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Why You Hardly See A MasterChef Contestant Open A Fine-Dining Restaurant

MasterChef Asia inaugural winner Woo Wai Leong tells us about the, er, dog-eat-dog fine-dining restaurant biz.

In the rarefied world of fine-dining, contestants from the MasterChef reality cooking competition are something of an anomaly. Maybe it’s ’cos reality shows still get a bad rap in a world where top chefs slave in the kitchen for years before they get to open their own haute restaurants.

But MasterChef contestants shoot to fame overnight after joining a competition — call it getting rich from striking the showbiz lottery if you will. And MasterChef Asia’s 2015 inaugural winner, Woo Wai Leong, 29, is feeling the effects of, er, workplace ‘discrimination’.

We catch up with him to find out what he has been up to since the competition.

8 DAYS: Every time we see you, you look different.
WOO WAI LEONG: I'm a shapeshifter lah! After MasterChef Asia I lost a lot of weight, but I’ve gained it back again. I don’t have time to work out since work is piling up; I need to manage my time. Every foodie battles with his weight. It’s an occupational hazard.

I also shaved off all my facial hair. I thought a moustache looks cool, but people told me I looked like a pervert.

Wai Leong (and his facial hair) competing on MasterChef Asia in 2015.

What are you busy with now?
I’ve had the pleasure of travelling a lot for work. The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) is my good friend (laughs). I did a cocktail pop-up at [local food showcase] Singapore Takeout. That was when I got to meet other chefs and hang out with them after work ’cos my stall was the only one with alcohol. They wanted booze, and we had tons of it (laughs).

I’ve been to Dubai with STB to promote Singaporean food, and travelled to New York to cook with the James Beard Foundation too. I also designed three pizza recipes for [tortilla maker] Mission Foods Singapore, using their pre-made pizza crust and ingredients that are commonly found in local supermarkets, like lap cheong (Chinese sasuage) and century eggs. I’ve been focusing non-stop on collaborations and testing out new recipes.

The tofu, century egg and chye poh pizza that Wai Leong created for Mission Foods.

What sort of collaborations are you doing?
I did a MasterChef Asia dining and bar pop-up [at Ash & Elm restaurant] last year. Earlier this month, I went to Sydney to do a pop-up makan merger with [MasterChef Australia contestant and fine-diner Koi Dessert Bar owner] Reynold Poernomo.

Wai Leong at the MasterChef Asia dining and pop-up bar at Ash & Elm last year. Photo: Kelvin Chia

You rarely see MasterChef contestants going into fine-dining after the competition. They usually open cafes or food trucks ’cos they face a lot of resistance from the fine-dining world if they want to go into it. I’ve had my detractors — professional chefs from restaurants — come out to [criticise] me.

But I realised that if I want to make any headway in any industry, I’d have to step on some toes. As long as I work with integrity, I’m okay. Us MasterChef contestants have to stick together to prove that we can make some waves.

How else has winning Masterchef Asia changed your life?
I’ve managed to build my network of colleagues in the industry. They include Malcolm [Lee] from [Peranakan restaurant] Candlenut, and [Han] Liguang from [Mod-Sin restaurant] Labyrinth — people I’ve always looked up to, whom I now consider close friends.

We have a WhatsApp chat group just for supper outings. We actually argue in the group chat over where to eat. You’d see a whole bunch of chefs descend on hole-in-the-wall joints — like this yakitori place at Cuppage Plaza or [zi char restaurant] JB Ah Meng in Geylang — just to sit and chill. That is when we’d discuss collaborations.

Do you still keep in touch with your fellow MasterChef Asia contestants?
We hang out quite a lot. We have a WhatsApp group chat where we share things about our daily lives. We’d always meet up when someone is in town.

Three or four contestants have become mothers since the competition. It’s like after the show, everybody went like, “Okay, we have to make babies now!”

Any plans to open your own restaurant?
Yes I do. But there are no solid plans right now though I’m always looking out for suitable locations. I want to take the Western cooking techniques that I’m trained in and try them on new ingredients.

In Hongkong, they have abalone tart, but I’m thinking, why not use starfish or seahorse? I’m not going for shock value, just that these ingredients have so much potential that people have not tapped into yet. I want to be that guy who goes there.

Are you doing anything else that doesn’t involve F&B?
I’m curious about doing different kinds of shows. I’m doing a travel show with Channel NewsAsia. It’s about people from various industries travelling to different countries, and the audience sees those places through their eyes. I’ll be in one of the episodes, but I can’t reveal more details now (laughs). I just hope they don’t make me kill something and eat it raw!

Right now, there are so many things I can explore to see where my potential lies. My heart is still with serving good food, but you don’t have to do it from a table. You can do it through a show or a cookbook, which I’m also working on now. I want to jazz up home-cooked food and make it tastier and sexier.

What food shows are you watching these days?
I watch Chef’s Table on Netflix. Which Singaporean chef do I think should go on the show next? (Points at himself eagerly) Ha! The show is about chefs from different backgrounds joining the industry.

But I would nominate Malcolm Lee from Candlenut. Look at him now. He went through a lot at the beginning but he has a Michelin star now, and he is killing it.

For Wai Leong’s Mission Foods pizza recipes, visit facebook.com/missionfoodssingapore.

 

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