When the heat’s on, it’s time to get cooking
Not too many culinary students can say they got their start in the industry after competing on a Food Network reality show.
SAIT apprentice cook student John Leung definitely can, and is fired up about his future in the cooking industry, in part thanks to his experience as one of the top 26 contestants on MasterChef Canada.
Leung had always been a big fan of the show’s American counterpart, and when the CTV started casting for the first season, he jumped on board.
“I did hesitate a little bit, and thought, ‘What if I wasn’t good enough? Maybe there are better home cooks than me out there,’” he said.
Leung put off applying for a couple of weeks, until one night when a friend of his was hosting a Korean-style dinner party at one of his favourite restaurants in Calgary.
He and his friends were enjoying bossam—Korean cooked pork belly—having drinks, and enjoying one another’s company, and “I got really smashed.”
“The next thing I blurted out was ‘I am going to make it on MasterChef Canada.’”
The following day, Leung woke up—a bit hung over, he said—pulled up the MasterChef website, filled out the application, and sent it off.
He didn’t hear back from them until a few months later, when he got the call from Toronto that he had been selected.
Leung couldn’t believe that this had happened, and almost called the producer back to make sure he had actually received the call.
“Somehow, somewhere, someway, I was one of the top 50. The very first top 50 home cooks in all of Canada,” he said.
Upon arriving in Toronto, Leung met up with the rest of the MasterChef Canada contestants, whom he said were “possibly the most amazing group of people I have ever encountered in my life.”
During the first round, Leung and his competitors had 60 minutes to cook their meal, and five minutes to plate their dish in front of the judges.
“60 minutes is just balls to the wall,” he said.
“It was probably one of the most difficult dishes I’ve ever had to pull off in my life.”
Leung cooked a Korean-style tenderloin steak with rice, and kimchi with a sesame bean sprout salad.
He felt extreme pressure to get the rice right, because one of the judges shared his Cantonese nationality.
“One Cantonese person messing up rice for another Cantonese person is almost like a cardinal sin.”
Leung was also worried about properly cooking the kimchi and bean sprouts and making sure he didn’t overcook his steak.
He re-seared the steak to warm it up and added a special sauce all within the 60 minutes, and had it ready to serve to the judges before the time was up.
The judges “loved it” and gave him a pass to the second round, which earned him a white apron and a spot in the top 26.
In order to reach the MasterChef kitchen proper, Leung and the other contestants had to pass the second round, which was a stress test.
Everyone was given only 60 minutes to put out one chicken dish using a whole chicken, one knife, a butane burner, a pan, and limited ingredients.
Leung said that this round “was not my greatest moment.”
Even though the chicken had cooked as long as it could and looked done, when the judges cut into it, the chicken was still raw.
“A year on, it’s still a little bit hard for me,” Leung said.
Leung was sent home, but feels proud of the fact that he was one of the first top 26 contestants on MasterChef Canada’s first season.
“To get as far as I did, I feel blessed to have been able to cook for such high level judges, and also, to have met friends that are almost like a new family,” he said.
If he hadn’t been eliminated, Leung said he probably wouldn’t have considered coming to SAIT to study in the Cooks Apprentice program.
Leung’s passion for cooking was born after his grandmother taught him how to cook curry, his favourite dish.
“I remember when I was growing up with my grandmother, one of the best simple lunches and dinners we always had was this coconut curry chicken,” said Leung.
Leung has tried to replicate the recipe properly, and although he has been close, he “just hasn’t been able to get to the way I remember eating it sitting alongside my grandmother scooping out the curry in a small clay pot.”
He has long since enjoyed cooking, but never considered it as a career until after being on the show.
Leung had been working as a radio operator in the city after studying in broadcasting when he signed up for MasterChef Canada. Before that, he had obtained a degree in political science.
“When I first got eliminated from MasterChef Canada, I was in a bit of a funk,” he said.
“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
Broadcasting and political science hadn’t worked out for him, so he decided to pursue the culinary arts. His mother put him in touch with a local chef, who got Leung into the apprenticeship program.
After one year apprenticing, Leung is now at SAIT doing his technical training.
Right now, Leung plans to complete his three years of technical training at SAIT, “fingers crossed,” and earn his red seal, complete his hours, and pass his journeyman exam.
“And after that, honestly, when it comes to my dreams, the sky is the limit.”
Leung said he is interested in opening his own modern-style Chinese beer house that serves traditionally-influenced modern Cantonese cuisine.
He’s also “dreamed about a food truck,” but said that one of his biggest dreams is to one day teach others how to cook.
Leung hopes to be able to inspire in others what his grandmother inspired in him.
“Food is more than love—it is almost everything.
“In Cantonese, there is a saying that means people consider food first. You can see how important food has been for me, not only for my culture.
“I would love to be able to spread that love around.”