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Making a MasterChef

MasterChef winner Claudia Sandoval on the life-changing ups and downs
National City native and MasterChef winner Claudia Sandoval

By Troy Johnson

You can’t unmeet Claudia Sandoval. The National City native has the personality of a meteor shower. With her now signature red hair, bright red lipstick, and a laugh that tumbles out of her easily and often, she’s that person who shifts the gravity of a room in her direction just by being herself. A few years ago, she was a social worker for the County of San Diego. She and her daughter were sharing a bed in a one-bedroom apartment. Last September, she was crowned the winner of MasterChef with Gordon Ramsay, and got a check for $250,000. With the money, she invested in her catering and private chef business, Claudia’s Cocina. She bought the childhood home she grew up in. Her daughter got her own room. Now, the Latina chef has released her first cookbook, Claudias Cocina: A Taste of Mexico, and is eyeing her own restaurant in San Diego. I talked to her today about the book, how the internet funded her and her daughter’s life through the process, how she nearly got evicted during the show, and how you can be penniless and starving after winning $250,000. In fact, it sounds like MasterChef nearly broke her, until it made her.

How has your life changed since September?

Are you kidding? Everything has changed. I don’t even know where to begin. From the place that I lived. The flexibility I have to be home during the day and am able to pick up my daughter and take her to school. It’s just profoundly different. I’ve been able to cook in Michelin-starred restaurants. I’m able to enact a lot of change. It’s a whirlwind and I feel like I’m riding a wave. Whenever I come down from this cloud that I’m on, I’ll let you know. It’s surreal. It’s almost like I have a hard time expressing how good it’s been after being so shitty. Before me leaving to be on the show, things were horrible. I had to leave my husband. I had nothing. I had to rebuild my life in six years. Now I’m standing in the middle of a three-bedroom house that I grew up in and just refurnished.

After you won the finale in March, you couldn’t tell ANYONE until it aired in September. How’d you pull that off?

My daughter was at the finale. My immediate family had gone to the finale, too. So they knew. But I couldn’t tell anyone who could potentially hire me. I couldn’t tell my actual employer. When I came back, my employer was going through their own little lull and they had to let me go. I felt like I was living in this twilight zone. My poker face is so good at lying now that it’s scary. If it’s hard for an adult not to tell anyone, imagine how hard it is for a kid. What I kept telling my daughter is, ‘We’ll lose everything. Not only that, but we’ll owe them money.’ I couldn’t afford to lose it.

Did you get the money immediately?

I didn’t get it until October.

So you had technically just won $250,000 and you were broke and jobless?

I couldn’t find work. I was pretty much starving. I was starting to look for a new place because I was a month behind on rent. I ended up finding a friend, she gave me assistant work. I was helping people do social media, and doing somebody else’s laundry. On top of that I had to write a book. I had a total of seven weeks to write this book, and I knew I wanted to do justice to it.

What’d you do with the money when you finally got it?

I bought the house I grew up in. I refurnished it. I paid off all my school debt. I’m a philosophy major from San Diego State. I paid off all my school loans. Paid off all my debts. I started Claudia’s Cocina. I bought a lot of kitchen equipment so that I could do private events and catering. Got my business up and running. My daughter and I went on a vacation to Okinawa.

Did you always want to compete on MasterChef?

I originally didn’t want to audition. I’ve always been a fan of the show. I watched it every week. I was one of those people who watched it from the comfort of my couch saying, ‘I could do that better.’ I remember way back when my ex-husband would say ‘You gotta go on that show.’ But I would never do it. And here I am.

What was your life like three years ago?

I worked for the county of San Diego. I was a social worker and very unhappy with my life. I started Instagrammers San Diego, where we’d meet up with other people and create Instameets. It’s just a little club of people getting together and doing photography. That lead me to meeting [local advertising firm] i.d.e.a. We ended up setting the world record for the largest Instameet here in San Diego. There were over 500 people. Through that, i.d.e.a hired me on as an event manager.

You were working at i.d.e.a. when you auditioned for the show. You had to take three months off. But contestants don’t get paid. You needed to keep your job. How’d you pull it off?

So at i.d.e.a., I managed to win a couple cooking competitions in the office. So they were like, ‘Hell yes, absolutely yes, you should do the show.’ They were very supportive. But I was like, ‘I’m a horrible mom, how am I going to leave my child for three months?’ I couldn’t let i.d.e.a. know anything because of my confidentiality agreement. And I didn’t want them to replace me. So when I got the email saying, ‘You’re in. You’re one of the top 100. You can either be here for one week or three and a half months,” I talked to one of the partners at i.d.e.a. I told her I didn’t want to lose my job. She was great. She said ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ The plan was I was going to take a week of vacation because I had hours saved up. She said, ‘If you do not call us, or if you don’t come back on Monday, then we’ll know you’re in. We will put you on an administrative unpaid leave.’ But they were so gracious. They kept me on insurance so that my daughter was covered.

So you’re a single mom. Your job is supportive, but instable at best. You’re competing. You’re not getting paid. You could win, but odds are much greater that it could all go wrong.

I had zero money. Zero savings. Friends said that I should start a GoFundMe. But I couldn’t say anything about the show. So I just posted that I had an amazing opportunity that could change my life. I added it all up. I’d need $3,400 to pay for rent, car and insurance. Three days after posting it on Facebook I had $3,400. One of my Instagram friends who I’d never met gave me $750. One of my Twitter followers gave me $1,200. It was amazing.

Was there ever a time when you were like, ‘Oh man I’m getting eliminated’?

Oh yeah. There was a challenge chicken and waffles. I always make waffles. And I always make chicken. But I’ve never eaten them together because I’m just that Mexican. I decided to go bone-in because that’s the way I was raised. So I made a bone-in chicken thigh and it was raw. If there’s anything you don’t want to hear from Gordon Ramsay, it’s that your chicken is raw. The really odd thing was another single mom was in the bottom two with me that week. That was my holy hell moment.

Hardest part of doing the show?

Just being away from family. I don’t think people realize or understand. I was gone from my daughter for three and a half months. I was allowed to call her for five minutes once a week. The first couple nights were so rough. I wasn’t eating, I lost weight. The hardest part is that they can’t tell you WHEN that five minutes will be… it wasn’t like ‘Every Sunday at 10am.’ So when they’d tell me I could call home I had to just hope that my daughter was around. And then I’d just say ‘How was your day? Have they posted an eviction notice yet?’ We also had zero privacy. We were escorted everywhere. People sitting outside of the bathrooms when we went in there so that we didn’t ask to borrow cell phones.

How’d you get through it?

[Chef and MasterChef cohost] Graham Elliott really helped me. Even he doesn’t have his family in L.A. when they’re filming. I asked him, ‘How do people deal with being away from family?’ He said, ‘At the end of the day what you have to remember is that when you look back on this, it will look like a blip of time. Because when you’re in it, it feels like every hour is a month.’

I understand you had very specific ideas of what you wanted Claudia’s Cocina to be.

I specifically wanted it to be more modern Mexican without it being cliché. I know the food was going to come off super Mexican. The design doesn’t need to be cliché Tex-Mex. I wanted it to be super Claudia, which means a lot of red. I went to the publisher and said, ‘The number one thing I want is the best photographer you’ve ever had.’ I sent them 10 to 20 to 30 pictures with specific styles, point of focus. I had a photography heavy background. I knew what kind of paper I wanted. Uncoated stock. I didn’t want glossy pages. I wanted it to feel like it’s rustic. I didn’t want super glossy beautiful. I wanted it to be a little rough around the edges, like me.

Oldest recipe in this book?

I think a lot of them are super old. The oldest is probably either the aguachile, or the birria recipe. Whenever I thought about the book, I knew I wanted a specific chapter dedicated to where my family is from. I wanted to dedicate a whole chapter to Mazatlan. So much of what I eat is very seafood, ceviche, very fresh. You hear a lot about moles. You’re hearing more about Baja. I wanted to highlight a place in Mexico that’s sadly only known for its violence. There are lots of farmers and fishing boats and coming to port with all this amazing fish. I wanted to highlight a better side of Mazatlan.

You tell a lot of compelling stories about your family in the book. Which story really resonates with you?

I think one of my favorite stories is the one of making my mom’s chile verde pork. I specifically talk about how this is a dish I’ve been trying to make for many, many years now. Many of us when we think about food, we think about our mom’s favorite dish. This was one of them. I know I wanted to recreate that dish. I was intent on getting it perfect. And I think I was 29 or 30 and I finally took a day and turned on the music and cooked it. I took a pot full to the ranch where we had our horses, and my dad said, ‘Wow, this tastes just like your mom’s.’ I turned around and shed a tear. I felt like I was finally at that level. It was finally perfect.

The one you make the most?

Aguachile. I eat aguachile once a week.

What’s next?

I want Claudia’s Cocina to be a restaurant. It’s a concept I’ve had for many, many years—a truly fine dining Mexican restaurant, but using all of those traditional recipes. That was the original concept before Bracero opened [laughter]. I’m looking toward 2017 and looking for investors. I’ll be going in with another chef from San Diego.

Best thing about this all?

I want to affect change in people’s lives. And it’s really given me a platform. Dreams don’t come true for people like us.

You can buy Claudia’s book here.

Making a MasterChef

National City native and MasterChef winner Claudia Sandoval

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