After a seven-year hiatus, New Zealand has a new MasterChef to call their own, with Sam Low taking out the title during Sunday night's grand finale after seven gruelling weeks of the culinary competition.
Of course, the big news isn't news to Low, who was officially crowned New Zealand's new MasterChef earlier this year when the competition was filmed. He has been sitting on his big win for months, and has been working hard to keep the achievement hush-hush from his "nosy" nearest and dearest.
"It feels like I've come out [the closet] again," Low, who is queer, told Newshub on Monday - the morning after the grand finale aired to New Zealand audiences. The 30-year-old Aucklander has now officially hit the press circuit, and appears excited to discuss his future prospects after months of secrecy.
"I think because it wasn't announced to the world, it didn't feel like I won. Last night, it was almost like closure. I was, like, anxious watching [the finale]; my friends were literally pulling their hair out, they were so nervous. And I was nervous as well, even though I knew the results."
On Sunday night, viewers watched with bated breath as Low battled against fellow finalist Elliot McClymont, 27, for the culinary crown. To determine the winner, the two were tasked with pitching their dream restaurant to the judging panel before creating three signature dishes they would feature on their respective menus, with each of the three rounds being scored by judges Nadia Lim, Vaughan Mabee and Michael P. Dearth.
For Low, his signature dishes encompassed the flavours of contemporary Chinese cuisine, plating up a pāua congee for the entree; steamed blue cod, served with braised daikon, a ginger and spring onion relish, soy milk emulsion, charred spring onion oil and rice for the main; and an ocean-inspired kombu seaweed ice cream for dessert. The 30-year-old cultivated a reputation throughout the competition for putting his own unique twist on traditional Chinese food, with his final dish - the kombu ice cream, flavoured with nori meringue, matcha steamed cake, cocoa nibs, marinated fruit, jasmine tea and sesame leaf granita - earning a perfect score and glowing praise from the judges.
Reflecting on his favourite dishes throughout the competition, Low fondly recalled the Chinese rice porridge, or congee - a "humble and simple" dish that paid homage to his heritage, while representing his future. For the entree, Low teamed the savoury rice porridge with seared paua, paua sauce, century egg puree and dill.
"I did it in a way that's unique - I wouldn't say the word elevated, but I've made it more me and more interesting, to my lived experience," he said.
"I think it was really special, with [Nadia] Lim being half Chinese, her tasting it and talking about her memory with congee. Being able to share it on mainstream TV was amazing."
His dream restaurant? An eponymous, modern Chinese eatery imbued with international flavours, encapsulating his own lived experience: quite literally taking patrons' palettes on a worldwide trip with dishes inspired by his travels and childhood memories.
"I think I was quite bold with naming the restaurant Low, which is my last name. I think owning that and being proud of that was the main goal. And the restaurant obviously needs to reflect my lived experience; food from childhood memories to things I found exciting throughout my travels and living in all these different cities, like Auckland, Melbourne and Vancouver. It's like a marriage of all of those things. I want it to be uniquely my identity; I've always treated food like my medium of art, of expression, and that's how I've gone about it," he explained.
"'Modernised Chinese' could mean anything and mean something completely different to any other Chinese Kiwi out there, because we've all got a different lived experience."
But the prospect of launching his own restaurant - particularly as New Zealand's stricken hospitality industry recovers from two years of on-and-off lockdowns and a global pandemic - is relegated to the future for now, Low added.
"You know, it's tough in the hospitality industry right now. It's on my bucket list, of course. There are so many things I want to do. I think for me right now, what I'm more passionate about is not cooking for people, but instead getting them inspired to cook for themselves. I feel like that's more powerful right now: encouraging people to try new things and explore different foods and cultures."
Encouraging people to cook for themselves is arguably more important than ever amid sky-high inflation and the country's ongoing cost of living crisis. With dining out now a luxury for many Kiwi families and kitchen staples, such as cheese, at staggering prices, now has never been a better time to learn how to prepare easy and cost-effective meals that taste good - without breaking the bank.
"I like simple, affordable cooking that's accessible. That's generally my go-to type of food… the type of food I cook and like to [prepare] for others," Low said.
"Those are the [meals] that will inspire others. They'll be like, 'Hey, I've got prawns in the freezer and I've got bread, I can make prawn toast'. I love showing people you can make delicious food. It's really easy. You just have to try it."
And with a cookbook deal now under his belt as New Zealand's newly minted MasterChef, Low is hoping to encapsulate his adventurous but accessible approach to cooking, teaching Kiwis how to turn everyday pantry staples and basic ingredients into tasty, flavoursome meals.
"I think it's food I would want to cook if I'm not wanting to host extravagant dinner parties, you know, it's food I want to eat every day… I think that's kind of where I want to go with it," he said. "But also exploring new flavours and highlighting pantry [staples] and ingredients that we can get around us."
They say if you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen - and the sudden spotlight cast on the popular cooking show's competitors can be difficult to navigate for humble homecooks. Low, however, is somewhat accustomed to being in front of the camera - he was already something of a social media personality prior to MasterChef, with more than 20,000 followers on Instagram and thousands of fans on TikTok. He first made headlines in 2020 for making over meals he received while staying in a managed isolation facility, and has also made a name for himself as an award-winning barista and De'Longhi ambassador.
"I think being 'camera ready' was one of those things [I was prepared for] because I constantly look at my own TikToks - you edit so much of your own footage, so you're constantly looking at yourself. I think as you get more comfortable with basically talking to yourself, you end up just being your true self," Low explained.
"I think for quite a lot of inexperienced people, they're probably a little shy and only present certain things [to the camera] - I wanted to go in there and just be my absolute truth."
And while his online following has - predictably - risen due to his stint on the small screen, Low waved off the importance of social media status.
"I don't look at numbers. You know, it's more the people who reach out who are saying, they can relate with my story - it's people that talk about food, identity, and what I represent being on mainstream media. And I think that's the most rewarding part of this whole thing."
However, one comment on his Instagram clearly stood out from the rest: a message of congratulations from the Prime Minister herself, "queen" Jacinda Ardern.
"Jacinda Ardern. Oh, my God. She said congratulations," he recounted giddily.
"A lot of chefs [have congratulated me], which is amazing. It's great, but it's just like - Jacinda is a big deal."
His advice for other aspiring chefs or homecooks hoping to turn their hobby into a career? "Be curious and open-minded."
"Try new ingredients every week: if you [cook with] a new item every week, after a year, you've tried 50 new things. Slowly you build up your flavour vocabulary and memory and skill set.
"In terms of food as a career, I mean, food is so large, right? We can go to the media, you can go into restaurants, you can go into writing - there's so many options. Pick a platform you want to focus on. You just have to be curious."
With the competition now officially behind him, Low is looking forward to the future. As the winner of MasterChef New Zealand 2022, Low has been awarded six months' worth of groceries from New World; $6000 worth of Neff appliances; a Kenwood stand mixer; and a cookbook deal with publisher Allen and Unwin.
Whatever is next in store for the 30-year-old, he is determined to stay true to himself: a mindset he entered - and conquered - the competition with and credits to his success.
"I think it's like, you know, staying true the whole way through. Also not giving up, I think - it was the hardest thing I've ever done," he said candidly.
A firm believer in staying true to himself and "doing what feels right", Low is now hoping to inspire others with the next chapter of his culinary career, armed with a newfound confidence and affirmation that yes, he can actually cook.
"I can cook, like I genuinely can," he laughed. "I'm just like, 'Well, I did that in an hour and a half or something', you know, just like genuinely shocked. All three of us [finalists] were like, 'Wow, we actually can cook' - we can do a lot in such a short time.
"If I didn't know that before, I do now."