By Deb Cummings
If you see Veronica Cham in the kitchen, don't cross her. The fiery UCalgary alumna doesn't mince words as she whips up scrumptious plates against the clock. If her name sounds familiar to you, perhaps you've seen Cham on Master ChefCanada, where she's been competing all season long — with five episodes remaining. But here’s the thing: Cham is not a chef, a restaurateur or a cookbook author.
Cham is an immigration lawyer in downtown Toronto. Crediting her family for her love of cooking (the closest she’s come to actually working with food was volunteering at a soup kitchen), the 36-year-old briefly worked in private practice after completing her UCalgary law degree in 2006. But, here’s a warning — in this Q&A, you won’t leave with job tips or strategies, just the knowledge that lawyers can swerve down other paths, or, as Cham calls it, “obsessions” while still maintaining a day job. Here’s what a self-confessed food anthropologist “in love with the stories behind the food” has to say:
What characteristics make a good lawyer?
Street smarts and integrity. I can’t say I use my street smarts every day when I am practising law but there are other similar types of awareness that we have to use when making tough decisions. As for integrity . . . when you go to law school, you learn that all you have at the end of the day is your reputation. I always keep that in mind.
What advantages does a lawyer bring to a show like MasterChef?
Well, I am around judges all the time and I’m always having to think on my feet! It’s interesting to watch how we all react on the show. When others are nervous or scared they cry or shake. I just repeat things with more diction so I come off stronger which, frankly, didn’t work in my favour during the first three episodes. I was told I wasn’t received all that well . . . the audience thought I was angry.
When did your obsession with food begin?
I’ve always considered myself a much stronger eater than I am an actual cook. Other people’s food dreams usually have to do with making food — where mine have always been to eat food and comment on it. That’s why my 20-year plan is to be a Michelin [restaurant guide] inspector after I retire from law in the my late 50s.
How did you get selected to star on MasterChef?
After filling out an online application form last summer, I was called in to plate a dish within three minutes, after which it was tasted by professionals. My dish was a duck turnover — I called it Duck Dynasty. The numbers were whittled down to a Top 40 and then there were more elimination rounds (a skills challenge, a mystery box and a team event) before we became 14 individuals. At that point, we were given aprons and told to get our lives in order before tapings began.
How tough has it been to keep a secret — because you know how this season ends?
Keeping it secret has been most of the fun. Mind you, I’m a lawyer so keeping secrets is something I do regularly!
When you watch yourself on TV, do you like what you see?
I must be a little nervous because odd words come out of my mouth . . . like once I said, ‘I’m sure I will come out victorious,’ and I’ve never used the word ‘victorious,’ before. Plus, I’ve never seen myself from the side like I do on TV so I think I look a bit stupid . . . like I am standing at the supermarket.
When you go out to eat in Toronto, where do you go?
I can’t divulge all my secrets but my latest is a super spot in an old-age home — called Vintage Garden. Until they opened it to the public, a couple of months ago, only seniors could go. Lunch costs $8.50 (including tax) and the chef is from a specific region in China and is very, very well-trained.
When you were a student in Calgary, where did you eat out?
For something a little fancier I loved Mercato’s, most definitely Peter’s Drive-in for strawberry milkshakes, and Lina’s Market for shopping. And one of the best Chinese vegetarian restaurants was Buddha’s Delight, across from Chinook mall. I was obsessed with their vegetarian ginger beef.
Are any food trends sweeping through Toronto and that we might see on MasterChef?
There’s a Filipino boom happening in TO and NYC. And we have two Filipino contestants on the show right now — Matthew and Jeremy. Filipino dishes have lots of character, plenty of acid! Personally, my hope is that all Asian cuisines gets more respect. People will pay lots of money for Japanese food but are really cheap when it comes to any other cuisine from Asia.
If you could dine anywhere where would that be?
Probably Tickets in Barcelona. It’s between that and Noma (in Copenhagen) but everyone knows about Noma.
Do you have any food heroes?
Maybe my grandfather who passed away two years ago, at the age of 100. A few years prior to that we asked him if he’d like to move into a seniors’ home and he said, “Nope, I don’t think I’ll like the food there. I’m just going to stay where I’m at.” He bought groceries from the market daily and was still cooking for himself up until two weeks before he died. Personally, I want to do the same — enjoy the food that I like to eat, until I’m 100.
Any guilty pleasures?
Potato chips are my thing. But I also love ice cream.
And I admit that I have different preferences based on flavour. For example, for strawberrry I love Haagen Daas, with Ben and Jerry’s, it’s Chunky Monkey. Cookie Dough has to be Laura Secord.
Any advice for new students who are starting law?
This is only for people that go to the University of Calgary because it’s what I know. I’d tell them not to worry about finding a job, because everyone that finishes from U of C Law gets a position. In my year, all 72 of us found articling positions. And that was true for the year before me and the year before them. We’re a great school, a great legal community and everyone finds a job in the end.