Houston may soon be celebrating another MasterChef winner. Cesar Cano, a local teacher, has reached the season nine finals of the popular reality show.
Cano reached the finals by using his Mexican heritage to inspire his dishes. Guided by his mentor, celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez, Cano won more individual challenges than any other contestant and could be seen as the favorite in the Wednesday, September 19 finale, which airs on Fox at 7 pm. If he wins, he'll join season two winner Christine Ha as Houston's second MasterChef champion.
The budding star tells CultureMap that an email exchange with CultureMap food editor Eric Sandler (aka, me) helped spur him to apply for the show. For over a year, Cano has been pursuing his passion for cooking by holding private taco tastings in his home. He contacted a number of local food writers, including this author, to invite them to try his dishes, but he was rebuffed (whoops!) because, at the time, he wrote that he didn’t have plans to open a restaurant; also, it can be intimidating to dine at a stranger’s home. Cano says he realized he needed to raise his profile.
“[I wanted to] do 2 things,” Cano says. “Gauge where I stand and give myself some exposure to continue pursuing this passion of holding private taco tasting dinners. What better way to get known than on a nationally televised program?”
As Cano moved through the competition, he developed a rivalry with Bowen Li. Cano says he and Li became friends when they first met, but Cano’s decision to challenge Li by selecting him for an elimination challenge in episode seven prompted a split.
“He kept looking for an opportunity to get back at me,” Cano says. “That [rivalry] was real.”
On this season of the show, the three judges, Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Sánchez, picked the individual contestants, Voice-style, and served as their mentors throughout the show. In the finale, each judge will be represented by contestant. To a devoted fan of the show (still me), that seems like more than a coincidence, but Cano disagrees.
“When we’re out there filming, it’s everyday we’re filming or doing interviews. It doesn’t give you a lot of time to sit back and think things through,” Cano says. “For me, it was a surprise.”
Win or lose, Cano says he’s taking steps to make cooking his career. He’s been hosting pop-ups with local non-profit organizations and will appear at Eight Row Flint on two Tuesdays in October (dates TBA). Interested diners can also sign up with Eatwith to be notified about private dinners hosted by a number of former Masterchef contestants.
“My ultimate goal would be to own a small restaurant, a 10 top or 12 top, where I can prep, cook, and serve the food myself,” Cano says. “That’s where I’ve always felt a disconnect where the person who conceptualizes the menu rarely serves it.
“That’s my new goal. I don’t know how long it will take.”
In the meantime, Houstonians will be rooting for him to succeed Wednesday night — and looking forward to more pop-ups in the future.
Want to be on MasterChef? The show is holding auditions in Dallas on September 29 from 10 am to 6 pm.