MasterChef interview: Jason Wang reflects on season, top 3 finish

Jason WangIsn’t it strange that MasterChef is now off the air? It’s been such a fun ride on Fox this summer, but alas, all good things must end.

To help ease the pain of the hiatus, we do have a new treat for you this afternoon. The super-talented and always enthusiastic Jason Wang was kind enough to answer a few questions about his show experience, including some of what he learned about himself and what he’s up to now. If you were a fan of Jason’s over the season we feel like this interview is a must-read.

CarterMatt – How are you feeling today about making it so far in the competition?

Jason Wang – I am feeling incredibly grateful and truly humbled that I’ve had the opportunity to show my food and who I am to so many people around the world watching MasterChef!  Of course I am disappointed not to be the winner — that’s only human — but when I think of how far I’ve come and at all the successes I’ve had over all the challenges, I can’t help but feel proud.  I’ve cooked for Gordon Ramsay, Christina Tosi, & Aaron Sanchez, and have made life-long friendships with so many contestants… these are once-in-a-lifetime gifts! What is there to be sad about? For once, I will focus on all that went right, and not dwell on what didn’t; life’s too short and the 2% I didn’t achieve will just be my motivation to do even better going forwards!

What’s the biggest thing you probably learned about yourself along the way?

At the start of the competition, I had no idea how my cooking style and skills compared to other home cooks around the country.  Now, after having received feedback from judges and other culinary professionals over the course of the whole experience, I can say that my food represents a very high standard of quality, execution, and creativity. Chef Ramsay and Chef Tosi at points said that some of my dishes were the best and most beautiful plates they had ever seen in the MasterChef kitchen. Furthermore, during some challenges, like having to French the rack of lamb and peeling the crawfish, I thought for sure I wasn’t doing well, but when time was called and I finally looked up and around me, I realized that my rack of lamb was relatively spotless compared to other cooks, and for example that I had peeled forty-six crayfish versus the ten to twelve of some of the other contestants! So I learned to trust myself more and to let go of some of the negative, critical self-talk I think we all put ourselves through in any given moment.

Also, I think that from the start, because of my perfectionist tendencies, being a visual person, and having a clear personal food aesthetic, much of my food came across very elevated/towards the direction of fine dining.  My Spot Prawn Tempura dish happened near the very start of the competition and I carried those same compositional characteristics in my food all the way to the Finale.  Folks have commented that if I had made my Finale dishes more relatable, or less ‘chef-y’ than maybe I would have been selected as winner, whereas others said my dishes seemed to belong more on Top Chef than MasterChef.  I was heartened, therefore, during the Finale when Joe Bastianich commented that I was pushing the envelope of creativity and bringing a new global food perspective to the competition that was important and should be rewarded. So in addition to learning how to trust myself, my biggest lesson that I think others could learn from is to be true to yourself.  Each of us has a unique voice as an artist and that individuality is to be celebrated!

I’ve commented on this a few times this season that no matter the challenge, you always seemed to be enthusiastic to take it on. Where does all of this energy come from?

Food brings joy in my life.  Going to the market and grocery shopping, picking fresh produce, and foraging for edibles — these activities fill me with glee! My bouncing up and down from excitement when the shellfish in the Seafood Mystery Box was revealed was completely real and sincere. I have always been so grateful when people gift me fun ingredients and other products from their travels that I can use in my cooking.  So, really, food is my fuel. And to be surrounded by it in the MasterChef kitchen had me going on turbo!

We were given so many unique and amazing challenges: cooking at Caesar’s Palace for its 50th Anniversary Celebration, struggling at Big Bear Lake with whole trout and camping equipment, breakfast service at the Belvedere in the Peninsula Hotel Beverly Hills, pushing through unfamiliar tasks like Frenching a rack of lamb or shelling crayfish… thinking back, it all seemed like a dream. Every day in the MasterChef kitchen, I had to ask myself, is this really happening? It felt so surreal! I think that a lot of my enthusiasm in the kitchen also stemmed from just wanting to have fun — my idea of the best game show would be all food trivia, honestly! Yes, the competition got incredibly serious at points, but I tried my best to focus on the lighter side of it all.  At times the show felt to me like a series of endless surprise parties; who wouldn’t love that? During the Coconut Elimination Challenge when Cate Meade had to assign either a sweet or savory basket to each contestant, I distinctly remember all the coconut ideas that were flying through my head and then watching all the home cooks go before me swinging pink shopping baskets and thinking this was like a game show — what fun!

What was the dish that you were the happiest to do this season?

While I was pleased with my Spot Prawn Tempura with Clam Uni Broth from the Seafood Mystery Box and my Hazelnut Torte with Blood Orange from the Nutella Mystery Box, I am such a perfectionist that even though the judges thought those dishes were amazing, I felt like they both had flaws. That might be crazy for viewers to know, but that is the honest truth! The tempura I felt was a bit messy on the plating, and the mocha cream frosting on the torte was a bit sloppy among other things, and in the end, I felt both dishes weren’t as refined as I had planned.  My most proud creation of the season was therefore my finale dessert, the Black Sesame Japonaise with Yuzu Chocolate Mousse and Berry Shiso sauce.  Every aspect of the execution of that dish from the flavors, the textures, and balance between the dish components, to the intricate plating met my perfection standard.  Well, maybe I might have changed the shape of the cocoa nib tuile a little since it didn’t quite look enough like a natural piece of tree bark! BUT, I felt that this dish was like one of those rare music concerts when you are really satisfied with what you have put out there! I close my eyes and I can instantly recall the pride with which I presented those dishes to the judges.  They may have been trying to keep stern expressions since it was after all the Finale, but seriously, the sparkle in Christina Tosi’s eye when she saw my dessert I will never forget! And, the smiles and grins on the judges’ faces… priceless!

I always like to think that creatively, there is a parallel there with music given that they both require so much technique while leaving some room open for experimenting. Did you especially feel that way in the competition?

For sure my musical training and experience allowed me to handle many of the challenges in the MasterChef kitchen with a better level of comfort than some of my fellow contestants. Going to Los Angeles, I thought, hey this is going to be a big change of pace from my normal stress-filled routine of being ‘on’ in the classroom for teaching and the pressure of having to present perfection in concerts all the time; it’s just cooking for fun right? This will be the best vacation ever! Boy, was I WRONG! Pretty soon I realized, oh, the stress level on MasterChef is pretty much just like my everyday normal life routine, haha! Ok, I can handle that.

In music you spend years learning all the rules and refining techniques so that you can eventually break them or use that technical ability and mastery to express your individual creativity.  The same principal exists in cooking where you learn the rules of flavor pairings, and sauce and pastry techniques, and the proper way to butcher proteins, only to later use that understanding of the fundamentals to push into new territory whether it be flavor-wise or compositionally on a dish.  I think an example of this concept was during the Semi-Final round where we had to make Profiteroles with Chocolate Ganache.  Since high school, I have been making pate à choux dough for pastries and have done chocolate work as well, so since I understood the technique well, I was able to modify and make shortcuts due to the limited time that still would get me the desired end result.  I distinctly remember the judges commenting, ‘Jason isn’t piping in the lines… Jason isn’t using a double boiler…’ etc. and thinking, folks, don’t worry, I’VE GOT THIS! It’s because I knew more that I was able to put my own spin on the cream puffs that ended up setting mine apart from the others.

What are you hoping to do now that you’ve gone so far in the competition?

Over the course of the competition, the judges always asked what my food dream was.  I always responded that my wish was to travel all over the US teaching people how to cook and introducing them to new and unusual ingredients.  I am an educator at heart and getting to interact with others and share knowledge about food is a true joy.  Unlocking someone’s own creative ability by giving him or her tools like cooking techniques and ingredient knowledge is the ultimate! Now that the world has seen who I am and what I can do, I think that people would feel comfortable learning from me! In the Boston area, I have taught some of the Asian cuisine classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and am looking forwards to offering more classes there in the coming year.

People can taste my food at various pop-ups and collaborations that I’ll be doing with various Boston-area restaurants and food organizations. Additionally, I’ll be offering recipes and content via my Instagram ( jasonjangywang) and FB pages (@jasonjangywang). On MasterChef I allude to foraging for wild edibles and mushrooms and also about all the ingredients I grow and how I get so excited about Fall and apple season, etc.; I think people are curious about those things and through various online content I’m hoping to let viewers and fans learn more about my food world that hasn’t been shown yet! MasterChef has opened the door for me to be an ambassador of creativity and cooking. Thank you to all the judges, viewers and supporters; because of you I am ready to shine love through food!

More MasterChef news and updates

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