Photo Courtesy of FOX

September 19, 2017

Cornell Experience Inspires MasterChef Finalist

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Want to cheer on the Big Red in a competition they stand a chance at winning? Then be sure to catch the finale of Gordon Ramsay’s hit series MasterChef on September 20th, in which Jason Wang ’04 has cooked his way to becoming one of the top three home cooks in America.

On the show, Wang often pairs a warm, bubbly personality with a deep intensity for cooking, sometimes getting emotional when describing the familial background of his food. When I spoke to him, it was clear that his passion for food was not exaggerated for television — what was (in my opinion, wrongfully) missing from the show, however, was just how much of that passion stemmed from Wang’s time in Ithaca.

Wang came to Cornell as a plant science major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. After a semester, however, he realized that plants might not be where his heart lay. He began taking classes in landscape architecture before transferring to the Hotel School in his sophomore year. Still displaying the classic Cornell characteristic of not knowing what to do with your life, after a year as a Hotelie, he transferred to the College of Arts & Sciences, where he was able to graduate with a degree in music after petitioning to take approximately 28 credits a semester. He now works as a high school music teacher in the Boston area.

Wang started cooking at a young age, inspired by his family’s Chinese heritage.

“My [maternal] grandparents lived with us growing up for a while, and we always had different things on the dinner table. I was always fascinated with the textures and flavors,” he said. He began experimenting with baking pastries in middle school, eventually learning to cook vegetables and proteins after his mother told him they couldn’t eat cake for every meal. “Instead of reading other types of books, I would read cookbooks,” Wang observed.

Photo Courtesy of Jason Wang

Photo Courtesy of Jason Wang

He continued to refine his cooking skills up until his arrival in Ithaca for college.

“Going to Cornell was such an amazing thing for my palate and my understanding of food because Ithaca has all these amazing different types of food cuisines, and also the dining hall food at Cornell — I don’t think people realize — it is so good! … I remember North Star was opening when I was an undergrad, they had a Cantonese couple there, they had their own restaurant and they got hired to do their own station there.”

Wang lamented about how much he missed autumn in Ithaca — “All Cornellians know that crisp fall air” — as one of his most salient Ithaca food memories centered on the abundance of apples Cornell grows in the fall.

“My eyes were opened at the Cornell Orchards because, as a plant science major, we were doing labs … and I’m walking down the hallway and there’s an apple vending machine, and there were probably 10 different kinds of apples in the machine … Just going to the Cornell Orchards and seeing all the varieties of apples, and each one has its own taste and flavor and characteristics,” Wang recalled.

He also recounted going to the Ithaca Farmer’s Market, where he would walk up and down each section just to taste the different products each stand had to offer, and visiting all the wineries in the Finger Lakes region.

“For me, food was a great way to get to know people. I was in the wind ensemble and … before rehearsal, we would just go to Okenshield’s together, and you get to know people based on what foods they eat. There’s always a common language in food,” Wang told me. “I can close my eyes and I can see Chef Wang in Okenshield’s with all the stir fry. I can close my eyes and tell you all the different stations in North Star.”

Wang’s cooking became further influenced by New England products, seasonal ingredients and nature.

“Coming from a plant science background, I’m just fascinated with all kinds of plants … I think that inspires my aesthetic for plating as well, because I’ll think of how things grow in nature and just try to use that kind of symmetry and shape,” he said. “I think nature is beautiful and I have an appreciation for that.”

Wang decided to audition for MasterChef after the show announced a round of auditions in Boston. After pressure from his friends, Wang decided he wanted to see how his skills and knowledge stacked up against that of the rest of the home cooks in the U.S.

“Over the years, traveling to lots of different places for music … I think I have a very wide knowledge base of flavors and ingredients and how they pair together,” he told me.

For each challenge on MasterChef, the competing home cooks are faced with difficult ingredients or dishes, and they have to create recipes on the spot or know the intricacies of specific cooking techniques. I had always been skeptical about how well competitors did: How does an average person with no professional cooking experience know every step in baking a profiterole or know how to pair ingredients to make a salmon dish that Gordon Ramsay would proclaim he’d feature in his own restaurant?

“I think I was super fortunate because all the challenges that got thrown at me, I realized that at some point … I had experienced some way with dealing with that ingredient or that technique,” Wang told me. “All the knowledge I had read from all the books and watching cooking shows and talking to people, all that knowledge came in handy … I pulled out my internal library and flipped to the reference page that has that flavor pairing.”

Wang told me that, for example, one of his winning salmon dishes, a Vietnamese preparation with turmeric, was based off of a dish he remembered having in a Vietnamese restaurant with his mother.

“Traveling around and tasting a lot of cuisines, I think you get a sense of what pairings of ingredients are classic.”

But not every aspect of MasterChef was as blissful and stress-free as Wang’s winning streak would make it seem.

Photo Courtesy of FOX

Photo Courtesy of FOX

“I think the portrayal of the MasterChef kitchen as a super stressful place is 100 percent accurate. You have no idea how disturbing it is to try to cook something with the pressure of a time limit, meanwhile having to speak to a judge or two or three at your station, and then there are cameras on you as well. So you always see there’s this sense of panic in the contestant’s eyes on the show, and that’s real. We’re never sure of what’s going to get thrown at us or how much time we’ll get, and often we’re trying something for the first time and just hope it works,” said Wang. “Hopefully competitors can channel that into adrenaline … some competitors — it just kind of cripples them.”

Wang said the hardest challenge on the show for him was opening a pop-up restaurant in a vineyard. With only six competitors left, he was the captain of his team, and was faced with Gordon Ramsay, yelling orders that needed to be filled.

“We are home cooks. We haven’t had the experience of restaurants, serving large volumes of people in a production way. And I’m more of a visual person, so when Gordon Ramsay is screaming numbers … it just sounds like gibberish in my head,” he recalled.

When I pointed out that his team ended up winning, he laughed.

“I had no idea we were going to win that challenge! It just seemed like we were so behind … it was horrifying.”

Google Gordon Ramsay and you don’t have to search for too long before you find an image of him screaming or a clip of him calling someone an idiot sandwich. Gordon is the pinnacle of cooking entertainment: He’ll show you how to prepare a beautiful dish step-by-step, and then turn around and scream that your duck is so rare it just needs a beak and it’s ready to swim in the river. But is that what working with him is really like?

“Gordon Ramsay is best described as Gordon Ramsay,” Wang told me. “He has such high standards for how food needs to be and for how you need to get it on the plate. We didn’t interact with judges off-camera, so I’m just going by what he said to us. He’s always very passionate about his food, and I think even amidst some of the screaming and the scolding, he’s always trying to help you, and if you can see past that crazy energy, everything he said had a purpose and had some advice hidden in there. So I tried to translate the yelling into something I could do to better my dish or better my team’s dynamic. At the heart of it, he wants us to do the best we can.”

Photo Courtesy of FOX

Photo Courtesy of FOX

After working with some of the most prolific chefs in the world and cooking in front of millions of American viewers, I imagined it would be difficult for Wang to go back to teaching music.

“At the heart of everything, I am an educator, and I love teaching people about new things. Whether that’s music and how to rehearse and how to put a beautiful concert together, or whether that’s food and creating new flavors and textures and creating a new dish, that idea of teaching people is near and dear to my heart,” he said. “I’m teaching cooking classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in Boston …. When people gain knowledge, they’re able to unlock their own skills and experience and try to translate that to others.”

Before the interview concluded, Wang wanted to give some advice to fellow Cornellians.

“I would just encourage those students at Cornell to take advantage of the amazing foods and products and ingredients that are available there. I think a lot of times people come from certain places in the U.S. or certain home experiences where they’re used to eating things they’re familiar with. I can’t tell you the number of times at the dining hall where I tried something new and it opened my eyes,” he said. “Don’t just stick to your french fries and hot dogs at the grill station … you never know what you’re going to love and what you’re going to gravitate towards.”