Dara Yu Is Your New MasterChef: Back To Win Champion - Exclusive Interview

In a nail-biting season finale, Dara Yu claimed the title of winner in "MasterChef's" 11th season of "MasterChef: Back to Win." Each of the 15 contestants at the beginning of the season have previously competed on an iteration the show but were eliminated. Each came back for a second chance at glory. Yu first competed on the show at just 12 years old during the first season of "MasterChef: Junior," a version of the show featuring children from age 8-13.  Yu was just one of two "MasterChef: Junior" contestants to come back for this season making her win all the more impressive. 

As the youngest member of the kitchen, Dara Yu had a lot to prove. The season was full of ups and downs for all the contestants, and going into the final, the trophy and grand-prize of $250,000 seemed to be anyone's. Yu proved that age is just a number, and her passion and skills matched and then exceeded those of her competitors. Her win gives Yu not just the MasterChef title, but also the claim as the youngest "MasterChef" winner and only person to appear on "MasterChef: Junior" and win "MasterChef." 

We got the chance to sit down with Dara Yu in an exclusive interview where she told us about her time competing on the show, winning, and what comes next for her. 

Going back to the kitchen

I wanted to start off by asking how your experience on "MasterChef" has differed this time from when you were on "MasterChef Junior."

When I was on "MasterChef Junior," I was 12. Cooking was a fun hobby that I did after school and [when I] went to cooking camps. It's so funny. That experience on "MasterChef" Junior was really fun, overall fun. I don't really remember the times that I was stressed out or pressured, and I made so many amazing friends from the show.

This time around, [it was] a little different; lots of pressure. Also, I've now had eight years of experience in the industry and learning. I wanted to prove to the judges and the other contestants that I have grown and evolved into a better cook and show them that even though I was a junior and even though I am the youngest in the kitchen, that doesn't really matter, because my skills are at the same level as some of the older contestants.

How did you find out that you were going to be on "MasterChef: Back to Win"?

It's an interesting story. I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America last August and I was supposed to go to Cornell University to study hospitality management ... I graduated August 10th and I was supposed to move into my dorm on August 20th. [On] August 16th, I got an email about this opportunity and "we want to talk to you about it." It ended up being "MasterChef: Back to Win." I had about a week to figure out if I was going to go through with the process, but I'm very happy I did.

Back and she won

What was it like coming back on a second chance and winning?

I went into "MasterChef: Back to Win" wanting to have fun and see where the experience took me. Every challenge I was getting through, I was like, "Okay, this is cool. Maybe I can actually win this." I took every challenge as it came and did my best and it got me through to the end. Now, to be able to say that I'm the first finalist to be in two "MasterChef" finales [and] I'm the youngest "MasterChef US" winner, first "MasterChef Junior" who was on "Master Chef" and won "MasterChef," so there's a lot of titles that I'm really proud to wear.

What do you think the future holds for you as "MasterChef" winner?

Who knows? The sky's the limit at this point. I've been working in food for eight years and I don't see myself changing careers anytime soon. There's a joke with my family that maybe one day, I'll wake up and be like, "I'm going to go be an accountant or something." I don't know, maybe one day. I love food, I love the industry and I want to continue to learn and grow and inspire other young girls and show them that they can follow in my footsteps.

Behind the scene secrets

What's something people might not know about cooking on set?

This is a good one. A lot of people, they're like, "What?" when they hear this. The judges eat our food cold, but we're judged with that being known. Because of the nature of a show and how it's filmed and we have to take breaks and everything, the food will sit for a little bit. So yeah, it's cold.

Does that affect how you approach different challenges?

Definitely. I learned one of the first challenges, the Peruvian, the Global Challenge. I made a lomo saltado and I did it with a beef ... with a filet. I cut the filet and I realized ... After that I was like, "If I'm making a protein, I'm leaving that protein whole." I'm not going to slice it. If you slice a steak and it sits for 30 minutes or so, it starts to dry out and look overcooked. You have to be strategic with that, with all the factors of the show and challenges.

How did filming during COVID affect this season?

It was interesting because it was on that tail end where the world was opening up again, but COVID was still happening. It didn't really affect the production of the show, but it affected behind-the-scenes stuff. We stay in a hotel the whole time we're filming, and because of COVID, we were stuck on one floor of the hotel, so we weren't even allowed to go down to the pool or the gym. 

The production company they built us a gym and a library in one of the rooms on the fourth floor. The contestants, we would have hallway parties, hallway hangouts after we came back from filming. Because of that, we all got really close, and you can see on the show that we're a really tight-knit cast and really supportive of each other.

Lessons and challanges

What's the biggest lesson you've learned from this season?

It's something I'm still working on and will continue to work on throughout my whole career: staying levelheaded in the kitchen under pressure and learning to adapt and think on my feet. A competition like "MasterChef" is unlike anything. Working in a restaurant is really tough, but the MasterChef competition is unlike anything else. I learned a lot about myself and how I work under pressure and creatively challenging myself as well. I want to continue to evolve and grow from that.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during MasterChef?

There's two answers to that question. A personal challenge that I faced was staying calm, making sure that I didn't get too stressed out and panic. There were some times when that did happen and I was able to recover from that, so that was a really big challenge. The biggest actual challenge that I had that we went through was the wall or tag team. I love the team challenges when it's red and blue team, but those team challenges where it's aired, those are really tough. I thought I was going home both times, to be honest.

What is one ingredient you can't live without?

I can't live without butter, but chocolate ... Butter. Really good quality, European style butter.

What is your go-to fast food order?

I don't eat fast food that much, but I do love some chicken nuggets and French fries.

What is one chef you'd love to have cook dinner for you?

Gordon Ramsay. I've cooked for him multiple times now and I cooked alongside him. I've been to many of his restaurants, but a personal dinner with Gordon Ramsay, that would be incredible.

The season finale of MasterChef: Back to win is available to watch now on Fox and streaming on the fox app. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.