From not knowing what an avocado was at 16 and ‘having no interest in food whatsoever’, new Masterchef: The Professionals champion Dan Lee now has the culinary world at his feet. The Brummie labelled a star in the making, talks to David Johns about his hopes and dreams
A star in the making was how Michelin star celebrity chef Marcus Wareing described Dan Lee after tasting his food. Praise indeed from the notoriously hard-to-please judge of BBC’s Masterchef: The Professionals as the talented young Brummie cooked his way to winning the title.
Since lifting the coveted trophy, Dan admits that ‘the world’s gone kind of mad!’ He’s been inundated with all sorts of offers of work, which he says is really overwhelming. While he’d rather not go into specifics so he keeps all options open, he’s equally clear that he’s not rushing to dive in after his TV success. He’s going to take his time to make sure he makes the right choices moving forward.
“I’m a really enthusiastic person, so the danger is that I’d want to have a go at everything and I’d end up doing the wrong thing,” explains Dan. So, he’s taking a deep breath and enjoying his success before setting off on the next stage of his culinary journey. Mind you, he’s set himself clear goals that he is adamant he will achieve. For starters, opening his own restaurant in Brum and having a truck serving proper, authentic high quality street food at affordable prices.
The first tentative moves towards his goals had just started when we spoke. “We need to find the right location for a restaurant,” said Dan, who has had conversations with the boys who run Digbeth Dining Club about his various ideas. “One thing’s for sure, the restaurant I open will be right here in Birmingham,” said Dan. “This city is my home, where my roots are and it’s where I want to be.”
Dan’s journey to Masterchef champion has had plenty of twists and turns and ups and downs. He grew up in Brum from a Chinese father and English mother and went to Hall Green Secondary School. His grandfather owned a Chinese takeaway, so he enjoyed Cantonese dishes, while his British grandparents were feeding him stews and bacon sandwiches. While food loomed large in the family background, Dan says he had “no interest in food whatsoever!”
He’d set himself to find a career that would fulfil his passion to travel the world. “I decided I wanted to be either an archaeologist or an architect as I thought they’d give me the best options to travel,” he says. “But after about six months studying in sixth form in Solihull, I decided it wasn’t for me. I had a job at Next in Solihull and when I went for my next shift they said it had finished as I was only on a temporary contract. So, suddenly I had nothing!”
OFF THE RAILS
After that, Dan says he “went off the rails and messed around on the streets a bit”. He signed on for benefits because he couldn’t get a job and part of the requirements for receiving help was to speak to careers advice. “They suggested I should go along to an open day at Birmingham College of Food where I cooked three pasta dishes – and that was it. I knew this was what I wanted to do. That moment changed my life.”
Dan decided to use food to travel the world. “My first job was in New Zealand and I booked a one-way flight. It was a bit of a gamble as all I had was a couple of hundred pounds. I worked for Millennium Hotels and Resorts who had other properties, and I worked my way around. I’d get to go to ski resorts in Europe and various other places. I wasn’t paid much and after some seasons abroad I came back and worked a bit in the UK.”
One of the places Dan got a job was cheffing at Edgbaston Cricket Ground. “I worked all hours I could to pay off the debts which I had run up abroad,” he explained. “Then I decided I wanted to go to Thailand and worked in a Bangkok restaurant to learn about Thai food. Someone there knew someone in Singapore and I eventually went there and joined Michelin-star restaurant Table65.”
A return trip to Brum in 2019 lasted longer than Dan expected due to Covid travel restrictions and that’s when he decided to apply for Masterchef. Dan fought his way through the competition rounds, overcoming some heart-stopping moments along the way – such as serving judge Gregg Wallace with seriously undercooked chicken! But the final proved to be no contest as Dan wowed Gregg, Marcus and fellow judge Monica Galetti with his three-course menu.
A starter of Singaporean chilli crab with deep fried bao bun, crab salad, nashi pear, salted egg yolk, squid ink tuille, soft shell crab tempura, and a crab and chilli oil was followed by a main featuring another Singapore streetfood classic – chicken and rice. Dan’s interpretation included a chicken breast stuffed with thigh meat flavoured with sesame and pan dan, choy sum in garlic and chilli, chicken infused rice with garlic and ginger, a chilli sambal and a chicken broth. Dessert was a smoked hay treacle tart with pickled ginger, shisho leaf and clotted cream ice cream.
Dan said: “As a kid growing up in Birmingham, I would never have dreamed that one day I’d be successful doing this. Being involved in food never crossed my mind – I didn’t even know what an avocado was when I was 16. What has happened now is all a bit of a whirlwind for me. I’m doing lots of full-on pop-ups all over, working in places as far flung as Verbier in Switzerland and I’m doing one next week in Cornwall.”
Dan is a huge supporter of the investment being made by the city council in developing Birmingham and a big fan of the burgeoning food scene. “It’s great to see different independents popping up,” he says. “I think that the pandemic has seen people prepared to try and taste new ideas, but I don’t see many people doing food the way I do it with my mixed background of Cantonese and English food.
FOOD FOR ALL
“I love Michelin star meals, they are a treat, but that food is not accessible. I believe that really good food can be accessible to everyone, you don’t need to pay so much money for it. The street food culture has been growing here in the UK but it is getting a bit pricey. My goal is to provide the real quality street food that’s authentic and really affordable.”
Still only 29, Dan says winning Masterchef has brought more offers of help as he plans his new restaurant. “I’m going to take my time and make sure the place we end up with is the right place with the right vibe” The project will see Dan team up with a close friend who he worked with in France and who is currently a head chef in Wales.
He adds: “Masterchef proved to be an amazing opportunity. Marcus, Monica and Gregg are huge names in the industry, so there was huge pressure, but I loved every minute of it. Now I can’t wait to move forward with all the things I want to do and achieve.”
Inspirational is a word that comes to mind when talking with Dan. And he has found time to inspire students at the place where it all started for him. He recently returned to University College Birmingham to talk with the talented young chefs who will ensure Brum continues to produce world class cooks.
After the highs of holding aloft the Masterchef trophy, Dan was happy to share the experience of his own journey in what he admits was “an emotional” homecoming.