'MasterChef' finalist shines light on Filipino food in New Zealand

Karen Flores, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 18 2017 12:50 PM

MasterChef New Zealand 2015 finalist Leo Fernandez poses for a photo before doing a cooking demo in Manila. Karen Flores, ABS-CBN News

MANILA – When Leo Fernandez moved to New Zealand, he considered cooking as a necessity, as a way for him to stay connected to his Filipino roots.

But now, he is using it as a platform to promote the Philippines to New Zealand and the rest of the world.

Fernandez joined the New Zealand edition of the cooking reality show “MasterChef” in 2015, winning over the judges with his modern take on Filipino food. 

He finished runner-up in the show, giving his culinary career a good start.

“Back then I considered it a necessity to do cooking. It’s comforting. I’m a migrant and I lived on my own, so I had to learn how to do it,” he told ABS-CBN News during his visit to Manila on Tuesday.

“MasterChef is MasterChef,” added Fernandez, a former veterinarian and pig farmer. “It has opened so many doors, it’s been great.”


Just a few months ago, Fernandez opened his own restaurant, Azon, in Parnell, Auckland. 

Azon is all about “sticking to the roots and cooking from the heart.” The restaurant’s name is derived from Corazon, which is Spanish for heart.


Fernandez’ restaurant offers a range of Pinoy specialties from the familiar Chicken and Pork Adobo and Lechon Kawali to an appetizer platter with kwek-kwek (quail eggs coated in an orange batter and deep-fried), okoy (shrimp fritters) and salmon skin crackling. 

“They (Kiwis) don’t know much about Filipino food, so a Filipino restaurant is something different, something new [for them],” he explained. “So you have to comply with the expectation that it should be good, it should be flavorsome.”

“It’s a challenge for us to introduce it in a proper way,” he added. “We have to tweak it a little bit and comply with the palate.”

Sharing his approach to introducing Filipino food in New Zealand, Fernandez said he places importance on plating, contrasts and the use of fresh ingredients, which Kiwis are known for. 

Fernandez’ Fruity Kinilaw combines New Zealand mussels with Filipino techniques. Karen Flores, ABS-CBN News

“In New Zealand, you don’t have to be fancy about it,” said Fernandez as he did a cooking demo during Food Connection Manila, a trade show by the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. “Food has to be treated with utmost respect.”

“Other than having the food taste good, I want it to be presented very well, because you first eat with your eyes,” he ended.