Season 12 of Chef was full of firsts. Not only did the contest reopen its doors to contestants from previous seasons, but the judges also crowned their youngest winner yet: 20-year-old Dara Yu.
“As soon as Gordon [Ramsay] said my name, I felt that pressure like a kind of release, and I passed out, and it took me a second to realize what had just happened,” says Yu, now 21. . Eat this, not that! in an exclusive interview. “But it was such an amazing experience, and [to] I have all my friends and family there, it was truly magical.”
Along with winning $250,000, a state-of-the-art Viking kitchen, and the title of MasterChef, Yu also made history as the only contestant to compete on Junior Master Chef before returning – and winning –MasterChef: Return to victory. The California-based contestant previously came in second place in the first season of Junior Master Chef when she was only 12 years old.
“This time around, I think there was just more at stake,” she says. “I put eight years of hard work into this craft, and I had a lot to do.”
From preparing meals with mystery box ingredients to recreating Gordon Ramsay’s iconic dishes and taking over Wolfgang Puck’s Spago restaurant in Los Angeles, Yu faced a wide variety of challenges that put his skills Culinary to the test. But outside of the kitchen, the new winner, who is also a culinary instructor at a recreational cooking school, is passionate about teaching and inspiring other young chefs.
Read on to find out Yu’s tips for success in the kitchen, and for more, check out Top Chef Richard Blais swears by these cooking tips.
In the Season 12 finale, the three contestants were tasked with preparing a three-course meal consisting of an appetizer, entree, and dessert – and had an hour to cook each course. When it came time to conceptualize, Yu chose to make dishes from her childhood that also featured the French techniques she had learned in culinary school.
Her appetizer, which consisted of crispy red snapper and grilled asparagus, showed Japanese flavors, originally inspired by a trip to Japan she took with her father before he passed away. After the first course, his entrée included Chinese-style ribs, whipped Japanese sweet potato, spiced carrots, caramelized onions, and carrot gremolata – an elevated version of a meal Yu would request for his birthday dinner. when she was a child.
And for the final dish, Yu recreated his childhood birthday treat – a pavlova (meringue-based dessert) – by presenting a vanilla ile Float (Floating Island), made up of meringue domes floating on a cream Passion fruit custard (cream sauce) with tropical fruits and caramelized forbidden rice.
“I slammed it all into round plates and into a round formation,” Yu says. “It was a looping moment for me to be back in the Chef final, and so I played a bit on that too.”
When it comes to helping others elevate their own cuisine, Yu stresses the importance of being mindful of where you source your ingredients.
“The quality of your final dish will be as good as the quality of your ingredients, so I’m a big fan of shopping at farmers’ markets and buying local,” she says.
She also explains that meeting the farmers and learning about seasonal produce helps make cooking more fun and inspiring.
Among the countless kitchen utensils and gadgets that exist, Yu recommends opting for a classic: the cast iron skillet.
“I basically cook 90% with cast iron, even in the oven,” she says.
Moreover, Yu encourages people to not only acquire the proven kitchen utensils, but also to learn how to take care of them properly.
Although the method of cleaning is a hotly debated topic, the general consensus seems to be to hand wash the pan with hot water, dry it quickly, apply a thin coat of oil to the surface, then to wipe it off.
Yu’s final piece of advice is seemingly simple but very crucial: stay organized in the kitchen. For the Chef winning, it requires having all your “mise en mise en place”, a French term for having all the ingredients “in place”, i.e. prepared and ready to use before cooking.
“Cleaning as you go is also very important,” says Yu. “I think it’s definitely a hack to be efficient in the kitchen.”