Meet the Northern MasterChef Winners
Over the past few months, Thai food fans have been on the edge of their seats as the twenty eager contestants of this year’s
MasterChef Thailand competition were whittled down to just one. The show (an international sensation, now spanning 57 countries) which originated in the UK way back in 1990, is more than just a competitive TV show but a quest to find the best amateur cooks in each nation. The winners of the competitions often end up running their own restaurants, some working in Michelin starred restaurants, or even eventually becoming Michelin starred chefs, while many others have forged careers as successful authors and critics. Basically winning provides a great career leapfrog for any aspiring chef and is a huge deal.
This year, the contestants undertook a series of both entertaining and gruelling challenges, including team challenges (where they must compete as a team to cook for hundreds of hungry guests), mystery boxes (where they are given a set of ingredients of which they must make something form) and invention tests (where creativity is king).
The series has become a household name, and the three judges — Kawantip Devakula (Chef Pom), Pasan Sawasdiwat (Mr. Ink) and Pongtawat Chalermkittichai (Chef Ian) — are all well-loved celebrities and much hated critics depending on who we are cheering for in each episode. Both contestants and viewers at home squirmed at the more bizarre ingredients, such as crocodile tail, bull testicles and fishy pla ra, while the judges smirked with mischievous glee.
At the end, only three remained — Lat, Diew and First — all of whom happen to come from Northern Thailand — yay us! As super fans of the show, and lovers of everything Northern, we thought we would talk to our three northern cooks and hear their stories and find out what Masterchef Thailand is really like and what inspired them to apply.
“There are so many other applicants that at first it feels impossible to reach the final twenty that get to be on screen,” laughed 30 year old Nalat ‘Lat’ Jirawerakul who came 2nd place in MasterChef Thailand Season 2. “I didn’t think I would get a place, but when I was selected I was just amazed.”
Lat, a popular contestant in the series who performed consistently well, comes from Lampang where her family are carpenters. After studying animation at Silapakorn University, she began working in an office but soon realised that it was not for her. “I needed to move around more, my body was not suited to sitting in front of a computer all day and I thought about what I loved to do, and that was baking,” she explained. “I was lucky to grow up with a kitchen that had an oven (a rarity in the average Thai household), so my mum often taught me how to bake cakes and make Thai snacks.”
Cooking in a television studio has its challenges, as all the contestants soon found. “A day filming would be so long,” said 22 year old Thanapat ‘First’ Suyao, Season 2’s winner. “After the make-up, setting up the stations and preparing the ingredients, we were exhausted and the cooking had yet to even begin!”
Cooking for hoards of people, from a posse of supermodels to a troop of motorcycle taxi drivers also made the contestants both anxious and excited. “When I was Team Leader for the team challenge, cooking food for 251 motorcycle taxi drivers was so exciting,” said First. “The sun was so hot that day and we messed up several times, but after winning with an overwhelming majority, I felt I had it in me to win.”
Nobody would know that that team challenge, with Lat and First as the two team leaders, would soon be replicated when they faced one another in the finals.
Ingredients for Success
As you can imagine, much of the food created focused on the great Thai cuisine, elevated to that of fine dining. However, a few ingredients left the contenders shocked and flummoxed. “I think the worst moment was when we were given bulls’ tails, tongues and testicles to use,” said First who was unfortunate enough to be given a testicle to play with. “I didn’t know what to do with it, but I think I impressed the judges after Judge Ink said my testicles smelt delightful.”
First grew up in Nan with his family of luk chin (meatball) sellers. Although he enjoyed cooking, there was no clear path to take in Nan, so he travelled to Bangkok to enrol into a two month Thai cooking course. “After a few years I decided to move to Chiang Mai to gain experience in a few cafes and restaurants,” he said. “Working in Fern Forest Café and Monkey Kitchen, I met a number of inspirational chefs who encouraged me to apply to Masterchef. It was series two before I got in, after an accident that left me in hospital prevented me from entering season one.”
Like many other contestants, it was the pressure of the studio kitchen which was the most intimidating for Lat who almost saw herself sent home after a terrible presentation of beef tongue. “When you go into the ‘supermarket’ and find out your main ingredient, you have just minutes to think up a whole dish,” Lat said. “So many times I’d just take what I thought would work and plan afterwards, and that really showed with my tongue dish.”
Being under pressure is not uncommon in the Masterchef kitchen, but one contestant got it worst. 26 year old Komsun ‘Diew’ Wongsa, who came third in Season 2, was paraded out in front of a restaurant full of Chinese-Thai dignitaries by Chef Ian who told them all that their food would be late because of him. “It was the first time I was team leader, and I had no idea about Chinese food,” ze said. “It was so embarrassing and so hard in the kitchen and I never wanted to be a team leader again, but we did end up getting the food out in a reasonable time.”
Diew comes from Mae Hong Son but has lived in Chiang Mai ever since ze began studying art at Chiang Mai University. During Diew’s studies, ze always enjoyed cooking. After spending a year working in a kitchen, ze decided to open up a restaurant with a handful of other transgender friends. “We decided to call it Dong Madame (Madame Palace in English) as a nod to us all being transgender,” ze said. “We became popular really fast, despite our really out of the way location. When MasterChef first came out I was captivated, and I love watching MasterChef from other countries. I even tried tweeting Gordon Ramsay a few times but had no replies, maybe he’ll notice me now!”
Surf and Turf
“We were all in it together really,” said Lat who went on to explain how although they were all competing against one another, everyone tried to help each other as much as possible and they were all friends by the end. This very Thai way of tackling a competition is not often seen in other countrys’ MasterChef shows where it can often be a lot more cutthroat.
Viewers of the show could clearly see the group all work together, even when competing head to head. The atmosphere was that of a community, and for our northern and northeastern participants, a bond was soon developed through similar cultures and languages. “Kapom and Ja (two other contestants) often spoke to each other in Isaan,” laughed Diew.
During the season, a few romances (and feuds) developed. Hot on the gossip sites were rumours about the winner First and another contestant called Yuri. “We are just close friends,” said First, insisting that it was no more than that, despite the persistent gossip. “It turns out that we share a really close mutual friend so naturally we became close during the season.” According to Lat, although a few arguments happened in the kitchen (like Yuri and Bella’s dramatic disagreements while working as a pair), everyone made up after the cameras were turned off.
Nothing but Lanna
When it came to the finals, only two were left to fight head to head with a menu of three dishes, a starter, a main course and dessert. Lat and First both decided to feature their home cusine by elevating Lanna food to that of fine dining.
As they cooked together in a circular kitchen made especially for the finals, they worked in unison, often bickering to each other in colloquial northern dialects that left both the judges and the producers scratching their heads. Luckily for viewers at home, subtitles were provided.
Lat’s menu consisted of a Lanna salsa for starters, steak khuen tin (return to roots steak) and a khao klub baan hao (Northern home sticky rice pudding). “I wanted to explore my roots and the food I love to eat,” she explained of being inspired by her time walking around the local Lampang markets and seeing an abundance of mango nam prik sauce. “I wanted to elevate the mango nam prik into something modern, so I used ripe mango instead of green to give it a fusion feel to it.” Her main dish, steak khuen tin, was a fine cut of steak flavoured with Northern laab herbs, served with a mushroom pie. The steak itself was served on pastry that looked just like sticks of charcoal.
For First, his final dishes were just as inspired and explored the lesser known flavours of Nan province. His starter, kaeng kradan (a ‘curry’ set in a solid jelly) and watercress salad served with a pipette of lemon juice to squeeze inside, was a favourite with the judges. “I love this dish at home, and it usually takes 24 hours to set,” First explained. “But since I live in an apartment now with no kitchen, I figured out a way to set it in just 30 minutes so I used that technique in the finals.” His main dish took every aspect of the traditional northern khantoke and elevated it to the highest level. “I couldn’t fit all of the elements onto one plate without it looking messy so I took the crispy pork and paired it with two sauces — one for the pork side and one for the skin side to replicate the crispy pork skins I omitted,” he said. “My sweet was a banana and coconut milk ice cream served with a Thai basil panna cotta.”
After the finals was over, both First and Lat were still none the wiser as to who had won. “Once it was over, the team filmed both myself and First winning the trophy,” said Lat, much to our surprise. “Only the producer knew who was going to actually win, so we found out at the same time as everyone else! It was good though, I couldn’t have kept the secret if I had known who the real winner was.”
“I had it on the TV while working in my kitchen,” said Diew. “Both the staff and the customers were all on the edge of their seats when the winner was announced, and then our LINE group started going crazy with congratulations and commiserations.”
A Stir-fried Future
As the golden confetti settled, normal life resumed for all twenty of the MasterChef competitors who were temporary celebrities for the season. First, Lat and Diew have all returned to their day jobs, while trying to juggle the bombardment of media interviews, TV appearances and such like, and with only a short time since the finals was aired and when we interviewed, all three seemed overwhelmed at the opportunities that were coming their way. For Diew, returning to Dong Madame was the number one priority, although ze is currently flying to and from Bangkok to appear as a chef helper in the popular TV series Iron Chef. Lat has remained in Bangkok, returning to cook her bakery goods online (Lamelo Bake Studio) and is planning to open a shop front soon. She also got married last month in Chiang Mai, an event attended by most of the MasterChef contestants. First is undecided about his next steps. As MasterChef winner, his first job is to produce a cookbook where he plans to focus on Thai and Lanna fine dining food, before putting some of his one million baht winnings towards studying to become a professional chef.
For the world of food, this season has seen a sharp step up in quality cooking presented in MasterChef, and for us in the north, this has been a surprising presentation of some Lanna classics remade in ways we never thought possible. The whole nation’s eyes were on northern laab and khantoke dinners made by young chefs starting out on their journey, all from humble Northern beginnings.