Lester Turchin can sing. He breaks into a theatrical rendition of “Feliz Navidad" with gusto and bravado. What he can’t do, at all, is cook.
That's what makes Turchin the perfect contestant for Food Network’s tenth season of Worst Cooks in America, hosted by superstar chefs Anne Burrell and Rachael Ray.
The ex-Brooklynite who now lives in Fort Lauderdale has a kind of pride in his inabilities around the kitchen. In his Food Network bio, he proudly lists his specialty as a "a combination of tuna and red raspberry jelly that even made his beloved dog Bailey sick."
He describes one of his incidents. “Just a few weeks ago, I went out and I wanted to make a pot roast, so I have a slow cooker, right? I put everything in there with the slow cooker, and I came home and it was burnt! Who burns in the slow cooker?"
Such skill, or lack thereof, won him a coveted spot on the popular TV show, whose tenth season premieres this Sunday, January 1, at 9 p.m. "I was on Google, and somehow I put in Worst Cooks in America, and it said, 'Casting for the tenth season,' and I said, ‘Yeah, OK, like they’re going to take me, right?’"
They did. He sent the online application, and two hours later he received a call from casting. Being chosen as a finalist for the show took a good eight weeks. “I had a Skype video where I had to sing. I sang Tevya's 'If I Were a Rich Man' [from Fiddler on the Roof]. What else would I do?"
The show gathers 16 people who are considered the worst cooks and then showcases how horrible they are. Each week, they are challenged by a mentor, either Burrell or Ray, to prepare a mystery item selected by the chefs in what is termed “boot camp.” The last person standing wins $25,000 and the skills necessary to not kill their friends and relatives via casserole.
The gregarious would-be chef says the filming was intense. "It was an unbelievable experience from start to finish. When you watch the first episode, we have to bring in the dishes that brought us there. So my dish — I mean, it’s going to be unbelievable to see the reaction!”
Turchin, a local credit manager in real life, says the show's celebrity mentors really helped him up his game. "The two of them are great teachers. They’re patient because, you know, we’re all crazy; we’re all inept. And in the process, you learn things, you challenge yourself."
His biggest challenge, he says, was cooking seafood. “Fish, shrimp, lobster,” Turchin emphatically lists each, with a tinge of fear in his voice. But this larger-than-life character didn't shy away.
“My mentor said to me, ‘Are you going to even touch that?’ and I said, ‘Of course! I’m going to do what I need to do.’ So you overcome some of your fears."
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Turchin says he will take home valuable skills from the experience, such as incorporating herbs and spices, using knives, and doing vital prep work. Did the experience turn him into a culinary wonder, though?
“Not 100 percent, but what [the show] has done for me is enabled me to look at cookbooks and say, ‘I can do that,’ and to try. "
Season 10 of Worst Cooks in America premieres on Food Network Sunday, January 1, at 9 p.m.
Alona Abbady Martinez lives in Plantation, Florida. She writes about food and family on her blog, Culinary Compulsion, and is working on a book, My Culinary Compulsion, a global food memoir with recipes. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.