“I never wanted to be on a cooking show—but I knew with Dan Levy involved it would be fantastic”: Scarborough-born chef J Chong on the finale of The Big Brunch

“I never wanted to be on a cooking show—but I knew with Dan Levy involved it would be fantastic”: Scarborough-born chef J Chong on the finale of The Big Brunch

Photos courtesy of Crave

An early favourite and regular front-runner, chef J Chong made it to the semi-finals of HBO’s feel-good, Dan Levy–hosted brunch-based cooking competition by staying true to her Can-Asian roots, turning out Chinatown takes on greasy-spoon breakfasts—and one very memorable poutine dumpling. The Scarborough expat landed in Asheville, North Carolina, six years ago, where she lives with her wife and two dogs and works as a personal chef and farmers’ market vendor. And, though there’s $300,000 up for grabs (the finale airs tonight on Crave), it’s the relationships she’s formed with the judges, cast and crew that mean the most to her. “I met the sweetest people on set. I joked that, if this is what Hollywood is, I would love to be in Hollywood.”

Between the camaraderie, the distinct lack of gimmicks from the judges (there’s no Levy low-five) and the good-natured F-bombs, The Big Brunch seems like a different flavour of cooking competition show. Was it as lovely as it seems?
It was. I never wanted to be on a cooking show, let alone a reality show, but I knew that, with Dan Levy involved, it had to be something fantastic and feel-good. I think what I appreciate most is how he handpicked all of us. He was intentional with how he wanted the show to be relayed to the world. We’re not just cooking food—we’re cooking our food, the food that’s really meaningful to us.

Your identity—queer, Chinese, Canadian—is ever-present in your dishes.
My goal was to be 100 per cent me and to be visible for people of my culture and my ethnicity and my communities. First and foremost, it was about me being present for anyone out there needing to see someone like me on TV or in a kitchen.

Talk to me about the “wou-tine,” the poutine dumpling concoction that saved the day in episode six.
That episode was intense because we all fell a little short on the first challenge, and we were asked to redo it. We had to remember who we were. When people think of Canada, they think of poutine—and my whole business is dumplings, so I just put myself on a plate. It came to me on the spot. I’m glad they were receptive to it.

How does the tone of the show reflect larger shifts happening—or at least being talked about—in kitchen culture?
Kitchens can be a very cis-het-male-dominated world and, at times, extremely toxic and maybe not safe for everyone. I think this show is going to help change that. People are going to see that chefs are not all assholes! We really care about one another. And the diversity of the contestants is awesome.

Besides Levy, the judging panel includes Sohla El-Waylly, a chef and New York Times contributor with a 16-quart stock pot of technical know-how, and fine-dining game-changer Will Guidara. Who did you want to impress the most?
Obviously, I wanted them all to enjoy my food—but Sohla is just brilliant. She’s so knowledgeable about food and flavours. And seeing her eat a dish that you put so much passion into and then think about it and critique it? Any time she really enjoyed something I made, it was such an affirmation.

Asheville and Toronto are both food cities. How do the culinary scenes compare?
I grew up in Toronto, where you can step out and have just about anything from around the world to eat. We don’t have that luxury here in Asheville—yet. But, during the pandemic, a lot of people moved here from all across the country, so we’re levelling up.

What Toronto restaurants do you miss the most?
Any restaurant on Danforth. Chicken souvlaki all day—and braised tomato-paste potatoes with a huge Greek salad. It may be because I’m missing Mediterranean food here in Asheville, but anywhere on Danforth was just gold.

What do the final two episodes of The Big Brunch have in store for us?
I’m really happy that they’re airing in time for American Thanksgiving here. It’s just a beautiful show, and I think people are going to be happy, and I think they’re going to be shocked. It’s going to be exciting.

For anyone who’s gathering, it’s a good fun-for-the-whole-family watch.
It is—aside from all the cussing.