This the first of a summer-long series, bringing you updates on your favorite contestants from seasons 1, 2, and 3. What are they doing now? How did MasterChef change their life? First up: Michael Chen from MasterChef season 3.
On September 10, 2011 I was in Austin, Texas, headed to BBQ Outfitters to pick up my new Big Green Egg. The insanity of my own season of MasterChef was just beginning to subside as the show’s final episode had aired. My life was starting to become a tiny bit more normal. I sent out a tweet that I was going to be at BBQ Outfitters for the afternoon, learning about the Big Green Egg, and that any fans who were BBQ fanatics were welcome to join me.
Up comes this young Asian kid on a motorcycle. I vaguely recognized him from previous Twitter interactions. His name was Michael Chen, an 18 year old freshman at Texas A&M, on scholarship and studying to become a meteorologist. We chatted a bit, nothing too formal, and then he headed home.
Over the next month, I got to know him a bit better through email. Having grown up in a fairly traditional Chinese household, he found himself very interested in New American cuisine. But as a broke college kid, he rarely was able to cook with the kind of ingredients he was most interested in. And every time he cooked a non-Chinese dish at home, his parents weren’t interested in trying it. He had secret dreams of becoming a chef, but his parents had encouraged him to follow his interest in meteorology, as a chef in Chinese culture is considered more like a servant. To me, that sounded like a perfect MasterChef story.
So I suggested that he audition for the show at the live auditions in Austin that fall. He was very hesitant. “I don’t know nearly enough,” he said.
“That doesn’t matter to MasterChef. They’re looking for characters with strong stories that the audience can identify with,” I told him. “And you’re a smart kid, you can learn a lot between now and then.”
So he did. He auditioned with a traditional Chinese dish, beef tendon. As I expected, they loved him. However, they didn’t love Texas enough to set up a medical and psychological evaluation there, so if any of the potential Texas candidates wanted to continue with the audition process, they had to travel at their own expense to a site where the evals were being performed. Atlanta was the closest. Michael didn’t have the money for an airline ticket, so he figured he was out of luck. No way was I gonna let him bow out at this point, so I drive the kid to Atlanta and hid out in a hotel across the street. We enjoyed some Gladys Knight’s chicken and waffles, and then drove to New Orleans to stay with a friend. Cajun food that night, then dim sum in Houston on the way back to Austin. 2 months later he was filming MasterChef.
Michael gave up a lot to be on the show. He gave up an almost full scholarship to Texas A&M. (His scholarship sponsor was NOT pleased.) He greatly upset his parents, who thought he was throwing his education and future away to chase some childish Hollywood dream.
Executive Chef Michael Chen in his restaurant kitchen
Michael was battling more than just the fear of leaving school to pursue the culinary arts. As a devout Christian, from a very devout family, Michael was also facing something he had ignored for many years…he was gay, but had no gay friends, and until he met me, I don’t know if he had ever met someone openly gay before. My own life path had been similar to his to that point. I had grown up in a VERY conservative, devout family and attended a Christian university…which I left after 2 years (much to my parents’ horror) to pursue a secular education. (For all the inclusion and love that Christ preached, Christian universities are NOT known for being welcoming to gay students.)
Michael “came out” to his parents on the drive to the airport to leave for MasterChef. That takes guts. He didn’t know if he’d be coming home to a family or not. He left his entire life behind when he got on that plane, and knew that NOTHING would be the same when he came back…whether that would be in a week, with no apron, or in 2 months with the MasterChef trophy…or somewhere in between.
And for him, it was somewhere in between. The judges gave him 3 thumbs up for his signature dish, and Gordon in particular was very impressed by Michael, both as a cook and as a person. During his 5 minute prep, they immediately asked if he had a girlfriend. (The producers “seed” the judges with information about the contestants’ personal life, so that their story can be brought up on the show, allowing the audience to connect with the cast. Some contestants love this. Others prefer to keep the focus on their food, rather than their personal life, so it becomes frustrating when the judges seem more interested in their personal story rather than their dish.) Right then and there, Michael came out of the closet to the whole country on national television…mere weeks after he had just come out to me and a few of his closest friends. That takes guts, my friends.
Michael was beloved by his season 3 contestants and performed at the top of his abilities, never playing it safe, always taking risks. He was eliminated in an apple pie challenge after cutting cheddar cheese into the crust, which the judges thought was strange. (Martha Stewart has a recipe for cheddar crust apple pie, and this all-American dish has been eaten with cheddar cheese for centuries, so I’m not sure what that’s about.)
I had made Michael solemnly swear NOT to contact me before the show was FINISHED filming, because I didn’t want to know how well he did. I wanted it to be a surprise. So he didn’t get in touch until after he was back from filming the finale. Of course, at that point ALL the season 3 contestants were scrambling to contact me to help decompress and put things in perspective and get advice on what to do next, so very shortly I knew the outcome of the whole show. *grumble*
Michael developed a nice following when the show aired, and he was contacted by a restaurant owner in Canada, offering him a position as a chef there. He wasn’t happy with his current position as a line cook at a corporate cafeteria in Austin, and his relationship with his parents was strained at this point since he had decided to fully pursue his cooking passion, rather than returning to meteorology school. Many of his church and college friends had drifted away from him after finding out he was gay (though some were wonderfully supportive), so he was really struggling in Austin. I told him that, in my own life, I discovered that travel was the single best education, and the quickest way to learn about yourself, so I basically told him I’d never speak to him again if he didn’t take that position in Canada. It would mean he’d land in a totally foreign culture…small town Quebec, where French is the really the only language spoken, and where it snows half the year.
He went, and built up some amazing experience as the sole cook in this unique little Asian bistro in Rimouski. But as winter waned, he was ready to come back to Texas. So he moved in with me and began searching for culinary opportunities in Dallas, and he became the sous chef at FRANK for a few seatings:
Soon, we heard of an opportunity opening up at The Kessler Theater, a historic theater that has been converted into what many people agree is the best live music venue in the entire state. Once owned by Gene Autry, this funky joint has a very popular bar (with an AMAZING bartender, Mel) and is outfitted with a commercial kitchen, but they hadn’t had a chef in some time. The knew their hiring budget wasn’t likely to attract a full-fledged, noteworthy chef, as the kitchen is only open part time, but they were waiting for someone truly unique and hoping for the best…and we thought that Michael might be exactly the perfect fit. After a few interviews and a private tasting, Michael was hired, at the ripe age of 19 years old, as the executive chef, responsible for creating the menu, hiring staff, cooking, and managing the restaurant.
A chef's special at The Kessler
Michael’s menu has been making buzz around Dallas. He serves up a tapas-style menu with an international influence. It runs the gamut from organic popcorn with Tunisian olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Tellicherry black pepper (which Lisa Loeb recently announced to the audience that it was the best popcorn she had EVER eaten), to caprese skewers with fresh basil, San Marzano tomatoes, and little balls of fresh mozz from Paula Lambert’s Dallas Mozzarella Co, and they are served with this burnt-garlic balsamic sauce that I would literally BATHE in if I could. That stuff is heaven. Mel at the bar could make drinks with it, it’s so good. There’s also pork belly sliders that are TO DIE FOR, served on artisan bread from Empire Bakery, with slow-roasted pork belly with Asian spices and housemade radish pickles. (Again, a condiment that I could eat an entire plate of. Divine. And at the recent Toad the Wet Sprocket concert, the band said the sliders were “off the chain” and ordered several plates.)
A chef's special at The Kessler
My two favorite things on the menu are the Brussels sprouts and the fritters. The Brussels sprouts are like crack…flash fried so that they’re crispy on the outside and crisp-tender in the middle, and bathed in this amazing sauce that seems almost Thai in its influence. He calls it “fish caramel” and all the chefs are creating their own versions of it right now. It’s sweet, salty, complex, and aromatic with fresh herbs.
Then there are the Gruyere fritters. These little balls of wonderment are served steaming hot and are crisp on the outside, like toasty cheese, but practically hollow on the inside. He serves them with a house-made onion jam that is sweet but tangy with whole grain mustard seed. I could eat my weight in them.
Michael somehow keeps his menu incredibly cheap…I don’t think anything costs more than $8. And while The Kessler has primarily been known as a concert venue for many years, word is starting to leak about about the new food scene there. (You don’t have to have a concert ticket to drink at the bar and eat Michael’s food. Unless they are fully sold out for a concert and are at max capacity, folks are welcome to go by for drinks and yummies.)
A chef's special at The Kessler
Once they comprehended the impact of the fact that their son is one of the youngest executive chefs in the country and is making a name for himself after scarcely turning 20, Michael’s parents have come around and are incredibly proud of him. And he has a boyfriend…his very first. And he’s putting Stephen through the culinary ropes, taking him on tasting adventures through Chinatown, teaching him how to fish for blue crabs…
I couldn’t be more proud of Michael Chen. Less than 2 years ago, he was in college, doing what he thought he was supposed to do in order be successful. Now, he is forging his own path to success, doing what he loves. Sometimes, MasterChef is that wakeup call that makes a contestant look at his life and say, “I’m not on the right path.” Now, Michael IS on the right one.
You can follow Michael on Twitter, like him on Facebook, and check out his blog, where he is blogging stream-of-thought during MasterChef episodes…very cool.