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MasterChef Winner Dara Yu Reveals Pro Tips for Kitchen Success

The 21-year-old culinary instructor shares her inspiration and go-to cooking hacks.

Season 12 of MasterChef was full of firsts. Not only did the competition reopen its doors to contestants from previous seasons, but the judges also crowned their youngest winner to date: 20-year-old Dara Yu.

"As soon as Gordon [Ramsay] said my name, I felt this pressure just kind of release, and I blacked out, and it took me a second to process what had just happened," Yu, now 21, tells Eat This, Not That! in an exclusive interview. "But it was such an incredible experience, and [to] have all my friends and family there, it was really magical."

In addition to winning $250,000, a state-of-the-art kitchen from Viking, and the MasterChef title, Yu also made history as the only contestant to compete on MasterChef Junior before returning to—and winning—MasterChef: Back to Win. The California-based contestant previously came in second place on the first season of MasterChef Junior when she was just 12 years old.

"This time around, I think there was just more at stake," she says. "I've put in eight years of hard work into this craft, and I had a lot to live up to."

From cooking meals with mystery box ingredients to recreating Gordon Ramsay's signature dishes and taking over Wolfgang Puck's Los Angeles-based restaurant Spago, Yu faced a wide variety of challenges that put her culinary skills to the test. But outside of cooking, the newly-minted winner, who is also a culinary instructor at a recreational cooking school, is passionate about teaching and inspiring other young chefs.

Read on to discover Yu's tips for success in the kitchen, and for more, check out Top Chef Richard Blais Swears By These Cooking Tips.

Draw inspiration from the dishes you know best

MasterChef Dara Yu cooking
Courtesy of FOX

In the season 12 finale, the remaining three contestants were tasked with making a three-course meal consisting of an appetizer, entrée, and a dessert—and had one hour to cook each course. When it came time to conceptualize, Yu chose to make dishes from her childhood that also featured the French techniques she learned in culinary school.

Her appetizer, which consisted of crispy red skin snapper and grilled asparagus, showed off Japanese flavors, which were initially inspired by a Japan trip she took with her father before he passed away. Following the first course, her entrée included Chinese-style short ribs, whipped Japanese sweet potato, spiced carrots, caramelized onions, and a carrot top gremolata—an elevated take on a meal Yu would request for her birthday dinner as a child.

And for the final course, Yu recreated her childhood birthday treat—a pavlova (meringue-based dessert)—by presenting a vanilla ile flottante (floating island), which consisted of meringue domes floating atop passionfruit crème anglaise (custard sauce) with tropical fruit and caramelized forbidden rice.

"I plated everything round in round plates and in a round formation," Yu says. "It was a full-circle moment for me being back in the MasterChef finale, and so I played a little bit on that, too."

Shop locally

farmers market

In terms of helping others elevate their own cooking, Yu highlights the value in being mindful of where you source your ingredients.

"The quality of your final dish is going to be as good as the quality of your ingredients, and so I'm a big advocate for shopping at farmers' markets and buying local," she says.

She also explains that meeting the farmers and learning about the produce in season helps make cooking more fun and inspiring.

You don't need much beyond the trusty cast-iron skillet

Cast iron skillet with herbs and spices

Among the countless cooking tools and gadgets that are out there, Yu recommends opting for a classic: the cast-iron skillet.

"I cook basically 90% with a cast-iron–even bake in it," she says.

Additionally, Yu encourages people to not only acquire the tried-and-true cookware but also learn how to properly take care of it.

While the cleaning method is a highly debated topic, the general consensus appears to be washing the skillet by hand with hot water, drying it promptly, applying a thin layer of oil to the surface, and then wiping it off.

Keep a tidy kitchen

Dara Yu cooking
Courtesy of FOX

Yu's final tip is a seemingly simple but highly crucial one: Stay organized in the kitchen. For the MasterChef winner, this calls for having all of your "mise en place," a French term for having all of the ingredients "in place," meaning prepped and ready to go before cooking.

"Cleaning as you go is really important, too," Yu says. "I think that's definitely a hack for just being efficient in the kitchen."

Brianna Ruback
Brianna is a staff writer at Eat This, Not That! She attended Ithaca College, where she graduated with a degree in Journalism and a minor in Communication Studies. Read more about Brianna