MasterChef Judge Jonathan Yao Talks About The Show - Exclusive Interview

Chef Jonathan Yao was pretty young to be chosen as a guest judge on "MasterChef," one of the most popular culinary-themed shows on television today. In fact, he was not yet 20 years old when the show began airing back in 2010, and is now just a bit past the age of 30. But really, it's not much of a surprise that Yao found himself in the same orbit as vaunted stars of the cooking world like Gordon Ramsay and Emeril Lagasse. Yao's restaurant, Kato, earned a Michelin star in 2019, just a couple of years after it first opened its doors and when the chef was squarely in his 20s.

When Mashed caught up with Yao for a recent interview, he was understated to the point of humility about the many accomplishments he has achieved in a relatively short career — while a Michelin star and "MasterChef: Legends" judging spot would be the absolute highest water marks for many professional chefs, for Yao they almost seem water under the bridge as he turns his attention to what's next. We'll have to wait and see what all that entails in a career that promises to flourish over the coming decades; for now, we focused on what had brought this young first generation Taiwanese American chef as far as he has already come. 

Much of it, not surprisingly, is a commitment to making the best possible Taiwanese food, and in preparations that merge the authentic cuisine of the island nation with influences from Yao's own home in Southern Californias.

Jonathan Yao on being a MasterChef judge

What was it like being a "MasterChef" judge?

It was cool. I've never done anything like that before, so I was trying to make it all [work well]. I was trying to watch what I was saying and give constructive feedback. So, yeah, it was fun.

What were your first thoughts on being invited onto the show?

I was super excited. I had never really seen the show, so I watched Season 10 after accepting to go on the show and it was awesome. So, I was super excited to go.

What were some of the surprises from your experience on the program?

It's real. It's like a real a** show. I thought a lot of it, like that there would be breaks in between where they get to catch their breath, but it's like, they're literally on a clock. So it was a lot more realistic than I thought it was going to be.

Were there anything from behind the scenes that were surprising or was it that what the audience sees on camera is very much a real representation of how everything works?

Yeah, definitely real. There's not a lot of things that are hidden.

And how were the actual dishes that you judged?

Everything was pretty good. It was better than I had anticipated, for sure. I [got to] watch some clips from the episode last night and the [chefs] were panicking about some stuff, but it ended up being pretty good.

Chef Jonathan Yao talks Taiwanese food

What are some things that Americans get wrong about Taiwanese food?

I feel like Americans don't really know much about it ... They don't really have a lot of exposure to Taiwanese food. So I think that's one of our missions. Just to [teach] more. So instead of people just saying "beef noodle soup" when they think of it, or boba... we're trying to make them think of other things when they think of Taiwanese food.

What are a couple of the main dishes, that if someone wanted to get a better sense of Taiwanese cuisine, are principle dishes someone should try?

There's a lot of different stir fries in Taiwanese food. Three cup chicken's a good one. Braised pork rice is a pretty big Taiwanese food. Those are good starting points.

Jonathan Yao talks about his restaurant

What was it like being awarded that Michelin star?

It was really cool. When we got invited to the event, they didn't tell us what was happening. So, when we got called up, it was pretty surprising, but obviously an honor. A standard we still hold ourselves to daily.

Has that award changed the foot traffic you see? What has life been like in the aftermath of that?

Yeah. We were doing well before, but after that, it was big. We're filled to the brim. We get requests to do big things, we had reservations on a wait list for a few months after that. So, it was nice.

What do you think is the most exciting fan-favorite dish that you serve at Kato?

I think everybody likes our last dessert. It's like a Boniato Yam Tapioca with a fresh cheese that we make and a frozen Sable. People really respond. I think it's a good riff on flavors that people associated with Taiwanese food already, and I think it's a fun way to have it.

What was the experience like pivoting from doing the tasting menu to more of a to-go during the pandemic?

I mean, it was difficult. I feel like everyone takes themselves seriously here. They want to execute food at a certain level and doing to-go wasn't what they expected, but I'm just glad everyone persevered and really adapted to the pandemic.

If one of our readers is to visit the restaurant, what's the one dish you'd say they have to try?

Well, we only serve a tasting menu, so they're going to be forced to try the entire menu if they come!

Up to this point in your career, what do you consider your greatest accomplishment as a chef?

For sure, the Michelin star, yeah.

Chef Jonathan Yao on eating and cooking at home

What do you typically eat in a day?

I'm pretty healthy right now. I'll just prep out a bunch of vegetables at the start of the week and I'll just make those all week. I'll just pack salads for myself throughout the week. 

Beyond Taiwanese, and in fact, beyond Asian cuisine in general, what is your favorite non-Asian cuisine, whether it's to cook, to eat, or ideally both?

I make a lot of pasta. My girlfriend loves Italian food, so I make a lot of pasta.

Whether in your restaurant or private life, what is your favorite food cook and why?

I really like cooking and eating eggs just because it's so convenient, and I eat a lot of eggs.

Do you have any tips, whether it's for cooking Taiwanese or just for general, for the home chef who wants to take their cooking up a notch?

Yeah, I think if you're cooking at home, you should definitely clean as you cook, instead of letting everything pile up.

What are things that people can use to improve their home cooking?

I think a good pan. Whether it's like, well, I have a non-stick, kind of wok situation and one enamel, cast iron pot. I think you could do anything in those two things. So, just having good pieces of cooking equipment is pretty key.

How did the diverse Los Angeles food scene influence your cooking?

Yeah, it's interesting because then you have people that get kind of culture shock when they try different things, but I feel like since we're surrounded by so many different people and cultures. We're very accepting here, right? As an Angeleno, you're just... You never think twice about trying something or like talking to someone.

Is there a dish that you would just assume be happy to never cook again?

I mean, I cook so much fish at work. I don't really cook fish at home.

Catch Jonathan Yao's episode of "MasterChef: Legends" on Sept. 1, at 8 p.m. EST, on FOX. Keep up with his restaurant, Kato, by visiting their website