Hell’s Kitchen is already entering its 16th season, can you believe it? With the premiere mere days away, what better way to kick things off than with a chat with one of the contestants! Here’s everything you need to know about Wendy Mendez:
Stage Right Secrets: What is your background and your reasoning behind becoming a chef?
Wendy Mendez: I grew up on my grandmother’s farm; she has a cattle farm in Pennsylvania. Something that was just a part of my daily life was weeding and planting and feeding the cows. My grandmother grows all sorts of things, our food and the cow’s food. I remember being a little kid and always helping grandma and just cooking my entire life. Everywhere I go, I try to pick up and learn as much as I can. My husband and I actually moved to New York five years ago to better our careers and become chefs. That actually happened! We both became chefs and just recently made the move to Chicago. It’s been a bit of a journey.
SRS: What made you and your husband decide to make the move from New York to Chicago?
WM: The move from New York to Chicago was actually because my husband’s job had offered us the opportunity. New York City is very expensive; we were living in the Bronx and we were both chefs and still living in the hood. So we decided to take this move to a little bit of a smaller city. We have a yard now! The rats were replaced by rabbits, you hear crickets at night. I can still take the bus to the train and be in the city in half an hour. It hit a lot of those major points for us as far as wanting to eventually have children and things of that nature.
SRS: How did you meet your husband and make the decision to become chefs together?
WM: I actually met my husband at a job in November 2007. I started working there and a friend of mine suggested we hang out. We wound up hanging out and we were friends for a little while. I agreed to go to his fraternity dance one night… He probably wouldn’t want me telling you this but he was complaining that if he didn’t have a date he would have to wear a dress [laughs]. By being given the opportunity to actually go out and dress up like a lady, of course I said, “I’ll go with you!” That was basically our first date. He took me out to a nice dinner and treated me better than anyone had up until that point and it wasn’t even a real “oh I love you” date. He was such a gentleman and we had a great time.
SRS: How did you get involved with Hell’s Kitchen?
WM: It’s kind of a funny story! My cousin Mike had seen something online for the show and he sent me a text message saying that I should try to do this and that it would be kind of cool. I sent him back a message of something along the lines of, “Hahaha yeah right.” I found myself unemployed and was looking through job sites when it popped up so I thought I should try it out. I sent in the paperwork and a gentleman from the talent agency called me back to go into an interview. I was late! I was so gross and sweaty when I got there and I left so upset thinking they weren’t going to pick me. I couldn’t believe it when they actually got back to me! So it was kind of a crazy coincidence that I happened to have the time to go and do all of that. It was such a crazy time because I had actually gotten married two weeks before I went on the show. Also my cat was pregnant and my poor husband had never had a cat so he had to deal with that. It was a lot of crazy!
SRS: Your signature dish on Hell’s Kitchen is the Heirloom Tomato Soup. How did that come about?
WM: Like I said, I grew up on a farm and before I left for New York City I took the seeds from the heirloom tomatoes from work; cleaned them, dried them, planted them and just had heirloom tomato plants. I didn’t actually end up getting to use them because we moved to New York before they were grown fruit. I started experimenting when I went to farmer’s markets and my husband and I wanted to try new things. So I had ground up some yellow tomatoes and I had made soup but it was a little bit boring. I like to make soup in giant pots and freeze it all so I was stocking up when I was making all my different soups. It was also me missing home and wanting some good fresh foods.
SRS: What is your favorite dish to make?
WM: I love making breads. I’m actually more of a pastry chef. I do both but I feel like a lot of my love lies in that near line between bakery and pastries; breads and dumplings… anything where you’re making dough and you make it savory and it all comes together. Bread is a thing that you’ve got to nurture and care for it and it becomes something beautiful. You can’t just slap things together.
SRS: What is something that you found hard to cook and eventually accomplished?
WM: Before I moved to New York, I had never made a soufflé before. That was part of the reason why we moved – to refine our skills and learn new things. So I wound up at a steak house in New York City and the pastry station was getting slammed so I went over to help. The chef came up to me and asked if I did pastries so I said how I did in Pennsylvania. They ended up needing help more than that day so I wound up doing pastries during the day for two or three days a week. Part of that involved making soufflés every day. Luckily I got pretty good at it and it became something I actually liked to do.
SRS: What is something you’re most looking forward to on Hell’s Kitchen?
WM: I’m mostly looking forward to my grandma watching this and that she can be proud of me; that she’ll brag about me to her farm friends and everyone back home. I already decided to give her my chef jacket in a nice shadow box with pictures so she can hang it up on the farm. She’s my inspiration.
SRS: A sneak peek of the first episode talks about you and the other contestants going to Army boot camp. What was that experience like?
WM: Boot camp was kind of crazy. I grew up in an area where you could go hiking and tubing and everything, so I felt like I had this when we went. I really enjoyed it! This show in general was one of the coolest things I have ever done. It was one of those opportunities that I really didn’t think was going to happen and a little tiny part of me almost feels like because I always expected it to end, I didn’t put that pressure on myself and mess myself up. It was unbelievable.
The season 16 premiere of Hell’s Kitchen premieres Friday, September 23rd at 8/7c. You can also watch a sneak peek of the season below!