"People take it lightly when I say it, but a year ago, my daughter and I were sleeping in the same bed together in a one-bedroom apartment in La Mesa, California," Sandoval said. "I was struggling, trying to figure out how to pay rent."
Sandoval credits her win on a lifetime of exposure to people and cultures from around the world. She said travel back to Mexico to visit family and time with friends from the Dominican Republic taught her to mix techniques to create a "nouveau" style the judges had not tried before.
"One of the things that set me apart was not my ability to recreate food from around the world, but my ability to circle back and create dishes that weren't just fusion," Sandoval said. "I used techniques from other cultures while using Mexican ingredients."
Sandoval, a first generation Mexican-American, grew up in La Mesa, California with her mother and three siblings. While at home, and on frequent family trips to Mazatlán, Mexico, Sandoval learned to cook home-style Mexican food alongside her mother.
"While I was growing up, my mom made sure I learned to cook all the recipes she knew," Sandoval said. "My mom lost her mother when she was very young, so she told us that she would not be around forever. She made a point to hand off all the recipes and skills she grew up learning."
"My stepdad is also a chef, and he showed me a lot more formal technique as opposed to my mom's home style," Sandoval added.
On top of winning MasterChef, Sandoval is releasing a cookbook called Claudia's Cocina: A Taste of Mexico. The first chapter, literally called "The Basics," starts with the first lessons she learned while chopping chipotle peppers alongside her mothers, then the book gets progressively more intricate.
"When I wrote the book, I kept thinking about how people tell me they had no idea Mexican food was so complex — that Mexican food is more than tacos, burritos and enchiladas," Sandoval said. "While I did include recipes for all those things, it is my opportunity to show people how to start at the easiest point."
Sandoval is the oldest of four children, and the entire family shows an interest in cooking. Her brother is a prolific baker, and her sister is an expert on the grill. While her family is incredibly supportive of her work and dreams, Sandoval said it took a huge amount of courage to drop everything and try out for MasterChef.
With her family and friends coercing her and supporting her audition for MasterChef, Sandoval set up a GoFundMe account to raise money to pay for electricity and rent. Sandoval raised over $3,000 in three days, which made it possible for her to afford rent and travel to Los Angeles to film the show.
"My friends and support group pushed me to try out and worry about logistics later, and now that I look back on it, I think it is absolutely incredible that for a moment I thought I couldn't do this," Sandoval said. "People can come up with so many excuses, so I invite people to put themselves out of their comfort zone and change their lives."