You may remember Dara Yu as the 12-year-old with a red bow who made it all the way to the finale during Season 1 of “MasterChef Junior” back in 2014 — but seven years later, the gastronomic wunderkind is much more than that. Following her stint on the Food Network, Yu dove into the art of cooking even more deeply, honing her craft by working alongside the likes of Dominique Ansel, attending the Culinary Institute of America and setting up a food-focused YouTube channel. “Going into the show, cooking was a hobby. Coming out of the show, I knew it was going to be my career,” Yu tells Anna Rahmanan in this Voices in Food story, in which she also discusses the importance of social media within the kitchen, her time on “MasterChef Junior” and more.
I grew up around food. My grandma actually used to teach traditional Chinese cooking to housewives in South Bend, Indiana. Growing up in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by a who-is-who food scene. I would go home and instead of watching cartoons, I was watching the Food Network. I was just fascinated by chefs. My mom was a commercial actress for a while and she saw the casting call for “MasterChef Junior.” When she got remarried in 2012, I made her wedding cake. I taught myself how to make that cake off of YouTube. She then knew that I was interested in baking and took me to the audition.
We first went into a room where we had to measure water, cut vegetables and cook an egg in any way. That was the only cooking that was done that day. They wanted to see that we had basic cooking skills and knowledge.
From there, we went into a room with a panel of casting directors and producers. They put pictures of different foods on the screen and asked us what they were. They also asked us individual and group questions to see our personalities.
Then there was an on-screen test where I had to cook a dish in front of a camera. My mom and I used to play “Chopped” — I think it was her way of getting out of [doing the] cooking — so I made a dish that I had come up with at that time. I made a trio of crostini: a chili-rubbed flank steak, an egg crostini and a spiced blueberry compote one.
After that, we met with a psychiatrist. It was a really quick process. A few days after, I got a call telling me [I got in] and that I’d have to be sequestered in a hotel [with the other contestants] for three weeks to shoot the eight episodes.
It definitely was a huge learning experience. I was 12 when I was on the show, one of the oldest contestants. The show really changed my whole perspective on the food industry. It showed me the professionalism within the industry and it really sparked the passion that I have for cooking and exploring and learning more about the restaurant [world].
We did a challenge on the show, a restaurant takeover, and it was the first time I had ever worked in a professional kitchen. I kind of fell in love with it and decided after that episode that I wanted to keep working in restaurants and gain that experience.
On the actual show, I learned how to work under time and under pressure. People always say that it must have been so much pressure to deal with and that I must have been so stressed, and it’s funny because I probably was, but I don’t even remember those moments of stress. The thing I remember the most is having fun with the rest of the cast. The 12 of us were so close and I’m still friends with them to this day.
I could regret things like overcooking the shrimp in the finale or a soufflé not rising, but I was a 12-year-old learning how to cook, working on all these recipes and challenges for the first time and I only really learned from them.
The cooking that you see the kids do is 100% real. The kids are cooking the actual food. Nobody is cooking off-camera and bringing it. It is, for the most part, in real time. Something very big had to happen for them to stop the timer. That being said, with television, everything should be taken with a grain of salt. I didn’t see the show until it premiered and I think that editing has a lot to do with how it turned out, how you are perceived on TV. But the cooking and the vibe the kids are having are genuine and real. We did get culinary classes.
Being on the show was a nontraditional way of getting into the industry, but after it, I have been able to work for some of the top chefs and at some of the top restaurants in Los Angeles and New York, and I credit that to being on the show. It gives you so much exposure. I get comments on my Instagram page about it by people watching it [now] and being inspired by me, and that is what drives me to do what I’m doing.
Up-and-coming chefs and kids who want to get into this industry should keep cooking, keep eating, keep learning. Also, I would reach out to local restaurants. I think any food experience is going to help you, even if it’s bussing tables. You will still be around chefs and in the environment.
Also, remember that the culinary world on television is very different from the restaurant industry. Television glamorizes it. When you are working in a restaurant, you are working 12- to 16-hour days and you are in the kitchen every single day. It’s the grind. You really have to have passion and drive to do what chefs do — and be a certain amount of crazy to want to do it.
In the past five years, social media has had a huge impact not only on how food has to look and be presented, but on the success of a restaurant. At this point, you kind of have to have a following on social media to really get your name out there. The power of Instagram and TikTok is that they create trends and people visit businesses because of social media. Before, restaurants had to pay thousands of dollars to get a PR agency to help with marketing, but now you have the most useful tool in your hands.
I also find social media interesting because it has helped passionate at-home cooks earn a following, and there is now a huge influx of food bloggers and Instagrammers and food photographers and stylists — which is great. It all helps develop the community.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.