It takes a special kind of cook to find a whole pig’s head on her stove – and laugh with delight. For Claudia Sandoval, the ability to fearlessly stare down her main ingredient is just another reason why she’s made the MasterChef Top 7.

So far, her love of traditional Mexican cuisine has brought success — and a spicy dance with Chef Graham Elliot. So it’s not too surprising she was visiting her grandmother’s house in San Diego when we spoke.

A Daunting Ingredient Can’t Stop this Cook

In one of the most challenging “dreaded elimination tests” ever — four chefs faced ingredients … with faces. (Sorry – couldn’t help myself!) In a group that included vegetarian Hetal Vasavada (you can imagine her reaction to the lamb’s head at her station), Claudia seemed downright gleeful to get the pig. 

“After seeing what Hetal got and then seeing Derrick’s fish head, I knew where this was headed,” she says. (Apparently she couldn’t help herself either.) “How can I explain the joy I felt? It didn’t matter what I got — I’m used to head-to-toe cooking. Hooves, marrow — all these things are common in Mexican and Latino culture. 

“People don’t do that as much in American culture. It was great to open up that conversation. I had ideas for all the heads! When I saw Olivia [Crouppen] got the beef head, I thought it was the jackpot. So many parts — even the eyeballs! I was like ‘Man, the things you can do with that!’ but I was happy with what I got. 

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“It felt amazing to win,” she says. “Having come off the chicken-and-waffles challenge and doing poorly, I really needed to make a statement. That was a bad day for me — I don’t think I’ll ever eat chicken and waffles again! But I wanted to prove my point. People said I was lucky to get the pig’s head, but I would have been lucky with any of the ingredients.” 

An Insider’s Perspective on the Judges’ Decision

“It made me feel really good about my position — knowing I could have handled any of those things. I was happy I can bring that versatility to it.” Unfortunately for fan-favorite Olivia, the event resulted in her downfall. Claudia easily won the round, putting her on excellent footing as the group heads towards the finale. 

She also understands why the show’s fans continue to debate whether Olivia or Hetal should have gone home. Claudia can see both sides of the argument, especially since the vegetarian challenge led by team captain Hetal put them all in the pressure test in the first place.

“I didn’t get to taste Olivia’s dish,” she notes. “At the end of the day, though, the star of dish needs to be the star of the dish. When you hear Chef Ramsay say that the dish was good but not hitting that mark, you have to understand where he’s coming from. 

“But Olivia went home for Hetal’s choices in the veggie challenge — I think that’s where some of the internet anger came from. I couldn’t believe Olivia was going home, and she does some great food. It’s a competition, and you know people are going to go. But you’re getting to know people, and it got harder each time.”

Dancing Her Way into the Top Tier

Claudia talked as though Olivia’s elimination took place the night viewers at home saw it, not a couple of months ago, when filming ended.

“I feel like it was a week ago,” she agrees. “The season premiered, and now we’re almost at the finale. Even though I know who wins.” But no hints!

“You’d think they prepped us for keeping secrets, but that’s not it at all. We all love the show as much as the fans do, and it would be really sad to kill that suspense. Part of the show is loving one person and being disappointed and picking another favorite. That’s part of the journey. I’m a total MasterChef fan — I understand. That wouldn’t be fair to kill the fun!” 

And that wouldn’t be Claudia. She’s all intensity during challenges, but once the clock stops, she really loosens up. Case in point: When Chef Graham tasted her dish in the episode “Rice Rice, Baby,” he literally broke into a dance – and invited Claudia to join him. Their impromptu duet was one of season 6’s highlights.

“I couldn’t believe that was happening! At first he did that cha-cha move, and then we were really dancing! It was so funny and so much fun. I feel like I’m always talking about how great Graham is. I mean, I love all the judges — we all do — but he’s such a super, down-to-earth guy. He’s this humble, genuine person. He’s one of the coolest guys I know.” 

Will Claudia Be a MasterChef Pioneer? 

Now that filming’s done, Claudia’s back at her job as an event planner. The single mom specializes in creating special events and “brand experiences” for her company’s clients. It sounds like the perfect job for someone who has to think on her feet in the MasterChef kitchen. It’s a busy life, but she still makes time to keep in touch with her fellow contestants. In particular, she enjoys checking in with another San Diego resident, Nick Nappi, who’s now cooking at a local restaurant. 

Despite a proud family behind her (including her mom, who appeared on the family reunion episode) and a fierce set of cooking chops (she auditioned with an Italian dish, not a recipe from her Mexican heritage), something kept her from attempting MasterChef for several years. Based on what we’ve seen, it wasn’t fear that held her back. She finally just decided to go for it.

“I’ve been a fan of the show for a long time,” she says. “And I thought, why not? I had a lot of excuses over the years. Who’s going to watch my daughter? What about my job? But I decided if it happens, I’ll make it happen. I ended up trying out at the last minute – and here I am! 

“I love cooking, and I want to be the first Latina winner of MasterChef.”

MasterChef airs Wednesday nights at 8pm at FOX.

(Image courtesy of Greg Gayne/FOX.)

Alison Stern-Dunyak

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV