At just 23 years old, Johnathan Chew has already achieved a title many home cooks dream about: MasterChef. The dental student and self-taught chef was recently crowned the winner of MasterChef Singapore’s third season after a nail-biting 3-man finale.
Over a virtual coffee break, Johnathan clued us in on some of his hobbies beyond baking, his favourite hawker dish in Singapore, and his plans after winning MasterChef Singapore.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
1. What are your hobbies besides cooking?
I enjoy drawing and swimming occasionally. I do illustrations on my iPad because it’s so accessible and you can draw whatever. So I like to add stuff to the photos I take when I go overseas. I like to make it look more interesting lah.
Johnathan at Hyde Park in London surrounded by his Pokemon drawings.
Image credit: @johnathancheww
I saw some people on Instagram with this particular style and I thought, “I think I can do that too.” I found it quite fun. I do it when I’m travelling from one place to another because there’s nothing else to do, and that’s what I do when I’m bored.
2. What is your favourite food spot in Singapore, and what is your go-to order?
For me, it’s hawker centres. If you’re talking about local food, I think you’ll get the biggest variety and full spectrum of Singapore’s culture at such a low price. I really enjoy the hawker.
There is a hawker stall called Lau Jiang Fishball Laksa Noodles that sells really good laksa. I’d have it every day for the rest of my life if it wasn’t that unhealthy. I like it because the laksa itself comes with fried tofu skin whereas other places only have taupok. It’s super crispy and the broth has a very good balance of coconut milk and laksa rempah, whereas in some other places it’s not spicy enough or they put too much coconut milk.
Finding a good laksa is easy, but finding a well-balanced laksa is not that easy.
3. Who are some people in the F&B industry that inspire you?
I’ve always had a lot of respect for hawkers. Their hours are long, their pay isn’t that good, and it’s so hot to work in a hawker stall. It’s super inspiring whenever I see news of a young person quitting their job to go into hawker food.
But after joining MasterChef and participating in the restaurant challenge where we had to take over a restaurant, I have so much more respect for all these professional chefs. In my head, it was always, “If these people in a hawker can do it in a small stall, what’s so hard about being a professional chef? And why do they charge such an exorbitant price for a small plate of food?”
After experiencing first-hand what it’s like working in a professional kitchen, I realised that you’re not just paying for the food. You’re paying for the service, all the attention to detail, all the yelling that a chef gets from other chefs, and having to work together in such a cramped space.
4. What kickstarted your passion for food?
Growing up, I always wanted to be in the kitchen because I would steal the food my grandma was making. She would be cooking halfway and I’d take a few bites to taste. And then I wanted to help out.
For some kids, their parents won’t want them to help out because they think it’s not safe to handle knives or whatever, but I don’t think I was ever stopped; I think my interest started from there.
For baking, I think [the passion] started in secondary school. The first things I did were cookies and brownies, that sort of thing. I liked it because it felt like a science experiment. Say I want to make a cookie that tastes like Famous Amos, but somehow it doesn’t taste like it. Everytime I remake it I’m one step closer, and it’s quite satisfying to know that when I change the proportions of this particular ingredient, it affects the texture in a certain way.
It’s an experimental process and that’s what I like about baking.
5. How would you describe your cooking style?
I discovered my cooking style more after MasterChef; I think I had close to 7 months after the last episode since the competition was filmed last year. At the start, I was a bit intimidated because the other contestants had so much more experience compared to me. And with experience, you discover your own personal style when it comes to cooking. When I see something that looks good on Instagram, I’ll try to replicate it.
There wasn’t a lot of creativity, but I feel like MasterChef pushed me to be more creative, especially towards the end. So in the finale for my tangyuan or a more elevated version of a deep-fried fish, they were flavours that I grew up eating and I knew will be good together. That is the kind of cook I want to be.
6. What else would you like to do beyond baking?
I really enjoy travelling actually. Because of Covid-19, I didn’t really get to travel for the past 2 years. So the moment I had holidays which was 3 weeks ago, I travelled the whole time. I went to Europe, then to Bali, and then to Penang.
Johnathan in Copenhagen with a doodle of Ariel.
Image credit: @johnathancheww
I also really want to solo travel at the end of the year to the Philippines or New Zealand. I think it’s a good experience. It’s not something I need to do, but it’s something I want to do before I graduate. Travelling when you are still young is very different from when you are older.
7. Choose one: dentistry or F&B
Must I choose? Oh shucks. A lot of people have been asking me to choose, but I feel that it’s completely okay to be interested in more than one thing at a time. Especially when I’m at this age. On the show, I talked about my motivations behind joining MasterChef and I said I had low self-esteem. It was the same reason why I joined dentistry.
Image credit: @johnathancheww
I feel like people can tell that my lisp gets more pronounced especially when I’m nervous. Before I had braces it was a lot worse, so that’s where my interest in being a dentist started. But the whole time I was always interested in food too. If you would ask me to choose, I will pick dentistry. But I don’t want it to come across as I’m not deserving of the [MasterChef] title, because I am interested in the food and I’m putting down a stand that it’s still very possible to achieve my food dreams even if I’m pursuing dentistry. I’m not someone to really say no. I think it’s possible to do more than one thing at a time, and I feel like I will show you that I can do more than one thing at a time. But it doesn’t mean that I’m any less serious about pursuing any of my dreams.
I’ve always been interested in food. Cooking, writing, anything related to food. Fun fact: I applied to be an Eatbook intern back in 2019 after I ORD’ed.
8. What is one recipe you’ve always wanted to try but haven’t gotten the chance to?
I think it’s more of new techniques that I haven’t tried. There’s this super famous French pastry chef Cedric Grolet, and he makes desserts that look like fruits. The dessert might like an apple, but when you break into it, it’s just an apple shell that they airbrushed. Inside there’s apple compote and pastry cream. I bought his cookbook and it was full of that. A few weeks ago I went to one of his stores in Paris and it was really damn amazing sia. It was crazy expensive but damn amazing.
I always see it on TV and it seems very unachievable, and then I can’t bring myself to do it. I feel like I should just try it and if it fails, it fails. But it is something that I would love to have a go at and see how decent it turns out.
9. What was the most interesting thing you learned from being on MasterChef Singapore?
For cooking, I felt like there were three stages to my MC journey. At the start, I was intimidated by the other contestants because they were so much more experienced, and then afterwards I started to do quite well.
But even though I did well, I do agree with what people say online that my dishes lack creativity. I think that it was still creative, but it might not be as creative as some of the other contestants. So I think that those comments were somewhat valid.
MasterChef Singapore’s top 3 finalists Azwandi “Andi” Robani, S “Nares” Nareskanna. and Johnathan Chew.
Image credit: Mediacorp
Towards the finale, I thought it was quite cool that it was a 3-man finale and each of us was of different ethnicity and I wanted to pay homage to that fact. I know that Andi and Nares elevated Malay and Indian cuisine respectively. So my menu was mostly flavours that I grew up eating with, but there was a spin to it. MasterChef really taught me my cooking style.
MasterChef was also the first time I got to meet people with the same interest across so many different backgrounds, and we really bonded over conversations about food and food alone. It kind of pushed me out of my comfort zone because with people my age, we talk about things like school. It was quite interesting because sometimes [the fellow competitors] will talk about their families and kids, and it was difficult for me to relate to it. It was the first time I had to have that problem.
Another thing I learnt about myself was how to deal with people shit-talking you online. I thought I’d be more affected by it, but surprisingly I wasn’t. So it’s great.
10. How was filming the finale for you?
I was quite certain that my appetizer was not good enough. It doesn’t look the best. My inspiration for that dish was a post my friend shared from Magic Square. But the broth was different and the filling was different because obviously, I do not have their recipe for it. It’s not like I knew I was going to the finale as well so I didn’t have time to prepare for it. I’ve made tangyuan at home but it was the sweet kind, and Magic Square’s tangyuan doesn’t have any sugar, so it will probably go well with bacon mushroom duxelles. I thought it would turn out good in a dish.
Johnathan’s appetizer was a savoury tang yuan with mushroom bacon duxelles in a mushroom dashi broth.
Image credit: Mediacorp
After I finished plating I was actually quite stressed out as one of the bowls didn’t turn out as well-plated as I wanted it to. Looking back, I should have used a bigger saucepan. Since I didn’t use a bigger pot, I had to struggle to cook one piece of dough at a time. But if I did, I could have thrown all 4 in, so that was an idiot move on my part. So if I did use a bigger pot, then I would have had more time to plate as well.
11. What was it like winning MasterChef?
I was at home watching with my parents. My friends wanted to have a watch party but I was afraid that I would get emotional so I decided to watch it alone at home, just in case I did. When I found out on set while filming, it was quite surreal. On the show, it looked like I didn’t have much of a reaction as it took awhile for my brain to process it and I didn’t really believe it. So on my face, there was a bit of lag time. But of course, I was super happy and stoked because my main objective going in was to win the competition, so to actually win it was at first unbelievable, and honestly, a bit pressurising.
Image credit: Mediacorp
But then I told myself that there shouldn’t be a standard that I have to follow. I will just do things at my own pace. As long as I’m comfortable with it and whatever decision I make, that’s good enough. But I’m really super happy and very overjoyed that I am Singapore’s MasterChef.
12. Hypothetically, if you didn’t emerge the winner, why do you think finalist Nares (runner-up) should win?
I don’t have much experience with Indian cuisine and the fact that Nares could turn something simple like prata and biryani into something so elevated was incredible and spectacular.
Johnathan and Nares.
Image credit: Mediacorp
His plating skills are super on point, and whenever he lets people try his food it’s up there. And he’s also a great person. Whenever I’m struggling, he would ask me if I’m okay. I do think that he would be a super worthy MasterChef if I wasn’t MasterChef.
13. What are your plans after winning MasterChef Singapore?
Over the next 2 months, I’m going to work on a starter box of things that are made in MasterChef. So people can try the food that I’ve made on TV. I don’t think it’ll taste exactly the same because in MasterChef we had to make everything in an hour, so I honestly don’t know the exact recipe I used then. If I could pull it off in an hour, I think it’s doable – especially now that I have more time.
In the meantime, I’m also working on a cookbook. Because I like cooking mah, so I feel that it’d be nice if I could bring my illustrations into the book. I think it’s an interesting take as it’s not something that you really see when it comes to cookbooks. One thing I don’t like about most cookbooks compared to watching a YouTube video is that some recipes will have photos and some won’t. And when a recipe has photos, they only have photos of the final product so you don’t know where you messed up.
If I come up with a dessert cookbook, I want to have photos and illustrations of how it should look at intermediate stages. So you know how to troubleshoot and rectify when you mess up. I’ve already started drafting, but it’s a lot of work. You have to test the recipe, edit it, and photograph it. It’s on a list of things of that I want to do, and I’m sure someday I will do it.
14. What are your tips for fellow aspiring chefs and bakers who want to make it in the industry?
With whatever you want to do, just try. If you don’t have the willingness to try, you don’t know how far you will go. It’s only when you try then you’ll know whether you’ll succeed or not. Just keep practising – if you practice you will definitely improve. Even if you are not confident if you practice and with you trying out, your confidence will grow. Don’t worry if you think you’re not good enough because eventually, you will get good enough.
For MasterChef in particular, if you really plan on joining the next season, definitely think about practising with recipes you know you can achieve in an hour. You can be a good cook, but you don’t have 12 hours to cook your signature dish and it might not be that great in that 1 hour. Not discouraging anyone to join, but knowing that there’s a time limit is not the same as cooking at home.
15. What are the top 3 tips you have for marketing yourself as a chef/baker on social media?
Before MasterChef, this was something I struggled with. I hold bake sales from time to time and people buy the things I make. What sets successful home-based bakers apart is having a theme. If you want to get more followers, I suggest having a consistent theme. So if you want to make doughnuts, have an account that only makes doughnuts. Different flavours of doughnuts are fine, but don’t have doughnuts then brownies then cookies.
You also should have a theme that is unique. If your theme isn’t that unique right, it doesn’t really draw people. Also, take nice photos of whatever you’re making.
16. Which social media accounts do you follow to get cooking/baking inspiration?
I follow pastry chefs like Cedric Grolet and Amaury Guichon who has a Netflix show. He’s a chocolate artist and it’s damn cool. I follow quite a few food bloggers locally and chefs like Chef Imran, he makes super impressive pasta that is very colourful. I like making pasta; it’s very satisfying. But I haven’t tried making the style of pasta that he made. It’s like an art form in itself.
I also follow Woo Wai Leong and Lennardy. Back when MasterChef Asia came out, I didn’t know that Singaporeans could join it. So when they renewed for a second season I wanted to apply, but I was in secondary school and I didn’t meet the age requirement.
17. What ingredients do you think makes a successful baker/chef?
Salt. I think salt is super important. I’m quite heavy on seasoning because I feel like if I’m going to put in a lot of effort to make my own food, I’m going to put a bit more salt just to bring out the flavours. It’s not like I’m going to eat this every single day. Eat everything in moderation man. Some days I eat light and clean. But if I’m going to spend hours cooking a curry or steak or beef stew, it better be seasoned with salt.
If you are already going to put in so much oil and fat, it doesn’t make sense that you don’t put in salt because you’re worried that it’s too salty. Salt is one of the most important ingredients. Your food can taste bland if you don’t put enough salt in, and just because it tastes bland doesn’t mean it’s healthier. If you want to be healthy, don’t go for fried food.
Cover image adapted from: @johnathancheww, Mediacorp