Master chef from the West Island sticks to her roots, even after national TV stints

A woman talks ingredients -- snow crab or king crab? -- with the fishmongers at the Marché de l'Ouest in the West Island.

You wouldn't know it to look at the casual shopping trip, but she's one of Canada's top cooking stars at the moment, a two-time finalist on MasterChef Canada.

Marissa Leon-John is originally from Dollard-des-Ormeaux, however, and the self-taught chef has had no problems keeping things real.

“The first time I went on MasterChef on Season 5, I really had no expectations," said Leon-John.

"I just said 'I'm going to do me and be me -- hopefully that'll be enough,' and it got me really, really far," she said.

First, in Season 5, she made Top 7 in the MasterChef Canada Kitchen. Then, last year, some favourite competitors were asked to return.

By that time, it was too late to try for something more glamorous anyway.

"I wasn't going to reinvent the wheel. I could only be myself,” said the chef, speaking from a booth in Jukebox Diner, not far from her family’s home. 

Leon-John still visits her old neighbourhood, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, regularly, including the nearby market.

Pre-pandemic, she was a private chef who made a living by entertaining in people’s homes. In the past year she had pivoted to offering pick-up and delivery meals through her Instagram account and website.

For a self-taught chef, the invite to the second round at the MasterChef Canada kitchen was special. It involved weeks of intensive cooking.

Just a few days ago, she was let go from the competition, but not before Judge Michael Bonacini called her time back on the show a "delight."

The judges inspire hard work, and their praise means a lot, Leon-John said.

"They are there to stress us out and to push us, and the fact they had a hand inviting us back -- it means they know we're capable, we're more than capable, they want us to take it to another level," she said.

She's using her newfound high profile to get involved back home. Right now she's working on inclusive cooking pop-ups, when COVID-19 protocols permit, and is exploring partnerships with local Black-owned businesses through Desta.org.

“If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that being vocal and advocating for your community, now more than ever, is super important," she said.

That's what cooking is about anyway, she said.

“You come together around the table... we're all in it together, and we've all been in it together, so that's what I'm there for -- I like giving that feeling” she said.

In fact, she said she misses the connection with clients so much that she now drives her deliveries herself. That way she gets to see "the people ordering my food and hand it over to them and see their smiles,” she said. 

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