One sunny afternoon, I had the opportunity to sit down for an interview and tasting with Chef Kelvin Fernandez at one of the most exclusive hotels in New York City, The Strand Hotel. Chef Kelvin is best known from Food Network’s Chopped. He has a great story to tell.
Kelvin of Dominican Republic decent, was born and raised in Harlem in a bit of rough neighborhood. For Kelvin, growing up was rough because it was easy to stray away into the wrong crowd but he knew how hard his parents worked to provide a great life for him which kept him focused. At an early age, Kelvin grew an interest in cooking from watching his father who is also chef prepare meals at home, but at the time his father wanted him to enjoy his child hood and possibly choose another career path because he understood how tough this industry was. Kelvin wouldn’t take no for an answer and continued to taste, watch, and grow.
Eventually, he moved to Queens and attended Long Island City High School where he fell in love with his then girlfriend, now best friend Maria Patino who loved to cook. Kelvin at the time was mostly into sports but wanted to spend more with her so he began cooking a lot more. He credits his career to her.
During his junior year of high school, he began taking cooking classes and eventually began competing against other students for scholarships in which he excelled greatly in. The first competition he won was a trip to France which pushed him to continue competing which he later won a $40,000 scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America. Kelvin then realized that this wasn’t just a hobby but something he could make a career out of.
As Kelvin continued to grow and learn so did his palette. He described his self as a “picky eater” then but has matured into trying many different types of food such as frog legs, rattle snake, and kangaroo. He shared a funny story with me from his childhood about his mother stating that “Meat must be cooked through, no pink or you’ll get sick!” Which I found funny because I was raised the same way. Kelvin when ordering steaks now, prefers Medium Rare and often laughs thinking about that story.
As Kelvin’s career progressed, he moved through the ranks pretty quickly by setting goals for his self and taking actions on each of them. He made a goal to become an executive chef at the age of 25 and gained the position three years earlier at 22 at Antipasti in White Plains, NY where they made him the youngest executive chef in New York.
Kelvin was on top of the world, he had the dream job, 100k salary, home and dream car until it was all taken away from him after the restaurant was shut down. He was unemployed for 7 months, in which he described as the toughest time because he is such a productive guy.
He later landed a job at The Strand Hotel and was not offered the executive chef position because of his age. Kelvin took that as a challenge and 8 months later he was promoted to the Executive Chef. He explains, “It just goes to show that you just have to input a lot of hard work and dedication. I knew that working back into New York City I would have to take a demotion or step down because I was the only young guy applying for Executive Chef positions.”
Chop It Up
He touched base on his loss on Food Network’s Chopped, explaining that at the time he was 25 and was okay loosing against a chef who may have had 20 more years experience than him. He knew that he cooked his heart out and knew that he has 20 more years to gain the same accolades if not better, than his competitor. Kelvin is extremely proud himself that he at least made it to the final round, especially when his first two dishes were shellfish which he is allergic to.
He later expresses that he is such a fan of the show and hopes that Food Network will call him back for the end of the season redemption show, where they allow four chefs to compete again and redeem themselves.
Kelvin is now very much in the public eye, he was recently featured in the Daily News and has been asked to judge local cooking competitions. After 10 years of hard work and dedication, he feels homage is finally being paid and appreciates the loves that he receives from his fans via e-mails, social networks, or in person. Kelvin is most proud because through all of this, he has remained the same person and people love him for it.
Some days are rough for him with daily pressures and demands for a 26 year old Executive Chef, but he understands and is grateful for being placed his position. He created an “Inspiration Wall” in his office which is filled with Thank You notes and letters that makes it all worth it.
Isaiah Kelsey: Do you feel that you are often prejudged because of your age?
Kelvin Fernandez: I feel I have to always prove myself and I believe in that. Before I was hired at The Strand, I applied to many places and many chefs just wouldn’t give me the chance. I’m the type of person who wants my food to speak for itself because I don’t cook like a 25 year old but more like a 45 year old. I’ve had many great mentors such as Mario Batali, Marcus Samuelsson, and Mark Murphy, whom I learned so much from. I strive well under pressure.
IK: Since you’ve been on Food Network, how has that opportunity changed your career?
KF: After the show was aired, I received a lot of love via Twitter and Facebook, which feels great. I’ve had the opportunity to cook for several celebrities here at The Strand Hotel. I want to further promote this hotel and as well as myself. I work for a great company who appreciates me and is a fan of me, I love it! I’ve done cooking demos at Williams-Sonoma and Macy’s recently.
IK: What are your next goals in your career?
KF: Right now, its so much that I want to do, I’ve received book offers and everything. I want to say yes to everything but I don’t want to overwhelm myself with too much. My publicist, Trica Jean-Baptiste is working very hard to make sure I’m out there and being exposed to the right avenues. Eventually I would like to have my own book, possibly own my own restaurant, and be an entrepreneur essentially.
IK: How do you give back to the community ?
KF: I love going back to my old high school to talk to the students about how important education is. I’m also working on culinary scholarship as well. I’m just so grateful.
Chef Kelvin prepared an amazing 5-course tasting. You can see his passion through his presentation, the layers of flavors in his food, and his overall humble demeanor. Chef Kelvin at 26 is doing very well himself and I predict he will go very far.
- Isaiah Kelsey (@urban_foodie14)