Editor’s note: this interview contains spoilers for the first three episodes of HBO Max’s The Big Brunch.
Fifteen minutes into HBO Max’s The Big Brunch, a cooking competition created and hosted by Emmy-winning Schitt’s Creek creator and former Great Canadian Baking Show host Dan Levy, there’s a sign that this won’t be the cutthroat reality TV we’re used to.
Despite some banter about which of the ten chefs could be the “villain” of the show as they battle for a $300,000 grand prize — “I feel like we’re the villains,” culinary expert Sohla El-Waylly suggests gleefully to her fellow judge, restaurateur Will Guidara — there’s nothing but teamwork and encouragement from the kitchen as chef J Chong from Asheville, North Carolina presents platters of dim sum for the first challenge.
“They can help each other,” El-Waylly says, watching an impromptu team organize the dishes. “I like that, it’s nice.”
Chong, an energetic Asian woman with spiky black hair, is often the leader of these moments throughout the show — providing time checks and fist bumps, checking in with “How we livin’, fam!?” during busy moments, waiting first in line to hug her competitors as they return from the judges’ panel. As a queer Chinese-Canadian with Toronto street cred, she quickly establishes a rapport with Levy and impresses the judges with her Cantonese-style brunch dishes, including pork dumplings, congee with grilled prawns, and a chili oil that El-Waylly begrudgingly admits is better than hers.
“Being queer and Asian, my community is being jabbed at every which way right now,” Chong explains in an emotional presentation that helps her win Best in Brunch for the first episode. “First and foremost, I need to be visible.”
But for all of Levy’s trademark friendliness and love of comfort food, The Big Brunch proves to be a steep challenge for its talented chefs — including Chong, who is nearly taken down in episode 2 by an undercooked serving of fried chicken and has to fight hard to regain her footing and her confidence.
Ahead of the show’s premiere, Chong gave Out her perspective on working with Levy, the diversity and queer representation of the show, and how she kept cool under pressure.
Out: Last November, Dan Levy put out the announcement on social media that he was looking for chefs to compete on a reality TV show. Can you tell me how you got involved?
J Chong: My dental hygienist actually sent it my way. It’s pretty comical because I see this person twice a year for about an hour, and the whole time my mouth is gaped open and her hands are in my mouth, so it’s not like I can really have any kind of conversation with her. But she said, “Hey J, I think you would be great at this! I think you should apply.”
I sat on it. It was probably in my DMs for a few days. Then one afternoon I was at home cooking, and I was like, “You know what, I’m gonna do it.” You could either apply via a written application or just submit a live video, so I submitted a live video — I think you had the option to review it once — and I just sent it and was like, “Well, hope for the best!” And then my wife comes home that evening from work, and I was like, “Babe, I did something!”
Dan’s popular with Out‘s readers because of Schitt’s Creek, but for Canadians he was important long before that show took off. Was that comforting for you, or was it intimidating?
It was a little bit of both. It was comfort — just his presence alone is like a warm hug from him. He probably was one of the main reasons why I even chose to do a food competition show, to be quite honest. Because I knew that if it had his name attached to it, it would feel safe, especially for someone of my demographic.
But it was intimidating, because I knew exactly who he was and I am a big fan, and I felt it maybe put a bit of a target on my back because I am Canadian. But I enjoyed it. Sometimes I’m at my best when it comes to pressure, so it’s okay.
I enjoy how diverse the contestants are. A lot of the time there’s this thing in reality TV with a diverse group, where it’s like, “and here is the gay chef.” One person having to carry the label for everyone. But on this show, there were several queer people. How did that make you feel?
It felt great because we all got along so well. For me, living in Asheville where it’s not extremely culturally diverse, and coming from Toronto where it is, it was just really refreshing to see the other cast members that were of different ethnicities and backgrounds. And then it was even more comforting to see there were other queer chefs there as well. Being queer, we tend to gravitate toward each other immediately, and there’s an automatic respect and love that we share once we’re in each other’s presence.
For the $300,000 prize, many of the contestants said they wanted to expand their business or open a new space in their city. Why did you choose a cookbook as your goal?
I’m getting a little older, so being in the restaurant scene and owning a restaurant is not the avenue I want to take. I believe right now, especially at my age and the comfortableness of who I am, I feel there’s a lot more I can offer to the world. I talk a lot about being a visible Asian queer person, and food brings people together. It’s an automatic connection that we have.
With a cookbook, I found it would be easy for me to hit an audience that already enjoys my craft but maybe is not familiar with people of the queer community and the Asian community, to just have them step outside their box. I chose that avenue to use my creativity, but [also] level up and try to change the world a little, and to educate people.
You were in an interesting position, because in the first episode you won Best in Brunch, and you already felt like you had a target on your back because you’re Canadian like Dan. But by the second episode, after the incident with the undercooked fried chicken, the judges were saying you weren’t safe and might go home. How did you stay focused through all of that pressure?
I haven’t seen it yet, so I’m very curious to see what my facial expressions were! Being Best in Brunch was great. I felt like, “Yes, I came to do what I needed to do, one down, let’s go.” And I did feel there was a target on me because at that point we were so new and still trying to navigate how to do this whole thing. So I did feel a little nervous going into the next challenge, and then… I don’t know how I kept composed. I’m glad you said I seemed like I did!
I guess it’s just being a person who’s cooked for so long in a professional kitchen, there’s always pressure on us. We’re always looking at the clock anyway, we always have to make sure that our food hits the plate hot and it gets to the table in a certain amount of time. And I grew up being an athlete, so I had that competitiveness in my back pocket.
There was that moment in the first episode where you got emotional when the judges understood what you were trying to do. Were you expecting to react that way?
I’m an extremely emotional person and I’m very passionate and I allow myself to be vulnerable, so I knew I was going to cry and be emotional. I wasn’t expecting it to happen that early!
The first challenge, I was cooking food and recipes that mean so much to me and my culture. Especially during that time, there was a lot of backlash against Asian Americans, so I felt all of those emotions going into that challenge. I’m kind of happy that I got emotional because when you’re passionate about something, especially food or your ethnicity, and having to present it on that kind of level for people that you admire, and they eat it and totally understand what you were trying to convey in that one dish… it meant a lot. I felt proud that I accomplished what I needed to do.
It seemed like a safe environment to express emotions like that. In reality TV, they’re always looking for drama and maybe don’t always approach it the right way, but I felt like it was handled nicely in this one.
Yeah, I felt that they did embrace what was happening in that moment. That’s the beauty of this show, right? It’s to uplift us, not to make us feel shame for who we are.
In the second episode, the chicken was the main disappointment, but there was another moment that I found interesting. The challenge was about the “classic diner” experience, and I felt like when you presented it to the judges they had a specific image in mind, and you from your experience eating in Chinatown had your own image, and there was maybe some difficulty translating that. Do you think that’s accurate?
Yeah, I believe that’s accurate. That one was a little tricky for me, because my diner may not mean what your diner is. Growing up in Chinatown or in a Chinese/Cantonese family and environment in Toronto, there’s so many different restaurants that are open late. I would always gravitate towards the Chinese ones, so my greasy diners weren’t always a patty melt or a cheeseburger or French fries. I chose to cook what I would want if I had a long night out and I needed to fill my belly with some greasy food.
I noticed that you were one of the main people checking in with the other chefs, hyping people up, giving hugs after people came back from the judges. Why was that important to you?
Because it is an intense environment, and what you saw was a glimpse of what was happening. There were moments when we all had to be in a green room and just sit with our emotions and all of that anxiety. I played soccer my whole entire life, so I know what it’s like to be on a team, and I just felt like we were a team, even though we were essentially competing against each other.
For me, it’s okay to feel those emotions, but if you’re stressed out let me give you a hug. Maybe you just need to be held right now, you don’t have to say any words, let’s just high-five and let you know I’ve got your back and I’m here for you. That’s how we all really were, and still to this day are with each other.
It is a warm, comforting show to watch, but at the same time, the judges don’t hold back. Especially Sohla, who would sometimes say things like “I hate this part of the dish.” Was that constructive for you? What was the best feedback you got?
I do think it’s constructive, because we’re not going to become better humans if people are telling us we’re great every single day. Yes, it is hard to hear when someone thinks that what you put on a plate is not fantastic, it hurts and it stings. But it only allows you to get better and improve. I think that the criticism was great and helpful to carry on, and then you were able to see what each judge’s palettes were and what they were individually looking for. I would try to cater and touch on every single one of them. But all of them are brilliant.
I think Dan just reminded me to remember who I was and relay that in my food. Because that’s always been my goal, to just remember who I was during this whole process. That little reminder helped me to just cook my food and not try to add things at the last minute.
We’ll find out later who wins, but how has being on this show changed your life?
Career-wise, I’m hoping once the world really sees what I can offer, I want to be a visible person for someone who may look like me or someone that went through the same experiences that I’ve gone through in my personal life. Sometimes life is hard, but we have to find a way to push through. So I hope in that sense that I can personally help at least one person out there.
The show as a whole has changed me because of the people that I’ve met during this process. And I’m not just talking about the nine other chefs, I’m talking about everyone from Dan to Sohla to Will, to even every person that was on set. Everybody was just so kind and nice, and it was beautiful to see that side of humanity.
You have to understand, when we were filming there was a lot of messed-up things going on, especially in North America. [The show] changed me and empowered me to keep giving back to the community, because it’s a ripple effect. If we are kind to one, two, three people that we pass every day, hopefully at least one of the three people will take that and keep passing it along.
The Big Brunch is now streaming on HBO Max.