Thursday, June 20, 2024

Contest brings expat amateur chef purpose, connection during lockdown

After the coronavirus pandemic began early in 2020 David Fliss, like many expats who live here part-time, found himself staying way longer than planned in Mexico.

As the world rapidly went into lockdown, Fliss’s company, a consulting firm that provides support to the baking industry and depends on traveling the world to meet with clients, was forced to shut down temporarily as well. “All my contracts essentially were lost within months,” he said.

Then Fliss’s father died from Covid-19 in July, and he was unable to go to the United States for the funeral due to the pandemic.

Grieving, missing friends in his other home in Florida and unable even to distract himself with work, the 51-year-old Mexico City resident wondered how he was going to reinvent himself. “2020 was a very difficult, complicated and stressful year,” he said. “There were many times when I thought I was just going to throw in the towel.”

Then earlier this year a friend on Facebook posted that he had entered an online chef contest. The post piqued Fliss’s interest.

Fliss says he has always cooked for his family as a hobby.
Fliss says he has always cooked for his family as a hobby.

An amateur chef himself who has owned a chain of bagel bakeries in Florida and worked for decades with a U.S. company that had accounts with Latin American bakery companies like Grupo Bimbo, Fliss decided to enter the Favorite Chef contest as well, after some urging from his wife, Adriana Orizaga Fliss.

Much to his surprise, he has ended up as a top contender in the online competition. He has been in first place in his group for the last two weeks and is on track to head to the quarterfinals if he maintains his position through Thursday.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” he said. “I was always the one cooking in my family, but this was always something that was a hobby and a passion for me rather than a career. I thought this would be something to keep myself busy. I didn’t expect to make it out of the first round.”

Fliss does all his cooking in his kitchen at home, he said. Orizaga, a wedding planner whose business was also shut down for months by the pandemic, helps her husband’s cause by providing plates, cutlery and decorative items from her business in order to display Fliss’s culinary creations. She also serves as his official photographer and videographer.

The competition, which includes professional and amateur chefs among its entrants, judges contestants not by assessing their cooking and baking talents directly but through fan voting. To inspire enough interest to keep getting votes, however, it’s a necessity to keep producing daily photos and videos of your culinary output on the Favorite Chef website and on your own social networks.

Fans can vote free once a day; additional “hero” votes cost voters a fee.

One of Fliss's culinary entries in the Favorite Chef competition.
One of Fliss’s culinary entries in the Favorite Chef competition.

Also to his surprise, the contest opened Fliss up to the world again: he’s ended up with followers from around the world and has learned to interact with them, asking them what they’d like to see him cook, taking ideas from their answers. Although his favorite cuisines to cook are Italian, Mexican and Mediterranean, “I’ll try anything,” he said.

“My single favorite dish to make is a seafood vongole over fresh clams and fresh homemade linguine.”

He has undoubtedly benefited in the contest from having a wide professional network to spread the word, but many of the people voting for him have never met him, having initially heard about his posts through mutual contacts.

What has kept Fliss cooking and posting, he said, besides the unexpected thrill of doing so well, is the human response to his posts that he’s gotten from people all over the world during a time when he can’t see friends or family.

“There are many professional chefs entered in this. To be honest, I didn’t think I had a chance,” he said. “But this contest, the publicity, it’s been like therapy for me. It’s been amazing.”

Recently, for example, he’s had people voting for him from as far away as India. He’s also gotten emails from people who tell him that he’s becoming a part of their daily lives even though they’ve never met.

“I had one person email me recently saying, ‘You’re the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning, and I go online to see what you’ve cooked that day.’”

The prize for the top spot will be a paid advertising spread in Bon Appétit magazine and US $50,000, but Fliss said he isn’t in it for the money. The contest is donating a portion of its income from hero votes to the U.S. food bank charity Feeding America, a fact that attracted him to enter as well, he said.

If he wins, Fliss said he plans to use the prize money to create an online cooking academy to encourage youth to explore careers in the profession.

“I don’t think that enough young adults are coming through the ranks wanting to be chefs,” he said. “It’s not a sexy industry for them. Everybody wants to be in computers, not in a hot kitchen.”

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