Dan Lee managed to travel across the world experiencing food like never before. We spoke to the ‘MasterChef the Professionals 2021’ winner about his journey to becoming a MasterChef.

Dan Lee, 30, never wanted to be a chef, let alone a MasterChef. Archaeology was always his dream growing up despite being surrounded by food with his grandparents’ Chinese takeaway where he would have a family feast every Sunday when it closed.

“I remember standing on the corner of the prep area rolling spring rolls at six or seven years old. It wasn’t because I really wanted to know about it, it was because they had to entertain us as kids,” he said “No part of me thought I wanna cook.” As a teenager, Dan was “a bit all over the place” and this led to him not following his archaeology dream and instead “stumbling by accident” into cooking.

“That’s when everything started to come together for me. Cheffing kind of tied everything up, the ability to travel, my creativity and my love for history. Once I started tapping into food, I was like I can use this to travel, this is how I’m going to get out there.” Dan got a one-way ticket to New Zealand, which was paid for by his Nan. All he had was a job and one night booked in a hostel on the other side of the world.

Coming back from New Zealand, Dan got the taste for travelling but at 20 and with no money he had to work out a plan. That is where ski seasons came in. “For people wanting to travel and do things abroad, ski seasons are the best place to start.” Dan started at a hotel in France that paid pennies but paid for flights, accommodation and a ski pass. “Everything else was covered. I could travel and I could cook and I could meet people.”

In the summer during the cricket season, he would work at Edgbaston cricket ground in the members’ lounge churning bulks of British classics. “It was never about the food for me. It was great to learn to do volume numbers. Yeah it’s not fine dining and I won’t become the best chef by doing that but I will learn how to deal with pressure and cope with it.” Dan said, “The most important thing is, I am saving money.”

“It completely broke us,” he said, “One week we did 20 hours a day for like the whole week. We had like three hours of sleep and were sleeping in the disabled toilets for 20 minutes at a time to get a nap in.” Dan worked every day throughout the summer, with no social life to speak of. He sacrificed this in order to have money to travel and develop as a chef.

From there, he would email some of the best restaurants throughout the world to see if he could work for them, for free. So his journey began, travelling the world working in restaurants and gaining valuable experience. Sometimes there was enough money to just travel and eat the local street food. But that did come with having to sleep on beaches every now and then.

In Vietnam, Dan bought a motorbike and went across the entire back of Vietnam on it. “It’d be dark, you wouldn’t know where you are, you’d pull into a little village and just start knocking on doors. We’d have the word for hotel written on our phones. They were like no but families would invite me and I’d eat with Vietnamese families. They didn’t speak English. They just invited you into their home and you’d sleep on the floor. This is where I saw more authentic Vietnamese food,” Dan said.

On scrap pieces of paper, Dan would make notes on the various cuisines he tasted on his travels, often not working but observing which has helped shape his cooking style into what it is today.

“I remember walking down the side of the beach and there was this guy on the side of the road with oil drums turned out just barbecuing corn and I just fancied a corn on the cob. I had never heard of Vietnamese corn before in my life and I didn’t even know if it was a thing. I had one and it blew my mind. It was just full of flavour.” He said, “Translations are difficult but I more or less put together what he did. It was like spring onion butter and soy sauce corn. It was incredible.”

“That eventually turned into a sauce that was the base for a sauce that I served on MasterChef. I’m talking about a guy on the side of the road with a turned-up oil drum. The dish I served was a langoustine dish. Marcus Wareing described the dish as fine dining at its very best.” He said, “Obviously, I had progressed the dish. But the basis for the sauce had intense flavours that brought the dish together for me. It all started with some guy selling corn on a turned-over oil drum.”

Dan Lee cooking on a BBQ in his garden.

In October 2017, Dan went to Thailand where he worked for ‘Nahm’ the first Thai restaurant to get a Michelin star. At the time, it was the seventh-best restaurant in Asia and the 28th-best in the entire world. “They were really nice at the hostel. It was all shared rooms but they made sure that if the hostel wasn’t full that I had a room to myself because they loved the fact I was out there to learn about traditional Thai food, not just green, yellow and red curries.”

“I thought that was what Thai food was. It was an absolute eye-opener. Especially as everyone spoke Thai as it’s not a European kitchen. They tore me to shreds.” He said, “Everything is done by hand. It took it out of me but it was just amazing. This wasn’t even looking at the history of food; this was just a completely blank canvas, learning all these new tricks. I always used to link back to what we do here in Europe. That’s when it started to click. It’s all the same across the board; people cook the same way with heat and seasoning. There might be different flavourings but the method is all the same just might be called something different.”

This is where he met “one of the best chefs in the world” in Prin Polsuk. In the kitchen, the woks were full of spices, the 30 chefs working had their eyes burning and all were trying to cook for the 120 people sitting in the restaurant waiting.

“It’s chaos around him and he didn’t break a sweat.” He said, “At the end of the night, he would go around each section in the kitchen finding whatever is left over. He would pick it all up and start cooking staff food. Every day there’d be 30 chefs standing around him in silence and just watching. He’d just come up with these dishes out of it. It was just his mannerisms and how calm and confident he was. He was brilliant.”

While in Thailand, Dan came across an Indonesian chef also working for free “He was like ‘I know this chef who’s opening up a restaurant in Singapore, are you interested?’ I said no as I was going back to France to work on a ski season. He was like ‘give me your email anyway’,” Dan added.

“Then a couple of weeks later, I was travelling with my friends on a nine-hour journey and I got a phone call from Singapore. They were like ‘do you want to come and have a trial?’ I told them I was on holiday at the moment but may be able to swing by on my way back to the UK if I can sort flights. They said ‘we’ll be honest, you have two days, either come or we will look for someone else.’ I remember sitting in this car and I couldn’t decide.” He said, “My friends told me I had to decide for myself. At the end of the nine hours, I decided I was going to Singapore. I had the trial and two weeks later, I went out and lived there.”

“I never planned to go there. I did and it opened a whole new world to me. I ended up winning awards and the restaurant got a Michelin star within nine months.”

It was in Singapore where Dan met the “best chef” he has seen at work, Dayal Kesha. Dayal was sous chef with Dan while he was working in Singapore. “Crazy, crazy guy. In terms of how his mind works, it’s non-stop. He was so organised and constantly pushes himself. He still does to this day.” He said, “In terms of just watching him and how he works, he was a genius.” 

“I always said I wanted to travel. I wanted to do this. It was met with, ‘Dan you’re clearly going through a phase or something.’ But in my head, I knew that’s what I wanted and I got to do it. Now I can safely say I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today without travelling.”