‘MasterChef’ Season 12 Winner Talks Making the Most of a Second Chance – TV Insider

[Warning: The following contains a MAJOR spoiler including the winner of MasterChef Season 12.]
Age is but a number, as proven by 20-year-old Dara Yu, who just became the first MasterChef: Back to Win champ. It’s the ultimate serving of redemption for the culinary school grad, who returned to the kitchen after landing runner-up at age 12 on the inaugural MasterChef Junior.
The Season 12 finale saw Gordon Ramsay, Aarón Sánchez, and Joe Bastianich dig into a three-course meal prepared by the finalists including Michael Silverstein and Christian Green. Graham Elliot joined in for the entree round with pastry extraordinaire Christina Tosi there for the dessert finish.
Yu delivered an ode to her childhood with dishes that inspired a passion for cooking. Her menu included crispy skin red snapper, Chinese-style short ribs, and vanilla ile flottante (floating island). We chatted with America’s newest MasterChef to reflect on the season and reveal how she’ll be spending the $250,000 grand prize.
A key to victory for you was leaning into those professional culinary skills. You really brought out inner confidence, especially when creating a Baked Alaska and replicating Gordon Ramsey’s tortellini dish alongside him during the semi-finals.
Dara Yu: I spent a good amount of this season trying to find my footing back in the kitchen and figuring out the competition and the game. By the time I got to the semi-finals, I did feel confident. I was ready to get to the end. I put a lot of pressure on myself throughout the whole season, but I think I was in a really good mindset.
You felt the pressure in the finals where the Béarnaise sauce wasn’t cooperating. As you’ve gone through this experience and gotten frazzled, how do you work through that?
I definitely got frazzled. I’m not afraid to show that emotion. The times I was getting frazzled I was really trying to calm myself and bring myself back to that space of focus. What I learned about myself is taking a step back and taking a deep breath and making a plan to attack. Sometimes in random clips, you might hear, “You got this.” That was me talking myself through the challenges and keeping myself in the zone. I was able to make it through.
There were definitely a number of unique challenges this season. How was it for you to be taken out of your comfort zone and the traditional kitchen?
On my Junior season, it was a limited series, so it was only eight episodes. The only challenge outside the kitchen was really the restaurant takeover. I had never done the large group team challenges. I’m used to working with a team in a commercial kitchen under time pressure. They are definitely difficult. The Coast Guard one where we were outside, it was a super long day. For MasterChef, the biggest challenge is the mental and physical toll the competition takes on you. Maybe I had my youth as an advantage to push myself, but the other challenges like “The Wall.” I struggled with those. I really thought I was going home.
You bounced back no doubt. Here you have familiar faces who knew you at 12, such as Graham, watch you succeed at the highest level. Did it feel like coming full circle?
One hundred percent, yes. With my finale menu, everything was plated on round plates. Everything was circular because I wanted to play into that full-circle moment of being back in the finale again. Seeing Graham there was so great. I stayed connected to him on social media. He was watching from the balcony too at one point. I know he told my mom later that you could tell I had professional training in that I was the most professional in that atmosphere. He was really impressed with how I improved and grew in the kitchen. That was winning in itself.
You were such a fan favorite. What does it mean for you to demonstrate what is possible at a young age to someone at home?
What’s really great about TV and media is the representation and the reach you get. For me being on Junior, I think a lot of the responses I got came from a lot of moms and families, and young kids who said they started cooking because of me. They’ll say, “Our families cook dinners now together. I want to be on MasterChef Junior.” That’s what really feels good. I wanted to continue to inspire young girls and show if they have a passion for something, go after it because it will pay off eventually.
That $250,000 is a lot for any age. How will you use the prize money?
I think especially at my age it’s important to be financially responsible. Coming into an amount of money like that, I mean I’m 21. I’ve basically been a student my entire life. I want to be able to have that money for the rest of my life. Definitely want to invest a good amount of that into investments and projects and business ideas I have. I also think I need to celebrate, take a trip, and travel. I also love cars. Maybe a vintage car? We’ll see.
What are your career aspirations now?
At this moment, I don’t feel the pressure to open a business now. I’ve been working in the entertainment industry for the past eight years. It’s a tough business to be in. If I’m going to do it, I want to do it right. I still have so much to learn and grow. I want to continue to do that, but I am working on some fun projects that will allow me to cook for fans. In my experience, I’ve made a lot of connections with some amazing chefs and people in the industry. I’m working on some collaborations to be announced. I’m really passionate about teaching and the education of food. I think the media is an incredible way to do that. I’ve always looked up to people like Anthony Bourdain and all those who have travel shows. My big dream is to do a show like that.
What about becoming a judge on a show like MasterChef?
I told Joe on Junior I was coming for his job. That would is really full circle. I love the mentorship. Because I was doing this since I was 12, even though I’m only 21, there are kids now who I mentor. I love that aspect of the food TV world. If that opportunity comes, I would definitely be interested.
Your dad passed away at a young age. How do you think he would feel about you becoming a MasterChef?
I know he would be extremely proud. I have an older sister. When my father knew he was going to pass he just told my mom, “Let the girls do what they love. Let them follow their heart, and they will thrive” I feel like I’m doing that. Of course, I would have loved for him to be here to experience all this, but he is looking out for me.
How would you sum up, or should I say, put a bow on this season? What would you take from this experience?
It’s crazy because I’ve been keeping this secret for a year. It’s relieving I can now talk about it. What I’m taking away from it all is to believe in myself. There was a lot of doubt going into the competition and throughout the competition. I realized that when I believe in myself and am confident I thrive and do really well. I just have to keep doing that. I wouldn’t have gone to this point if I didn’t work my but off over the past eight years. I need to keep believing in myself. Hopefully, that translates and inspires other people to do the same.
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