Looking more relaxed now, Asian Food Channel’s “Next Celebrity Chef” winner Dino Ferrari and finalist Diane Montecillo displayed anew the gung-ho confidence that had set them apart at the start of the contest.
“I’m going all the way,” Dino vowed, while Diane had declared unabashedly, “I’m going to bring it.”
But now, during their first reunion since last year’s competition, the two finalists confessed that yes, they felt intimidated by their rivals, some of them restaurant chefs or owners. Their closest competitors, for instance, were a Malaysian executive chef and an established Hong Kong chef. The two were among 16 contestants from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur, the Philippines and Singapore.
Even at the onset of the E&O Search for AFC’s “Next Celebrity Chef,” one can tell that the camera loved both Dino and Diane, an important consideration in a highly visual medium. Many of the promotional videos had snippets of sound bites or reaction shots from the two.
During the competition itself, the smiles were few and the nervousness showed, especially when the judges tasted the entries. Diane would sometimes close her eyes and looked like she’d burst into tears while awaiting judgment. Dino sweated profusely and was apparently trembling when scolded by Chef Bruce Lim.
The judges could be harsh, with fellow Filipino Chef Bruce ladling out the harshest criticism, even throwing dishes to express his displeasure and flinging countless swear words blipped on television. Yet Dino and Diane said that Bruce’s posturing was merely for TV and that off camera, he was a relaxed and helpful judge. They recalled how, during one shoot, the three of them locked eyes and broke into uncontrollable giggles that prompted the director to come out and remind them of how precious production time was.
Dino and Diane recounted challenges on the set that they had to overcome. One time the kitchen was located at one end of the resort, with the dining place at the other end. Negotiating one end to the other while making sure the dishes they served remained hot and fresh was almost impossible. At the finals, they recalled how the two of them had to work with a kitchen staff they had only met for the final event where they had to cook for 300 guests. Through it all, they stuck to a tested dictum: It’s what you make of the situation that will determine the winner.
Between the two Filipino chefs, it is Diane who has the culinary experience, having finished her studies at ISCAHM (International School of Culinary Arts and Hotel Management) and moving on as instructor at The Kitchen Academy. She seemed to stay on teacher mode during the show, scolding Dino at times. In another interview, Dino said that it was probably part of Diane’s strategy to rattle him. Reminded of that, Diane seemed aghast at herself, though she didn’t say if it was indeed her plan.
For his part, Dino said his strategy was to “stay true to who you are, and cook the food that you love to cook. Don’t try to be someone you’re not.” That and his personality have made his friends describe him as “kaibigan ng bayan,” everyone’s friend.
Despite his genial outlook, Dino can be very firm and determined once he sets his mind on something. In fact, he abandoned his business studies when he decided to pursue a culinary career. He enrolled at the L’ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne and later apprenticed at kitchens in France, Switzerland, California and Manila. Midway through his studies, he had to go home and wound up studying here instead.
Dino must put his studies on hold again to fulfill the one-year contract he won for being the “Next Celebrity Chef.” He will be creative director and chef at the E&O and Delicious Group based in Penang, Malaysia, and do a cooking show for the Asian Food Channel.
Diane, on the other hand, is now owner of The Kitchen Academy although she continues to pursue her other passion: circuit racing. Her father, she said, is also a racer.
The reference to family is a constant between these two celebrity chefs. Diane revealed that she started cooking because of her father and siblings. When she graduated from culinary school, she found cooking a five-course meal for her family simply amazing. Dino’s Swiss dad and Filipina mother were just as supportive of his culinary passion, keeping track of his standing at the competition and rejoicing at his winning. His eyes started to water as he recounted those moments.
It’s also family that dictates both these chefs’ eating and cooking preferences. The two lean towards Mediterranean cooking. Diane learned from her grandmothers on both sides how to cook the Spanish and Italian dishes she favors. Dino meanwhile loves anything pasta.
But what about Filipino food?
Dino said he has started to cook Filipino dishes using the recipe books that Glenda Barretto gave him. It is in Barretto’s Via Mare kitchen where he practiced before joining the competition.
Diane said she finds it difficult to cook Filipino food but would like to do a good kare-kare, her favorite. And while culinary schools are not mandated to teach Filipino cooking, her own The Kitchen Academy does, with the classes conducted by experienced cooks.
While these two Filipino chefs have accomplished a big feat in an Asian competition, the bigger hurdle remains learning to cook Filipino food. Doing so would mean showing—and making the world taste—our rich culinary culture.