Thea VanHerwaarden can’t handle the heat in the kitchen today.
The Raven Woods resident, currently in the running for a MasterChef Canada trophy, is making her signature tortilla soup. Spicy green chilies cooking on the stove are permeating the condo. Interviewer and interviewee are coughing.
“These spices are killing me right now,” says VanHerwaarden with a laugh.
She takes the inconvenience in stride and her bubbly personality shines through.
VanHerwaarden’s penchant for reddish-brown hued metals and decorating is clear by the looks of her kitchen. Copper cups rest on the coffee machine, while her “precious baby,” a copper-accented KitchenAid mixer, faithfully waits on the counter.
A culinary show plays on the TV in one corner of VanHerwaarden’s kitchen. The cooking channel is her constant companion when she’s at home slicing and dicing ingredients for dinner. That and a glass of red wine.
“I cook a nice meal almost every day,” she says.
The kitchen is VanHerwaarden’s sanctuary, after a long day working as an insurance broker in downtown Vancouver. Beat Bobby Flay will often be on in the background.
“Bobby Flay is always fun,” says VanHerwaarden, who can relate to his spicy food style and sense of humour.
Of course, the MasterChef franchises are also among her favourite TV shows.
“I like seeing people grow and transform and what home cooks are capable of doing,” explains VanHerwaarden. “When you are put into a situation like that, you end up knowing a lot more about yourself. It’s fun to watch, obviously there’s a little drama and chaos. Nothing goes as planned.”
It was by chance that VanHerwaarden became a contestant on MasterChef Canada, which aims to find the best amateur home cook in the country. She attends the Deighton Cup every year at Hastings Racecourse, where she met season two MasterChef Canada winner David Jorge.
The two culinary enthusiasts struck up a conversation and Jorge encouraged VanHerwaarden to apply for the show. Her reply: No way, Jorge.
“But then the next day I applied,” recalls VanHerwaarden with a laugh.
She stepped out of her comfort zone for her audition dish, a seafood curry with cilantro lime rice, which had the potential to hospitalize VanHerwaarden. She is allergic to shellfish.
“And so I kind of wanted to take a risk and show them no matter what I could do something,” explains VanHerwaarden.
Another culinary risk was including the polarizing cilantro accoutrement. People either love it or hate it, with some even having a genetic aversion to the herb.
“I like taking risks a lot,” offers VanHerwaarden.
In this case playing it unsafe paid off, as VanHerwaarden won over the MasterChef Canada selection panel. Each week VanHerwaarden has avoided elimination and is currently among the top ten contestants vying for the $100,000 grand prize.
But there have definitely been some blunders broadcasted along the way. There was the over-bruleed peaches incident.
“But it was delicious and that’s all that matters,” says VanHerwaarden in her defence. “Taste is king, that’s what chef Alvin (Leung) says.”
When VanHerwaarden faced her first team challenge – cooking a celebratory buffet lunch for 105 new Canadians following their citizenship ceremony – it went up in flames, she says. VanHerwaarden wound up making a curry that was too watery.
Looking back at that day, VanHerwaarden says the curry snafu came down to a combination of her not being able to do what she wanted, a bit of bossiness on the part of fellow contestant Miranda, and the fact that nobody in that group had served 105 people before.
So what game plan does VanHerwaarden employ to try and rise to the top?
“I think a lot of people are focused on proving themselves,” she says. “I think the strategy I’m going with is just focusing on improving because I don’t think you are automatically MasterChef, you have to learn.”
The episode that aired yesterday (Thursday) had the contestants literally in the dark for a blindfold challenge to replicate a seven-layer birthday cake in honour of Canada’s upcoming 150th birthday.
What remaining senses did VanHerwaarden rely on?
“Well if you can’t see it, it’s all about feel, touch, smell, taste, but you’d be surprised how much you taste with your eyes. A lot of flavours do taste similar when you can’t see them.”
While she obviously knows the outcome of the show, which was filmed in Toronto last fall, VanHerwaarden keeps us guessing.
“I think right now people might think that I’m maybe a bit of an underdog,” teases VanHerwaarden.
Hard to be missed on the show is VanHerwaarden’s large tattoo of an elephant on her arm. A big fan of the “peaceful creatures,” VanHerwaarden asked the tattoo artist to draw the elephant’s eyes to mirror her big brown eyes.
Asked about what she thinks about seeing herself on TV, VanHerwaarden says, “I didn’t realize it but I think I’m funnier than I thought I was.”
So what would VanHerwaarden do if she won the $100,000? Pay off any debt and push for her food and travel blog, she says.
Closer to home, VanHerwaarden can be found dining at Arms Reach Bistro in Deep Cove and hiking Quarry Rock with her dog Daisy. She recently was recognized for the first time by a MasterChef Canada superfan at Burgoo restaurant in Lower Lonsdale.
“I go there to eat their grilled cheese,” says VanHerwaarden, who loves comfort food.
Being in the top 10 is an honour for VanHerwaarden, who never dreamed she would make it this far.
“My goal was to get an apron and now I’ve surpassed that, which is awesome. But it just means more pressure,” she says.
Can VanHerwaarden handle the heat in the MasterChef kitchen and make it until the end? Tune in Thursdays at 9 p.m. on CTV to find out.