Home Life ‘MasterChef Junior’ winner: Meet Liya Chu

‘MasterChef Junior’ winner: Meet Liya Chu

by Patricia R. Mills

It’s a secret she had to keep to herself for three years due to pandemic delays.

But now, if they weren’t already watching, Liya Chu can tell the world that she’s the new MasterChef Junior.

The 13-year-old — 10 when she filmed the Fox cooking show — was crowned the winner in a compelling, often nerve-wracking finale that aired June 23.'MasterChef Junior' winner: Meet Liya Chu

The show, which just wrapped its eighth season, follows 16 young chefs, ages 8 to 13, through a series of cooking challenges across the country. Judges for this season included chefs Gordon Ramsay and Aarón Sánchez and wellness advocate and author Daphne Oz.

Throughout the 13-week series, Chu fileted a salmon in less than 15 minutes, marinated and cooked a steak, made jalapeño poppers, a Scotch egg, and doughnut holes, and finally — in the last show (and with a bandaged thumb) — showed off her cooking prowess with pork dumplings with a salt and pepper blue prawn and spicy aioli, a recipe she learned from her mother.

Along with bragging rights, a trophy, and a coveted apron, the Scarsdale, New York resident received $100,000 in prize money, funds she plans to save for college, and a trip with her family.

“Without my family, I wouldn’t have learned as much or even started cooking in the kitchen, to begin with,” she said. “So I want to do something for them.”

Family business

Liya is already a celebrity at her parent’s Westchester, New York restaurants. Iwen Chen and Auston Chu, who own Fantasy Cuisine in Hartsdale and Dumpling Plus Noodle in Bronxville, say since the first show aired on March 17, customers have asked their staff where Liya is and if she’ll be in anytime soon.

That’s also because she grew up in the restaurants and, according to her dad, helped out at the hostess stand starting at age 5. “She was always talking and very sociable,” said Auston Chu. “I remember one year, at Christmas, when we were very busy, and she took it upon herself to hand out menus and help seat people at their table.

“Chatting with people just came very naturally to her.”

She also loved cooking and started at 7, often working side-by-side with her parents in restaurants and at home. Soup dumplings were always a favorite.

“Cooking together was a great way to not only teach her how to do things but also the importance of being with us, gathering and having memories as a family,” said Chen.

Summer trips to Taiwan, where Chen and Chu are from — and where their families still live — also helped instill a love for Asian cuisine and learning cooking methods and traditions from relatives.

“From a young age, she has always loved food,” said Auston Chu.

It was the young cook whose idea was to try out for the show initially. “A classmate of hers had competed in season seven, and when Liya watched, she said, ‘I can do better,” said Chen. “She insisted I fill out the application.”

A series of interviews, including one cooking life on Zoom for an LA-based producer, cinched the deal.

She was nine and already turning into a pro at the stove (though now she’s more into baking).

Let the show begin

Once she got notice, she passed the application process; she was off to Los Angeles with her mom for nine weeks, where, in addition to cooking in front of an audience, the then fifth-grader also did three hours of schoolwork, as school was still in session.

“Every week, we thought we might be going home,” said Chen. “I never thought she’d win as all the contestants were very talented.”

“It was unbelievable,” added Auston Chen. “Every day, my wife would call me and say, we have to stay another week, and then another week, and then another week. We were so surprised. Her being on the show was good enough; we never thought beyond that.”

Still, the two knew how competitive their daughter was. “She’s always been that way,” said Chen. “When Liya puts her mind to something, she stays focused.”

What surprised them, however, was her grace under pressure — and how poised she was with the clock constantly ticking, the lights blaring, and the judges scrutinizing every dish. “I honestly don’t know how she did that,” said Chen. “I was always a bundle of nerves.”

“It’s not easy to talk and cook simultaneously,” added Auston Chu, “So we were impressed with that and, of course, very proud of her.”

Liya Chu said what kept her on track was staying focused. “I kept thinking that it’s ok to mess up — everyone makes mistakes — but I just needed to try my best.”

That philosophy served her well, especially during the finale when she cut her thumb and had to make her pork dumplings with one hand. “It was super hard, but I just said to myself that everyone has challenges that are randomly thrown at you,” she said. “Even if something is in your way, you must keep cooking.

“Challenges are a part of life.”

Clinching the title

Competing was one thing. Winning, they all agreed, was another.

And completely surreal.

“My stomach was in knots the whole time,” said Chen, who said she was “super nervous” and sweating, especially when she saw Liya’s cut thumb just before. “She’s had to deal with many cuts over the years cooking, so I knew she could power through.”

Still, it’s a lot for a 10-year-old, but Liya said that everyone was cheering and her family was there (including her older brother, Leo) had her “pumped” and excited.

She couldn’t believe it when she was crowned the winner amidst a sea of confetti. “I was just standing there in complete shock,” she said. “I was going to cry before they said my name no matter what, but then I saw my parents, and they came running over, and I had so many things that wanted to burst out of my mouth.

“I had so many flashbacks at that moment of all the friends I made on the show, all the contestants, all the judges, all the producers, just everyone who helped me get to that point. I couldn’t have gotten that far without them.

“It was the happiest time of my life.”

And then came her other biggest challenge: Keeping the secret, which, due to the pandemic, caused the show to delay broadcasting (it was filmed before the pandemic). At some point, she admits to wondering if it would ever air.

Now that the word is out, however, she’s thrilled, as are her parents. “It’s been so great to talk to my friends and family about it,” she said.

“I’m so happy and grateful I won.”

What’s next

When she started the show, Liya said she’d like to open a restaurant serving hibachi and sushi.

Now, she’d prefer to own a restaurant or a bakery that uses ingredients from her garden so she knows what’s going into her dishes.

Being busy with school and golf, she’s cooking less but baking more.

However, lucky diners to Fantasy Cuisine may still get to see Liya occasionally in between her activities. For her, there’s nothing better than her parent’s pork dumplings and sesame chicken.

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