Thu, Feb 15, 2018 - Page 13 News List

The accidental chef

MasterChef season eight runner-up Jason Wang takes Taiwan by storm with clam soup that ‘sums up the whole Taiwan experience’

By Chris Fuchs  /  Contributing reporter in New York

MasterChef runner-up Jason Wang with homemade dumplings.

Photo courtesy of Jason Wang

Jason Wang (王凱傑) had already lost in the season finale of the reality TV cooking show MasterChef when things, as he put it, went “bonkers” in Taiwan.

Late last year, an online clip of the 35-year-old Taiwanese-American music teacher and classical tenor vocalist made the rounds showing a dish he prepared for one of the show’s challenges. In it, contestants learn the ingredients only after lifting up a mystery box.

“I was just jumping for joy because it was all very, very expensive seafood and shellfish,” Wang told the Taipei Times during a recent phone interview.

Wang’s finished product, artistically plated, included shrimp, sea urchin roe wrapped in bok choy leaves and maitake mushroom (舞茸蘑菇), all of which were fried as a tempura.

But it was a clam soup — what Wang called an “elevated” gelitang (蛤蜊湯) — that won over the hearts of millions of Taiwanese who saw the video, not to mention his interaction with British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, one of the show’s judges known for his fiery temper and penchant for expletives.

“I kind of got choked up because when my parents came from Taiwan, they were grad students, they really didn’t have a lot of money,” Wang said. “So the types of ingredients that were here... were things that we had wanted to use but wouldn’t use because they were too expensive.”

Wang emerged as the runner-up in the final episode of season eight of MasterChef, which ended in September in the US and was broadcast on Fox. But that hasn’t at all dimmed his rising celebrity in Taiwan, where both of his parents grew up.

Wang recently wrapped up a visit to the island that included a Q&A with fans, appearances on television and a press conference with local Chinese-language media.

CIRCUITOUS PATH TO COOKING

Wang was an accidental chef and never envisioned himself as a success in the kitchen. His initial major in college was plant science. He dabbled in landscape architecture, hotel administration and eventually music, all in his junior year.

Wang ended up a music teacher, first in middle school, then at the Newton South High School in Massachusetts, where he has worked for the past four years, he said.

Food and a mission of spreading his love of it followed Wang all throughout his academic and professional career.

“Even in the classroom, when I’m doing music rehearsal, I’m always using food metaphors and using food descriptors,” he said.

A self-described big eater, Wang said he has always enjoyed food, having grown up around his grandparents who lived with his family for a time and who were often in the kitchen.

While they cooked Chinese food — Wang’s mother’s family is from Shanghai, his father’s from Beijing — the first dish Wang ever made, ironically enough, was an all American apple pie when he was 12 years old.

‘MASTERCHEF’

Things began to come full-circle for Wang after he learned of an open audition call in Boston for MasterChef in April 2016. His friends urged him to try out, he recalled.

After hesitating on the day of the audition, Wang joined the last group of 25, he said. The candidates entered a big ballroom and were given just three minutes to plate a dish they had brought with them, said Wang.

“I went there thinking that I’d just have an opportunity for someone, like an expert, to try my food,” Wang said. “I wasn’t necessarily thinking like, ‘Oh, I need to be on a TV show.’”

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