Culinary Bootcamp

How a mom improved her cooking skills while America Watched

By Susan Baldani

Dolores Aguilar-Fernandez of Cypress remembers when walking into her kitchen and getting ready to cook for her family would almost cause her to have a panic attack. The working wife and mom was never sure what to cook, how it would come out, and whether or not she would cut herself or burn the dish. About 10 years ago, she cut her pinky finger so badly while chopping, that she ended up needing seven stitches. Even with all these clues, she didn’t realize just how bad a cook she actually was.

“My daughter, Elena (now 10 years old), would give me hints sometimes,” says Dolores. “When she would ask who was cooking and I would say Dad, she always gave a big sigh of relief.”

A couple of summers ago, she and Elena were channel surfing when they stumbled upon the Food Network show “Worst Cooks in America.”

“So, we’re watching, and five minutes into it, my daughter looks at me and says, ‘Mom, that’s you.’ And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

When she mentioned it to her husband, Ruben Fernandez, who she has been married to for 14 years now, he confirmed their daughter was right.

After hearing that, Dolores decided to apply to be a contestant on “Worst Cooks in America.”

“I think a year passed, and then they called me,” she says. “While on the phone with a producer, I was feeding my 3-year-old son (Oliver, who is now 4) ice cream for lunch. What timing! I had interviews with different producers, and then they told me I was in.”

Dolores, a recruiter for AT&T, had told her boss months in advance that this might happen.

“I worked with the company for so many years that I had already added so much vacation time that it covered it,” she says. “And my coworkers covered for me.”

The show taped in New York earlier this year, and now Dolores says that city is her second home.

“They literally had us quarantined in a hotel before quarantining took effect, so we were already prepared,” she says.

As per her contract, she cannot say how long she was there. It was hard being away from her family though.

“We missed each other a lot. What helped was FaceTime. Without that, I don’t think I would’ve made it.”

She’s very thankful that so many people in her life chipped in so she could take advantage of this amazing opportunity.

Dolores was nervous about meeting the other contestants and worried about how they would all get along since they would be together so much.  

“It was amazing to me how quickly we clicked and bonded,” she says. “We were all bad cooks, so we had something in common, and we really fed off each other. We still talk today, and we’re planning to get together once COVID is over and it’s safe to travel again.”

Her first day on the show was nerve racking, to say the least.

“When I walked in, I couldn’t believe I was there after seeing it on television,” says Dolores. “First, I thought I was going to throw up, and then I was afraid I was going to faint and wondered who was going to carry me off the set. But once the chefs (Anne Burrell and Alex Guarnaschelli) start ordering me around, I forgot about the cameras and lights because I knew I had to get things done.”

She said it was an unbelievable experience to taste Chefs Anne and Alex’s food: “It was an opportunity of a lifetime.”

Of course, there were some mishaps on the show, which she can now laugh about.

“On the first episode, I cut my finger twice, once on a can, and had to go to one of those urgent cares to get a tetanus shot,” she says. “At some point on the show, you’ll see all these Band-Aids on my hands. And on the second episode, I tripped twice. It was so embarrassing.”

Dolores was on Season 20, which aired earlier this year. Although she didn’t win, she did make it to the final four.

She also learned quite a few new skills. She now cooks steaks, and also makes a gourmet burger that she prepared on the show and that her husband loves.

“I’m practicing my skills with my husband and kids,” she says.

She feeds her family much healthier foods now that she knows how to prepare them instead of relying on quick, non-nutritious meals.

“You do it because it’s convenient,” says Dolores. “We’re at a time where we don’t have the luxury that the mother can be home. But Elena’s eating the asparagus I make now. That alone is enough for the sacrifice of leaving my family to go on the show.”

To see Dolores in action on the show, click the link below:

https://citylifestyle.com/houston-tx/articles/life-and-culture/culinary-bootcamp

Written for Cypress Lifestyle magazine in Cypress, Texas.

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