If her parents had just packed sandwiches for her school lunches, Lena Huynh’s story might be very different.
“I grew up being embarrassed about the foods my parents would pack for me for lunch,” Huynh recalls.
Huynh is a first-generation Asian-Canadian; her mother is from Laos, and Huynh was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. She was 10 months old when her parents left Southeast Asia for Canada in search of freedom, opportunity and the Canadian dream.
Fast-forward to 2019, and Huynh is about to showcase her family background for the entire nation to see – in culinary form, as one of the selected top 18 contestants on the new season of MasterChef Canada. The popular reality TV cooking competition returns to the air starting Monday, April 8 on CTV.
Huynh is passionate about the chance to show Southeast Asian food – where spicy, sweet, salty and bitter meet, as she describes it – to a Canadian audience.
“I watch the show every season, and I just felt like Canada needs to see a different flavour profile that they haven’t seen before,” she said.
Huynh applied for the show after last season and got the call to audition in Vancouver. The moment when she found out she’d made the cut for the top 18 is one she’ll never forget – she was just grocery shopping with her daughters when her ordinary day became, well, extraordinary.
“It was so surreal,” she says. “Honestly, I just needed a moment to soak it in. … Before, it was me imagining it, and now it was the reality.”
She admits she was, at first, reluctant to take time out of her family’s life to compete in the show. She has four children – aged 17, 16, 14 and 13 – and she struggled with feeling guilty about leaving them and scared about the whole idea.
“The thought of being on TV scared me, and it really just pushed me out of my comfort zone,” Huynh admits.
It was her children who talked her into it.
“My daughter said, ‘Mom, you need to believe in yourself like we believe in you,’” Huynh says.
Huynh’s family reminded her, too, that it was time for her to do something for herself.
Pursuing her culinary dreams has long been on Huynh’s mind. She married her high school sweetheart at the age of 20 and got pregnant, but after a subsequent miscarriage decided to apply to the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. Before her school term started, however, she found out she was pregnant again – and she never did go to culinary school.
With a day job as a lash technician – a career she says allows her to express her creativity in other ways – Huynh has always kept food as a huge part of her life. For both Huynh and her husband, who’s a butcher, food has always been front of mind, and they’ve always had the dream to one day open a café together.
Over the years, as her children reached school age, Huynh spent many hours cooking during the day, honing her techniques and working on recipes to share their families’ cultural heritage – her own, and her husband’s Vietnamese background.
“In our culture we express our love through food. How we show it is by preparing food together and sharing it,” Huynh says. “Food really does bring us together.”
Huynh is well-known in her family and friend circle as the go-to person for good food.
“Everybody has always been telling me, ‘You need to open up your own restaurant,’” she says.
Having a chance to take part in MasterChef Canada gave her a chance to up her culinary game even more.
She admits it was daunting to head to the MasterChef Canada kitchen – overseen by chef-judges Michael Bonacini, Alvin Leung and Claudio Aprile, all highly esteemed in the food industry.
“I was intimidated, but my excitement overtook that,” she says. “Just being there, the excitement took over.”
To surround herself with like-minded people – other home cooks who love cooking as much as she does – inspired her to keep getting better.
“All of us are self-taught home cooks who live and breathe food,” she says. “At the end of the day, the dishes that were created just blew my mind. There was mega-talent this year.”
No, Huynh can’t offer up any spoilers about what might or might not happen in this year’s competition – filming is over, but local audiences can’t find out any more than that until the show starts airing.
But Huynh will say that viewers will be in for one amazing ride.
“The talent that is on there is just unbelievable,” she says. “You guys are in for a treat this season.”
MasterChef Canada’s sixth season kicks off Monday, April 8 on CTV. You can follow Huynh’s journey live on TV and also check out her Instagram @eatswithlele.