As the inaugural MasterChef Singapore whittled the 10 finalists down to five, an early front runner emerged: Aaron Wong, the 41-year-old professional underwater photographer who impressed judges Damian D'Silva, Audra Morrice and Bjorn Shen for three consecutive weeks, with three best dishes and one team challenge.
Clearly, the man with the signature trucker cap was on a roll. Alas, we spoke too soon. Wong's winning streak ended in Ep 4 where he didn’t fare well in the desserts challenge (“I don’t have a sweet tooth”). Neither did he do well in the sweetbread-themed challenge. “To be honest, I want to stay away from sweetbread as much as is humanly possible,” Wong tells 8 DAYS.
Though he was disappointed, Wong felt that being in the bottom three also gave him some much-needed breathing space. “To win four times in a row is very stressful,” he says. “It’s not only stressful for fellow contestants to be looking at you, but for the judges as well. I feel like they expect more from me all the time. But you can’t outdo yourself all the time; you can’t possibly win every time. There’s this unnecessary stress.”
Wong was back in the zone in the following ep when he and Zander Ng won a team challenge, landing them in the Top 5. Sadly, Wong was booted off the competition last night when he failed to make the cut with his replication of three renowned Chef Bjorn Shen dishes — lamb kibbeh, lamb belly with burnt scallion yoghurt sauce, and butternut squash salad — in a pressure test.
Looking back at his MasterChef Singapore days, Wong says, “The biggest thing I learn from the show is how to stay focused and handle stress. I could do it pretty well before as a photographer but [the show] took it to another level!” Here, he tells us what he could’ve done to stay in the competition longer, and his, ahem, trucker cap obsession.
8 DAYS: Last night’s episode kicked off with a durian challenge. It didn’t look like an easy one for you.
AARON WONG: I think that challenge was tough for everyone! When they first showed us the durians, we all thought [we were going to make] desserts. Then they dropped a bombshell: it has to be a savoury dish! Not so easy! In hindsight, I think I should have used more durians. I had no idea we could use more than one.
What do you think went wrong for you in Chef Bjorn's pressure challenge?
The reason is really pretty simple. You see, in all my life, I have always had trouble with instructions. While some can follow instructions with ease, I find it annoyingly difficult. … So yes, I’m that rebel in school, the anti-establishment, unorthodox dude. They’d say: “Think out of the box”; I’d go “What box?” That’s probably why I won so many challenges. That’s pretty much how I did things as a photographer for over 20 years because I figured that you can’t be the first to do anything by following rules. While that has helped me tremendously with much international success as a photographer, it still did not fulfill the fundamental requirement of this challenge — follow the damn instructions!
If you were to do it again, how different would you do it?
I would probably read through the entire recipe over first so I have a better idea instead of trying to follow it blindly. I would also not let what the judges say affect me. A comment from a judge at the very beginning of the challenge made me doubt something I actually did right and it all went downhill from there. I know it is their job to stress [the contestants]. I should have known better.
What advice would you give budding MasterChef contestants?
I would say, while it is impossible to remain calm, try your best to stay focused. Focus on the task at hand and compartmentalise everything so you don’t get overwhelmed. Try to remember at least two recipes from every kind of cuisine because you will not have any notes with you, so you have to be able to pull something out of your head. Lastly, don’t be over-confident just because you think you are a good homecook. Because being a good cook at home and for friends is one thing, being a cook on MasterChef is completely something else. Good luck!
Post-MasterChef Singapore, what do you cook at home these days?
Quite frankly, whatever is fresh I can buy in the market or if I’m in a certain ‘phase’. Right now, I’m doing a lot of braised pork belly [like the one I made on] MasterChef Singapore (laughs).
By the way, you’re never seen without a trucker cap. What’s up with the cap obsession?
A long time ago when I started in photography, I’d always wear a bandana [to stop the sweat] from stinging my eye. I also used to have really long hair and I do a lot of diving. [After diving,] guys don’t maintain their hair as well as the girls. They use conditioner; we just use one bar of soap. But it became very difficult to wash my hair because it got tangled and I had wait for it to dry. So I made a very brutal decision to go from long hair to botak. And I’ve maintained a short haircut for maybe 15 years now. Then I [switched from bandanas] to trucker caps and I’m stuck with them ever since. Every day, cap, cap, cap.
Do you have a big cap collection?
I have a [lot of] caps at home. I have a wall with 20 hooks and each hook has two or three caps. It fills up the entire wall.
When you started winning a few challenges, we thought you had a rat hiding under your cap, like Remy in Ratatouille, guiding you.
That’s a great one (laughs). There’s no rat.
MasterChef Singapore airs Sun, Ch 5, 9.30pm. It’s also on Toggle Catch-Up.
Photos: MasterChef Singapore