LOS ANGELES—Merrin Mae Fuentebella made it look easy when she found ways to hurdle the surprise challenges in Food Network’s new cooking competition “Cutthroat Kitchen,” but she learned the skill of improvising during an uncertain but pivotal time in her life.
Feeling that going to college was not the right path for her, she worked in finance as a loan officer at IndyMac Bank. After working there for three and a half years, however, she felt unfulfilled creatively. Looking for a new direction in life, she found that cooking might give her the satisfaction that she was looking for.
“Around that time, I recently moved out. I moved in with my husband, Travis, who was my boyfriend at the time. I was trying to cook at home and I was watching a lot of Food Network and just all of a sudden, something sparked,” Fuentebella said as she sat down for an interview in a bakery in Alhambra. “Wait, I was doing this as a hobby, maybe I should take this more seriously.”
So, the US-born Filipina enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena and finished her program after a year and a half. But the learning process was only just beginning.
She landed her first cooking job at Bon Appétit, a cafeteria inside the Dreamworks lot where she prepared huge meals for famous people and other employees. As she searched for a better opportunity to grow as a chef, she was hired at Sotto, LA’s only Southern Italian restaurant.
While climbing her way up from line cook to sous chef, Fuentebella looked forward to a food service that most of her colleagues would rather avoid prepping for—“family” or staff meals.
Cooking staff meals is a tedious task because the assigned chef usually has to somehow turn leftover ingredients into decent dishes that the restaurant staff can look forward to eating after an intense shift. Rather than complain about the lack of resources, she embraced this as an opportunity to refine her flavor profiles and be extra-resourceful.
“It’s what everybody doesn’t what to do. They’re like, ‘I’m busy. I’m doing stuff. I don’t want to cook staff meal.’ And so I took it upon myself. I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna make that a big deal,’” Fuentebella said.
What is supposed to be a tedious task ended up becoming fun for her, taking what is available and “Merrinizing” a dish.
“I do a lot of comfort food. I love doing big stews, chilis and it-gives-you-a-hug kind of dishes,” she explained.
Putting spin on Filipino dishes
She also puts a spin on Filipino dishes like arroz caldo and sinigang. Her adobo might be slightly different from the traditional recipe, adding hints of red fresnos, a sweeter kind of jalapeno, or pieces of cloves to give it a playful touch.
So when she was chosen to compete in Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen,” an atypical cooking show hosted by Alton Brown, where contestants get the chance to sabotage each other’s dishes by taking out a key ingredient or cooking utensil, it felt like an oddly familiar situation.
“Family meal at Sotto totally geared me for this. I had no idea what I was making for family meal. I improvised every day. That’s what made me fine-tune just taking anything and making it into something,” Fuentebella said.
In an episode called “Kiss My Grits,” she had to prepare three dishes: nachos, sausage and peppers, and shrimp grits. The challenge: She could not cook with a stove. So, using a butane torch meant for pastries, she managed to prepare three restaurant quality dishes and win roughly $25,000.
Recently, Fuentebella moved to a new restaurant called Alma, voted best new restaurant in LA this year by Bon Appétit magazine. Alma participated in a bake sale hosted by Eat My Blog LA along with other businesses on Nov. 23 in Pasadena, selling one-of-a-kind ube marshmallows to benefit the typhoon victims in the Philippines. The bake sale raised $5,500 in a mere three hours.
“They were very supportive and wanted to help once hearing about the typhoon,” Fuentebella spoke of her colleagues at her new restaurant. “Regardless of it being after service, especially a Friday night type of service, we banged out a batch and I took it home and was hand rolling marshmallows into the early hours of the morning,” Fuentebella shared on Facebook.
Ultimately, she has one simple advice for aspiring chefs out there. “Have fun with food. I think people are too cramped by a recipe and I think if you play with food and integrate a little bit of your personality, you feel the soul, you feel the love of where it came from.”