Tali Clavijo, from Chicago, is one of the contestants in the third season of MasterChef, the hit cooking show currently airing on FOX that stars celebrity chefs Graham Elliot, Gordon Ramsay and Joe Bastianich. While he considers himself a “Creator of a start-up about living healthier through raw foods diet,” Tali has been depicted as one of the villains in MasterChef and a target of criticism in several episodes. However, this 29-year old chef, musician and Latino descendant, is a nonstop innovator in the kitchen and a determined cuisine trend breaker. I spoke to him on a Friday afternoon in his friend’s downtown Chicago apartment while he was exploring new molecular cuisine recipes with other chefs including Josh Marks, also from MasterChef. Our interview extended for more than five hours between conversations, music, cooking and exploring different techniques.
So Tali, where does this story begin?
I wanted to change the way people were eating; I wanted to find healthy food that could be good. I started learning a lot about raw vegan techniques even before learning the basics. Then I learned about different ways of cuisine, especially interested in modern ways of cooking. I am a “hybrid,” which means a mixture of raw vegan and molecular gastronomy.
How did you formalize your cooking?
I started looking for raw food and molecular restaurants here, and there were not too many. I considered going abroad but then thought I might as well do it here and study, explore and practice on my own.
Who’s your inspiration?
Well, one of my favorite chefs is Ferran Adrià from El Bulli, and I learned pretty much everything from his books. Since I could read in Spanish, I had the advantage to getting the essence of his words. I wanted to bring the Spanish cuisine back, and that is what motivated me and what I am doing now.
You actually met Ferran Adrià. How was that?
Yes! I met him in L.A at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills. I went to the Bazaar restaurant, owned by José Andrés, one of Adrià’s protégés who is doing something similar. It was by chance! They were sitting next to us, and I approached him and told him I was a big fan. They were both very friendly and nice enough to sit down at our table.
When did you do the first dish you remember cooking?
Well, it depends. Back in 2008 I remember doing my first raw dishes, and then in 2009 the molecular food.
Can you describe molecular food?
It’s experimenting with spheres, foams, infusing things with flavors and using liquid nitrogen to transform the texture of foods. I wanted to bring the science to the kitchen, although how Ryan [one of the other contestants in this season of MasterChef, often considered Tali’s “partner in crime”] would say, “I am not a scientist in the kitchen, I am a magician.” [laughs]
Before this type of cuisine, did you have any other approach to cooking? Growing up for instance?
Well yeah, definitely growing up with Latin American cuisine around was influential. My mom is a great cook and my grandmother is a famous chef in Ecuador; she cooks for diplomats and important people. I come from that family: the very-insane-cooks type, mostly pastry and baking, which is something I really like.
How else do you embrace the Latino in you?
In cooking, I embrace the Latino in me by approaching more humble ingredients such as the quinoa or the maiz — the corn. I know how to make empanadas, arroz con hondules — all those traditional dishes. And I try to use those ingredients and those dishes to make them more modern. I also try to marry the Latino cuisine with the Spanish molecular one.
What other costumbres do you keep from the Latino culture?
I have been all over Latin America. I love traveling and learning about different cuisines. I also speak Spanish and the music…. I definitely embrace the Latino culture.
Besides traveling, what are your other passions in life?
Music. Music to me is the way I like to cook, like a composer. I like to look at a plate as an empty canvas. I like putting things together that usually don’t make sense at the beginning, like jazz, and at the end they do. I love that process.
Do you mean the exploration process?
Evolution, I would call it. For instance, in the show there was not too much evolution. It was all too traditional. You need to push the envelope, with spices, for instance, to evolve.
Going back to music, how can you combine it with being a chef?
It is very hard, like having two babies. However, I think if you can be content with one part of your madness and the other part of your madness, then maybe you find the middle [laughs]. I would love to try to marry both of them. Music came first to me. Cooking only came later. But I try to keep doing both.
When you first started cooking, how did you find the resources to do it?
If you have talent, it doesn’t matter. You can make art with the cheapest ingredients. You actually have to be humble and start with nothing; only then you know if you like the art. I started with nothing. I wrote a book about raw food, where to find the ingredients, different recipes. Also educating yourself is free.
About MasterChef, how was the decision to go?
I always wanted to try it out. I tried out in the first season, and I didn’t get through. Then I tried for the second one, and I got far but still didn’t get in. Then the third one I was like, ‘I won’t try anymore,’ but I got a phone call from them asking me to go. I think they wanted to have someone interesting to be in the show, and so I went.
What did you cook for the application test?
I did my famous Ménage-a-Duck, which is duck three ways. It shows the evolution of me, Tali. It’s healthier and scientific. I perfected the duck dish in one day. Well, it basically took 24 hours to conceptualize it, and then came the technique. At the beginning I knew I wanted to vacuum seal a protein, and I wanted to do a soft egg like the one I had tried at Bazaar. Then I also wanted to use organs and do skewers with them. That is how I created the dish.
So how do the food concepts and recipes come to you?
I dream about the concept, and then the technique comes to me. The concept is creativity but the technique is exact. You have to be so right on: at a certain point it all becomes very technical, like the exact temperature, the exact amounts. You have to measure everything.
What was the most challenging thing about being in MasterChef?
Having to wake up every day at the same time and cooking all day and night. You would think I don’t get tired of cooking, but I do, especially if it is like this. The way we were doing things, there was no authenticity; there is no authenticity in reality TV. You cannot really be yourself. For entertainment reasons, they made me the villain, and I am not too opposed to it, but I am interested in cooking.
How were you different?
Well, the way they want food to be is white American, white traditional, and that is not my way. Shortcake was the only dish I did traditionally, and I even added a twist with foams and other ingredients. Also, they were killing me because I didn’t know how to do a risotto. Risotto is not part of my culture! I had never done risotto before! It’s Italian, or Italian-American, so I think it is even racist to say I am not a good cook because I am not familiar with risotto.
What was your biggest accomplishment?
Just making it to the show, getting an apron. Competing with so many people and still getting into the kitchen with the top 18. Even more, getting to the top 10.
What comes next? What are your goals as a chef?
I definitely want to start working with other people that are doing what I am doing. Maybe I would like to do an alternative show with exciting new chefs like me. I am also doing some events with charities like the Heartland Alliance, which has a lot to do with immigrants, including Latinos. I actually have a bachelor in American Politics from the University of Illinois, so these types of things are important to me.
Do you feel famous?
I definitely feel infamous. It’s funny when I run into people who call me on the street and at first I think it’s someone I might know but then I realize it’s because of the show. I tell them “please don’t hate me!”
In the end, do you think that villain image will affect your career?
I would rather be known as the villain, than not known at all. That is for sure.