battle it out against Marida Mohammed of Toronto.
"Going through all this, all this trouble, and have something to bring home, it's just really great and it's a dream come true," Chong said in an interview at a CTV studio ahead of the telecast. "This $100,000 means a lot to me. I can use it to invest in my restaurant and, yeah, I don't know, not many people know what it feels like to actually realize your dream and this feeling is indescribable."
Both contestants acknowledged the enormous pressure they felt when taping the last episode in front of family members and the 14 original cast members they'd ousted.
"The finale was probably the most stressful day of my life," Chong said. "I couldn't sleep that night and then you have to go and cook literally the meal of your life. This is a life-changing meal. The pressure was so immense. ... It felt good cooking my food, though. Throughout the competition you don't always have a chance to cook what you want to cook and this is the time you work your hardest and get to show off your cuisine and I think I did that."
Mohammed and Chong each had to create an appetizer, entree and dessert. They had one hour to complete each dish.
Her pumpkin callaloo soup with salted pig tails won against Chong's pork belly dumplings. In the main-course round, Chong defeated Mohammed with lobster on egg noodles over her steamed black cod with pigeon pea puree, mango and cucumber. The sweet culmination went to Chong's Asian banana split — green tea and red bean ice creams with banana tempura. Mohammed concocted a deconstructed apple crumble with coconut ice cream and warm rum sauce.
She lamented she didn't peel the apples for her dessert, a criticism from the judging panel which she feels led Chong to net the grand prize.
"I wish I'd peeled my apples, but you know, I felt so strongly about, you know, the presentation and I'm a girl who really stands strongly behind presentation and a colourful plate and if I could change that I probably would peel those apples," she said, noting she's definitely not lazy about such tasks, having peeled 100 mini potatoes in an earlier episode set in Toronto's Distillery District.
"I've had many nightmares about this. Damn those apples!"
But she has no regrets about being on "MasterChef Canada," even though it meant the stay-at-home mom, who immigrated from Trinidad and lived for a time in Sudbury, Ont., had to leave her 3 1/2-year-old daughter with her partner for six weeks.
"Obviously (the outcome) was disappointing, but wearing that chef's coat in the end — I'm getting goose bumps just thinking about it — that moment where the chefs switch places with us on the stage ... I think is a prize in itself. I don't think even $100,000 would have made up for that moment because it really did validate the reason that I went on the show."
Chong admitted competing against Mohammed in the finale was intimidating "because Marida wasn't in the bottom too much. She was definitely consistent and that was her strongest quality, I think."
They are both on track for a new career path.
Chong, now 22, packed in his engineering job to practise for "MasterChef Canada" once he knew he'd made it into the top 50 contenders. Once taping wrapped he worked for almost three months in Buca, one of Toronto's top-rated eateries. He's been seeking space in Toronto to open his own restaurant, which will feature Chinese tapas marrying the flavours of Singapore, China and Hong Kong.
"Being only 21, I'm pretty sure I'm the youngest MasterChef in the world, excluding 'MasterChef Junior,' of course. ... I don't think it's a bad thing I'm young because I can actually fulfil a full career being in the culinary industry."
Mohammed, meanwhile, said the "MasterChef Canada" experience has "definitely put me in the direction I want to go in my life." The now 32-year-old, who's also a personal trainer, said she'd "love to work on showcasing Trinidadian food in a healthy exotic way that Canadians and everybody else can relate to."
Chefs Michael Bonacini, Alvin Leung and Claudio Aprile, who judged the first season of "MasterChef Canada," will be staying on to helm Season 2, the network announced last week.
Home cooks have until July 13 to apply for Season 2. For details, visit CTV.ca/MasterChefCanada.
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