"Si se puede!" Claudia Sandoval shouted from a downtown rooftop as celebrity chef and TV personality Gordon Ramsay announced her as the winner of "MasterChef " 2015 during the Fox network's hit series finale Sept. 16.
Sandoval is the first Latina to be awarded the title, and the viewing party at the W Hotel in downtown San Diego quickly erupted into a full-fledged fiesta set to live Mexican folk music.
"One of the songs the band played is about where my family is from (Mazatlan, Sinaloa) - it was a very emotional, overwhelming experience," she said.
Sandoval, a 31-year-old single mom, told DiscoverSD in a phone interview that she cried the entire day leading up to the finale because of the life-changing effects her win - kept secret from her friends and family - would have, particularly for her 10-year-old daughter.
After fighting her way through the notoriously hellish kitchen challenges from Ramsay, Graham Elliot and Christina Tosi to win the $250,000 grand prize, which includes a deal to write a cookbook with worldwide distribution, the number one order of business, Sandoval said, is to find a place to live that is bigger than her La Mesa apartment, so her daughter can have a bedroom of her own.
"That morning (of the finale), my daughter woke up and said to me, 'Mom, this is the first day of our lives.' To hear that from my 10-year-old so encompassed how monumental that day was for us. Now, it's finally real!"
Week after week competing in what Sandoval described as "culinary boot camp," she managed to thrill judges with her Latin flair. In the final competition against Derrick Peltz - a favorite based on his quick execution of difficult techniques - Ramsay and fellow co-hosts praised Sandoval for elevating rustic Mexican cuisine to "MasterChef " status. Tosi said she could taste the love in her appetizer round, with Ramsay exclaiming that no one had ever cooked with cactus in the show's history, until now.
"From day one Claudia's flavors, technique, and creativity not only impressed the judges, but her fellow competitors," wrote co-host Graham Elliot in an email to DiscoverSD. "One of the key reasons she was so successful, aside from her know how and desire to win at all costs, was her ability to stay true to who she is and to use her Mexican roots and background to showcase her impressive culinary abilities. Gordon, Christina and I were in full agreement that Claudia was worthy of the title of MasterChef."
"I never shied away from who I was, and that really continued to be my staple throughout the competition," Sandoval said. "Taking humble ingredients and recipes and elevating them to win the judges' praise was the most amazing validation."
Ultimately, Sandoval's exotic flavors won the judges over, but this competition was anything but a shoo-in for the passionate home cook and longtime fan of the show. She went back and studied all the episodes and cooking techniques - including baking, with which she had little experience. With only two days to prepare for auditions, the competition has been a whirlwind from the start for Sandoval.
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges was competing against fellow San Diegan Nick Nappi for a slot in the finale. "It was hard to relive," Sandoval said about the scene at the viewing party, where both she and Nick were present. "Nick's like my brother. When I looked around (the room), everyone was in tears."
Nappi insisted that losing to Sandoval in a dessert-off designed by Tosi - the sweet mastermind behind NYC's Momofuku Milk Bar - has only reaffirmed his love for cooking.
"If I saw Gordon, Graham and Christina right now, I'd tell them I'm addicted to being burned and cut in a ridiculously hot environment where you're working as fast as possible, and wake up every morning sore from being in the house of pain - what we refer to as the kitchen," he said, adding that in the wake of the show, he's been named head chef at Werewolf American Pub downtown. "It's seriously because of them."
Besides getting one-on-one time with her dreamy blue-eyed crush and ultimate mentor, Ramsay, Sandoval said: "This opportunity has allowed me the luxury of dreaming big. The original dream was to get out of this apartment and diving into my cookbook ... but I'd love to have my own cooking show one day."
"I want to be the Mexican Martha Stewart, let's do this!"
Amy T. Granite is a dauntless eater who has written about food in San Diego since 2006. You can follow Granite and her tasty adventures on Twitter and Instagram @saysgranite. Send your mouth-watering ideas to her at email@example.com.