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`Tournament of Champions` season four winner Mei Lin (Food Network photo)
"Tournament of Champions" season four winner Mei Lin (Food Network photo)

Q&A: Mei Lin looks to defend 'Tournament of Champions' title

by jmaloni
Tue, Feb 6th 2024 05:10 pm

Food Network competition begins Sunday, Feb. 18

Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni


Let there be no doubt: “Tournament of Champions” is the wildest, toughest and most prestigious culinary competition on television.

In four seasons, the Food Network showcase of kitchen immortals has brought together chefs who own restaurants, chefs with their own cooking lines, award-winning chefs, and even “Top Chef” winners. What about those chefs you read about in magazines? Yup. The chefs at the fancy festivals starting trends on social? They’re here, too. And the chefs who taught these chefs? They’re serving as judges.

It's for those reasons – not to mention bragging rights and a massive cash prize – that the entrant pool continues to grow – so much so, that there’s a play-in sub-series this time around.

And it’s not just the chefs who love “TOC.” In season four, which aired in 2023, the viewing audience was nearly 11 million.

The bracket-style (single-elimination) tournament pits 16 East Coast chefs against their 16 West Coast counterparts over eight episodes starting at 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18. Competitors will be ranked, from No. 1 to No. 16, based on past performance – or, if they’re new, on their cooking and/or TV competition experience.

In season five, each of the past champions – Brooke Williamson, Maneet Chauhan, Tiffani Faison and Mei Lin – returns with a goal of capturing a second championship belt and $150,000.

Guy Fieri is back to host “TOC,” alongside field reporters Simon Majumdar, Justin Warner and Hunter Fieri. Also returning: Guy’s devilish “Randomizer,” a series of spinning wheels that determine the dish(es) to be passed.

Last year, Lin beat a culinary dream team (Crista Luedtke, Tiffany Derry, Shota Nakajima, three-time semifinalist Jet Tila and season two champion Chauhan) to win the “TOC” title and the $100,000 cash prize.

In the finale, she had to impress a judging panel comprised of world-renowned chefs (Nancy Silverton, Ming Tsai, Cat Cora, Lorena Garcia, Daniel Boulud) – and create her dishes based on maybe the worst “Randomizer” in “TOC” history:

√ Protein: Side of lamb – they had to butcher themselves

√ Produce: Shiso

√ Equipment: Ice cream machine

√ Style: Hot and cold – meaning a total of 12 plates of food

√ Wild card: Stay

Lin’s creations – lamb tartare, pomegranate-glazed lamb chops, Persian stew and shiso ice cream – netted a score of 91 out of 100, besting Chauhan by 2 points.

In a recent phone interview, Lin explained, “I actually grew up in the restaurant industry. I started at a really young age. My parents, my aunts and uncles, all owned restaurants. And so, I started going to work with my dad at age 8. And I have just been completely enamored since.

“I had a time in high school where I didn't want to do anything involving the restaurants. But I mean, all in all, this is a passion of mine, and it hasn't stopped.

“And in regards to the competition, I think that each and every chef that I’ve ever met is super competitive. Depending on if they want to do competitive cooking or not; just in general, we're all really competitive, and we all want to be the best in every way possible. And this is just an outlet for some of the chefs to kind of be in and to do, honestly.”

Lin shared more in this edited Q&A.

Q: I find it fascinating, these days, how many Food Network shows are competition-based, and certainly they're very serious. They're very intense. They are a great opportunity for the chefs who participate. “Tournament of Champions,” obviously, takes that to a whole ’nother level. But let me ask you about a common thread that I see in all of these shows: It just looks like they’re so much fun. How much fun is it to do the things you're doing and participating on with the Food Network?

Mei Lin: I mean, first and foremost, I will say that I wouldn't do it if it wasn't fun. I think that, all in all, the camaraderie is fantastic. We're all each other's peers. Every one of us have known each other through some way or another, whether it be doing a previous show or not. We just have a mutual respect for one another. So, just being able to see your friends that you haven't seen in a really long time, and get to cook with them, is fantastic.

Q: And, obviously, the 2020s have not been the best decade for restaurants. So, how much of a benefit is it to you, to your career, to the restaurants you work with, to be given this platform and this national audience?

Mei Lin: I mean, yes, the beginning of 2020 was not great. But I think that what the show has done is really put all the chefs and all the restaurants that we represent on a national platform, and really gave us a chance to really show what we can do and what we cook on a regular basis. And really just show that to America.

“Tournament of Champions” season four winner Mei Lin (Food Network photo)


Q: Let's go back to last season's “Tournament of Champions.” It was a huge success in the first three seasons. What appealed to you about competing with these chefs on this particular stage?

Mei Lin: For me, I watched the show during the pandemic, and it was just so appealing to me because I love the fact that it was blind judging. That is appealing to me because that hasn't really been done on any other show before. And I thought it was really interesting, and I really wanted to be a part of that.

I think that, at this point in many of our careers, we've kind of been in touch or, you know, just know a lot of the judges. So, I think to be unbiased, it needed to be blind judging.

Q: I think, personally, when you've dominated a show like “Top Chef” the way you did – the way some others have – that you should get a high ranking on “Tournament of Champions.” You were a 3; someone else like Brooke Williamson, for example, she started as a 7.

When they interviewed the other chefs, they certainly were not surprised to see you excel at “Tournament of Champions” the way you did. They were all very, very complementary to you. They were not surprised to see you advance.

What was your level of confidence – if you're being honest? How far did you think you could go in “Tournament of Champions”?

Mei Lin: Well, it's really hard to say, because you don't know who you're going to be going up against at any given moment.

I mean, honestly, I just looked at the “Randomizer” and just cooked the best food that I could. So, for me, it was a matter of just cooking the best food that day, I guess. You're not really cooking against that other person. You're cooking against the “Randomizer.” You're cooking against yourself.

Q: Is that really the best philosophy? It seems like it would be, but, with regard to the judging aspect of these culinary battles, I find it also to be very interesting. Like you said, you're familiar with a lot of these people. Sometimes you have critics judging the chefs; other times, it's the chefs that are judging other chefs. There are times when the competitors are clearly more knowledgeable – and I would say even more skilled – than the judges. So, is that really the best game plan, to go out and not necessarily worry about the judges, but to just have the mindset that you're going to make the best dishes you can, and whatever happens happens?

Mei Lin: Right. I definitely think that that's the best rule in this case. I mean, at the end of the day, food is super subjective. And you know, what I like is not what you're going to like. And, I mean, you have to follow the criteria of what the “Randomizer” is, right? So, judging on what your protein is, how well you cooked it – you know, all those different aspects of the “Randomizer” you do have to follow.

Q: How did it feel to win, and how has it felt since to know what you accomplished? As I said, the show has been such a big success.

Mei Lin: I feel fantastic, obviously. I think, just having the respect of your peers is probably the most important to me. And, at the end of the day, I had a lot of fun doing it, and I really can't wait to see how season five looks, honestly.

Q: You very easily could have taken your win, taken your belt, and said, “That's it. I came; I did it; I achieved what I set out to do.” What was the appeal to you in coming back to defend the title?

Mei Lin: I mean, you said it right there: You have to defend the title. That was it.

Q: And would you say that, coming into the season, you had more confidence as the champion, or were you perhaps a little bit more apprehensive knowing that there would be a bigger target on your back?

Mei Lin: (Laughs) I feel like every year the game just gets harder and harder. And there's going to be a lot of different challenges for season five, for sure.

Q: What did you think about the fact that, for this season, all four of the previous champions would be competing in the tournament?

Mei Lin: I think that was one of the many draws of returning, as well. Just the fact that every single champ was going to be doing it was really exciting to me.

Q: Cooking is obviously your passion. It's your vocation. It's the thing that you were born to do. You're very, very good at it. As it turns out, you're also very good on television. When you got to a point where the opportunity to be on television presented itself to you, was that a no-brainer, or did it take a little bit of convincing? What did you think about the opportunity to go on television, and what have you enjoyed about that opportunity and those experiences that you've been able to share with the country?

Mei Lin: I started my television career pretty late. That was probably in 2013. And, you know, I was really reluctant in the beginning, because I was just really green and unsure of how it would play out. But, honestly, I think that the person that convinced me to do it was my former mentor, Michael Voltaggio, and I'm thankful for that every single day.

“Tournament of Champions” host Guy Fieri (Food Network photo)


Q: Guy Fieri is such an interesting character. He has done so much for the restaurant industry and so much for locally owned restaurants around this country. What can you tell us about working with Guy, and what kind of guy he is, for lack of a better word?

Mei Lin: Honestly, Guy is probably one of the best people I've ever met. He's just so knowledgeable, and he's honestly just a good guy. He is such a philanthropist and really helps out the community whenever, wherever. You ask, and he shall deliver. I’ve never really met anybody like that before. And it's really refreshing to see.

When the Maui fires were happening, everybody kind of jumped on a group text right away, and we kind of formed this dinner idea and really blew it out of the water. We raised a lot of money, which is really fantastic to be a part of.

Learn more about Mei Lin at https://www.meihlin.com/, and keep connected by visiting her on Instagram @meilin21

Click HERE to see a list of the chefs competing on season five of “Tournament of Champions.”

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