If you've been watching the inaugural season of "MasterChef Canada," you knew that the final was going to go down to the wire.
Would smooth sophistication win over innovative exuberance? Nope. Twenty-two -year-old Eric Chong is the first winner of "MasterChef Canada," edging out Marida Mohammed in the tight finale. Hmm, it seems the sledgehammer can win over a sword (how Eric compared his cooking style to that of Marida).
HuffPost Canada TV spoke with Chong over the phone, and the now-$100,000-richer home cook -- and proud owner of the "MasterChef Canada" trophy -- reveals what his rivalry with Kaila was really like, his hatred for making desserts and what it'll be like to work with "MCC" judge Alvin Leung.
HuffPost Canada TV: Congratulations! Our house was Team Eric all the way! How did you celebrate?
Eric Chong: I had a big party last night with my family and friends, and [fellow contestant] Pino [DiCerbo] came by.
I'm not going to lie, I had to watch the finale again this morning because last night, the more it went on, I really thought Marida had it. The dry pork Claudio received vs. her small portion size, I thought, "He's done." But you're such a damn risk-taker. Do you think that's what gave you the edge?
I absolutely think that's what gave me the edge. I lost the appetizer round because of Claudio's comments but I think I won the entrée round, for sure. I definitely pushed it, I got a lot down in the hour, and I think that's what won it for me. And the fact that she didn't peel the apples [in her dessert] may have been her downfall.
Going into the semis, everyone downplayed your skills because you're too young, you're inexperienced. Then in the finals, it was pointed out again how fast and frenetic you can work, how you try to do too many things, how you don't keep it simple. But is it safe to say that that was your game plan all along: being innovative, maintaining quality and quantity?
Absolutely. Trying to maximize the hour was definitely my goal. Lots of people tried playing it safe and doing what they were comfortable with, so I always tried to push myself during the competition.
How did you use the judges' criticism to your advantage?
I definitely listened to the judges and took all their criticism; that's why my finale menu was based on redemption. Dim sum, the lobster, even on my lobster dish, I made super-small lime pieces -- I threw lime in liquid nitrogen so they could have little bits of lime -- because I remembered in the previous episode they said my lime segments were too big. Little bits like that, I definitely took their advice.
I think you only kept it "simple" last week [the semis] with the pasta. Were you ever tempted to do that more, keep it simple?
No, I always wanted to go that extra mile, especially for the finale. I don't think it's appropriate to be simple, you have to go guns blazing, pull out all your cards and put it all on the line. Cook from your heart.
How did you handle the pressure of cooking in the "MasterChef" kitchen?
At first, I didn't handle pressure too well. It was really nerve-wracking, really, really stressful. But as time went on, about midway through the season, I started gaining my confidence and thinking I could actually win this.
You came in wanting to fly under the radar, but you shone right from the beginning. That kind of screwed up your plans.
[Laughs] Yeah, a bit. To be honest, I didn't expect that tart to make it in the top three for the first mystery box. I was shocked by that, but after that, a lot of people just thought I was clumsy. [Laughs]
What was your favourite challenge?
My favourite challenge would definitely have to be Restaurant Takeover, without a doubt. That showed me that I want to work in a restaurant for the rest of my life. That was amazing.
How about your least favourite challenge?
Oh, doughnuts. Oh, man. Yeah, the doughnuts were definitely brutal.
But for someone who claimed to hate making desserts, you rocked it every time. What is it about making desserts that you don't like?
It's the fact that I'm not in control 100 percent of the time. You throw it in the oven, you have to wait, you have to hope for the best. There's no adjusting it. With cooking, you can always change, season, adjust. If it's too salty, you can maybe add some sugar, water it down, something. But with baking, you throw all your eggs in one basket and hopefully it's good. There's so much precision. When I cook, I never measure. Baking takes measuring and extra time.
Was your rivalry with Kaila really that intense or was it simply edited that way?
A lot of it was editing, but in the sense of the competition, we definitely didn't get along because we both wanted to win so badly. We're both really determined people and I respect her for that. She was fantastic and she is a really nice person, but in the competition, you just get so tense, you want to win so badly, you let emotions get ahead of you.
When did you become interested in cooking and what is your first memory of cooking?
When I was six years old. I was exposed to food at a very young age and my whole family revolves around food. I remember when I was really young, I actually made that dish in the finale, the dumplings. That's what I learned from my grandpa at a super-young age, that these were amazing. And I started folding the dumplings with him, rolling out the dough.
And when did you realize that this was more than just a hobby?
I never thought of myself as an amazing cook but in university, I always cooked and friends came over and would rather eat at my place than at a restaurant. I thought maybe my family just grew up around higher standards of food, I don't know. Then I realized, 'Oh, I have a talent for cooking.'
Do you still live at home?
Yes, I do.
You must cook for your family, so they are aware of your skills. You're only 22, you have no proper training; how did you get so good?
My grandpa definitely taught me a lot, a lot of the authentic Chinese, the flavour profile, the doughs, the technique. But I also learned a lot from watching the Food Network and YouTube. The internet is an amazing thing. I'm a very curious person so whenever I want to do something, I just Google it. Anytime I tasted something in a restaurant and wanted to recreate it, I'd just Google it, do some research and try to make it for my family. That's why I was familiar with Italian flavours. My family loves eating Italian food so I practiced making it a lot at home.
Being an engineer, studying to be an engineer, that obviously doesn't give a person a lot of time to practice and hone their skills and whip up culinary creations. Did you ever resign yourself to the fact that cooking might only be something you do at home and not be your future?
Well, when I was in university, I always made time to cook. At that moment, I thought this was a hobby. But when "MasterChef Canada" came out, I thought, this was an amazing opportunity for me. I'm definitely going to seize it.
Your parents are proud -- I loved how [your mother] was jumping up and down when they called your name. She seems more accepting of this change for your future. But has your father accepted that this is what you want to do with your life?
He's definitely come around. After watching me perform in the finale and seeing how badly I wanted it, he's definitely a supporter, 100 percent. That means more to me than the title. It's extremely hard to change an Asian father's opinion about your career path.
So, now what? What can we expect from you?
Now, my dream is to open a restaurant, of course. But there's no way I'm ready right now. Cooking's only half the battle. You still need to know the business, the demographic. Alvin's invited me to come to Hong Kong and work at his restaurant. So I'm hoping to learn a lot there.
Wow, that's amazing. So you're going to do that then?
Yeah, of course! How can I let that opportunity go? We cook the same cuisine so I can learn so much from him.
What's your favourite thing to eat?
To go out, I would like to have Italian or French. Since I grew up with Asian, I don't usually go out to eat it. But when I had Alvin's food at Bo Innovation ... holy. That's a whole other level of Asian cuisine. That's probably the best Chinese I ever had in my life. Buca [in Toronto] is my favourite Italian place. Without a doubt, that's my favourite. Their pizzas ... once you have Buca's pizza, I don't think you can go back.
How has the "MasterChef" experience changed you? I guess it has literally changed your life.
Yeah. Not many people get their dreams realized. It still feels surreal. It was filmed six months ago, and watching the finale just makes me relive that moment when my dreams came true. That was definitely the happiest day of my life.
What advice do you have for future "MasterChef Canada" wannabes?
Definitely practice knife skills, try to anticipate what's going to come. Before I went on the show, I practiced butter tarts, Nanaimo bars, traditional Canadian dishes. I practiced with potatoes, I thought there'd be a PEI potato challenge, bacon, maple syrup. And make sure you practice dishes that can be done in an hour. Don't do a roast beef or a consommé, there's no way you can pull that off in an hour. Just practice, practice, practice.
Casting for "MasterChef Canada" Season 2 is open until 11:59 p.m. E.T. on July 13. Visit the "MasterChef Canada" site for more details.