She had to keep it to herself for three years due to pandemic delays.
But now Liya Chu can tell the world – if they weren’t already watching – that she’s the new MasterChef Junior.
The 13-year-old – who was 10 when she filmed the Fox cooking show – was crowned the winner in a riveting and often unnerving finale that aired on June 23.
The show, which has just concluded its eighth season, follows 16 young chefs, ages 8 to 13, from across the country through a series of cooking challenges. Judges for this season included chefs Gordon Ramsay, and Aarón Sánchez, and wellness advocate and author Daphne Oz.
Throughout the 13-week series, Chu filleted a salmon in less than 15 minutes, marinated and cooked a steak, made jalapeño poppers, a Scotch egg, and donut holes, and finally — in the final show (and with a bandaged thumb ) – showcased her cooking of pork dumplings with a salt and pepper blue shrimp and spicy aioli, a recipe she learned from her mother.
In addition to bragging rights, a trophy, and a coveted apron, the Scarsdale, New York native was awarded $100,000 in prize money, money she plans to save for college and a trip with her family.
“Without my family, I wouldn’t have learned so much or even started in the kitchen,” she said. “So I want to do something for them.”
Liya is already a celebrity at her parents’ Westchester, New York restaurants. Iwen Chen and Auston Chu, owners of Fantasy Cuisine in Hartsdale and Dumpling Plus Noodle in Bronxville, say that since the first show on March 17, customers have asked their staff where Liya is and if she will be there soon.
That’s also because she grew up in the restaurants and, according to her father, helped out at the hostess booth from the age of five. “She was always talking and very social,” said Auston Chu. “I remember one year, at Christmas, when we were really busy, and she took it upon herself to hand out menus and help people at their tables.
“Chatting with people just came naturally to her.”
She also loved to cook and started at 7, often 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, reminiscing, and having as a family,” Chen said.
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 learn cooking methods and traditions from relatives.
“From a young age, she has always loved food,” says Auston Chu.
“A classmate of hers had participated in season seven, and when Liya looked on, she said, ‘I can do better,’ said Chen. ‘She insisted that I fill out the application.’ It was the young chef whose idea was to try out for the show initially.
A series of interviews completed the deal, including live cooking on Zoom for an LA-based producer.
She was nine and already turned a pro at the stove (although she now enjoys baking more).
Let the show begin
When she received word that she had passed the application procedure, she went with her mother to Los Angeles for nine weeks, where the then fifth-grader, cooking for an audience, also did three hours of schoolwork because the school was still in session.
“Every week, we thought we might go home,” Chen said. “I never thought she would win because all the participants were talented.”
“It was unbelievable,” added Austin Chen. “Every day, my wife called me and said we have to stay for another week, then another week, then another week. We were so surprised. Her being on the show was good enough; we have never thought further.”
Still, the two knew how competitive their daughter was. “She’s always been like that,” Chen said. “When Liya sets her mind to something, she stays focused.”
What surprised them, however, was her grace under pressure—and how balanced she was with the constantly ticking clock, the blaring lights, and the judges closely watching each dish. “I honestly don’t know how she did that,” Chen said. “I was always a nervous wreck.”
“It’s not easy to talk and cook simultaneously,” Auston Chu added. “So we were impressed by that and very proud of her.”
Liya Chu said what kept her on track was staying focused. “I kept thinking it’s okay to screw up – everyone makes mistakes – but I just had to do 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 in life that are thrown at you randomly,” she said. “Even if something stands in the way, you have to keep cooking.
“Challenges are part of life.”
Grab the title
Competing was one thing. Winning, they all agreed, was something else.
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 right before. “She’s had to deal with many cuts over the years, so I knew she could get through it.”
Still, it’s a lot for a 10-year-old, but Liya said the fact that everyone was cheering and her family (including older brother Leo) got her “pumped up” and excited.
She couldn’t believe it when she was crowned the winner amid a sea of confetti. “I just stood 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, and I had so many things that wanted to burst out of my mouth.
“I had so many flashbacks at that point 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 this far without them.
“It was the happiest time of my life.”
And then came her other biggest challenge: keeping it a secret, which caused the show to delay broadcasts due to the pandemic (it was filmed before the pandemic). At one point, she admits she wondered if it would ever air.
Now that the word is out, however, she is excited, as are her parents. “It was so great to talk about it with my friends and family,” she said.
“I’m so happy and grateful that I won.”
When she started the show, Liya said she wanted to open a restaurant that served hibachi and sushi.
Now she would prefer a restaurant or bakery that uses ingredients from her garden so she knows what goes into her dishes.
Busy with school and golf, she cooks less but bakes more.
However, lucky diners at Fantasy Cuisine can still occasionally see Liya in between her activities because, for her, nothing beats her parents’ pork dumplings and sesame chicken.