Sep 5, 2018

“I cook ‘cause I just want to make people happy,” says Ralph Xavier Degala when asked by MasterChef Season 9 judges to introduce himself. Ralph was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to a well-traveled Filipino family. Even at a young age, Ralph showed a fondness for cooking, which was further cultivated by taking summer trips to the Philippines and eventually immigrating to the United States at 10 years old. 

Ralph was the eldest of three children, so he had to learn how to cook for his family—to show appreciation and devotion to his siblings and their parents who worked long hours in the medical field. He dabbled in the Mediterranean and Southeast Asian cooking and turned to food programs to inflame his passion.

“[I] had always been an avid fan of the show but never imagined auditioning. Before [I] knew it, [I] was sitting in a room with thousands of other hopeful contestants, and by the end of the day, [I] was one of the nation’s top contenders for the title of MasterChef.”

How was the whole experience of being part of MasterChef Season 9?

The whole experience was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It felt like a dream and I was so lucky to have been part of an amazing season. From meeting the other contestants to cooking for the judges, and most importantly cooking Filipino food in front of America and the whole world, it was an experience of a lifetime. 


Were you starstruck by the judges? How was it like working with them? 

Of course! From the very first time, we saw Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Aaron Sanchez, it truly felt like a dream. After getting my apron, it felt more normal to interact with them and ask them questions and for advice. My mentor [Joe Bastianich] and I even became friends on the show and had the opportunity to cook an Italian dish (Chicken Milanese with Polenta Cake), which was passed down from his mom, Lidia Bastianich. 

Given the chance, would you change any of the decisions made during the competition? 

I ask myself this all the time. I would have tried to maybe bake an easier dish during my last round to be safe. But honestly, one of the main reasons I auditioned for MasterChef was to promote Filipino food, and the chance to highlight calamansi and brazo de mercedes was just part of an amazing journey. 


How was the reception of your cooking by the people you’ve fed?

It’s been great! The support has been so much and I truly feel like a MasterChef. I think it’s because I stayed true to myself, my Filipino roots, and my city of Houston on primetime TV. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I cooked pancit and adobo in front of Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Aaron Sanchez.

I think I am shedding a light on the transformation of Filipino cuisine in America. When you think of Filipino food, there are regional specialties, like all the dishes from Pampanga, lechon from Cebu, bulalo in Tagaytay. A lot of Filipino-Americans grew up in households with a particular specialty. The organic thing that occurred here is that, depending on where we grew up, we would be assimilating to the culture and food specialties as well. I like to describe my Filipino cooking as ‘Trillipino’—Filipino roots combined with the diverse cuisine and culture of the gulf coast and more precisely, Houston, Texas. My palate and style of cooking would be different from someone who grew up in New York, California, or Chicago.

How rooted are you in Filipino culture? What Filipino dishes remind you of home? 

I’m pretty rooted, thanks to my parents. They set examples and really raised me to prioritize what’s important—family, food, working hard, and just helping others. I try to visit the Philippines every couple of years to see family. Filipino dishes that always remind me of home are kare-kare, bistek, lumo, dinuguan, and cassava cake.


Any Filipino ingredients you’d like to work with soon? 

I wish we had year-round access to calamansi and dalandan. They’re two Filipino ingredients bound to capture the palates of Americans. We had an ube craze recently and I can’t wait to spearhead as much as I can for calamansi and dalandan.


Future plans to further promote Filipino food in America and the world?

I plan on continuing creating content on my YouTube channel and across all social media platforms. The end goal is to start a restaurant, of course! 


Header image courtesy of Ralph Xavier Dagala

Read more:

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Filipino food can be healthy, this Fil-Am chef proves

A Gordon Ramsay-trained chef wants to give the Philippines its first Michelin star

TAGS: gordon ramsay masterchef