Sometimes, it’s good to be bad. Naples resident Melissa Rhodes learned that lesson firsthand when she competed on the third season of the Food Network’s “Worst Cooks in America” television competition series. Rhodes was one of 16 “recruits” aided by celebrity chefs Bobby Flay and Anne Burrell in a quest to be transformed from a clueless cook to a confident culinarian within the span of eight short weeks.
Rhodes, who once struggled to boil water, ultimately showed she had the chops to make it in the kitchen, lasting until episode seven before being eliminated.
“I cried so hard,” said the 29-year-old. “I was a wreck. But you have to look at it as a whole experience. It was definitely worth it.” The final episode of “Worst Cooks in America” premiered April 1; the winner, California homemaker Kelli Powers, edged out Pennsylvania mortgage broker Vinnie Caligiuri for the $25,000 grand prize.
Overall, Rhodes said the experience was highly stressful, but incredibly positive.
On filming days, she would wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. to be called in for hair and make-up. Ready by 5 a.m., she would embark on a 17-hour day. And if she had a twinge of homesickness, she needed to get it under control: The recruits were allowed to call home only once a week for 15 minutes — on speakerphone and with the camera rolling.
Then there was the challenge of preparing the food.
For seven years, Rhodes battled anorexia. After she met her fiancé, Naples resident David Workinger, she decided to finally get well and checked into an Arizona rehabilitation facility.
But after she completed the program, it became clear that part of the legacy of her illness was a lingering confusion about the right way to prepare food.
Simple things, such as how to boil water, were difficult for her because she had never learned how to do it correctly. And she still avoided fatty ingredients, such as butter or olive oil.
Rhodes and Workinger often watched “Worst Cooks in America” on the Food Network, and Workinger encouraged her to try out for the program. Rhodes did, sharing her story of anorexia and her desire to improve her culinary skills as part of her continued recovery.
But once she was cast, she found that old habits wanted to boil up again. When a recipe called for butter, she immediately wondered if she could use a low-fat alternative. “I didn’t realize how much I still struggled,” she said.
Those who have recovered from an eating disorder face a special challenge, Rhodes explained. While someone who suffers from a substance abuse issue might focus on entirely avoiding that substance, someone who has an eating disorder can’t conquer their illness in the same way. Instead, they have to develop a sensible approach to food. “Being around food is one of the hardest things you have to do for the rest of your life,” she said. “You can’t cut out food.”
While on the show, Rhodes took the opportunity to share her story with the audience. In return, she said she heard from viewers who thanked her and shared their own stories. Some of these viewers were adults, but many were younger, even elementary school age, she said.
Rhodes decided to start a blog where she could continue to write about her journey to recovery (www.promiseillwrite.com). She has also received several speaking offers.
In addition to helping her continue with her recovery, the show truly made her comfortable in the kitchen, Rhodes said. There were moments on the show when she would look up at the clock and think she wouldn’t be able to finish in time. Somehow, she always did.
“I always thought I was in over my head,” she said. “But when they said, ‘Time’s up,’ I was done.”
Although she didn’t take home the top honor, Rhodes now has several dishes that she can list as being her favorites to prepare and serve. She even created on her own dish — jalapenos-and-white cheddar sweet potato mash, which has become one of Workinger’s favorites, too. She recently made Brussels sprouts with pancetta, dried pomegranates and brown sugar when she went to visit another contestant, Dorothy Strouhal. The two women became friends on the show.
“They loved it,” Rhodes said. “There was a 5-year-old there and he was eating them like candy.”
'Worst Cooks' contestant shares one of her creations
Melissa Rhodes, the Naples woman who competed on Food Network’s “Worst Cooks in America” television competition series to learn how to cook, not only did that, but developed some of her own recipes. Here is one of her favorites:
JALAPENO CHEDDAR SWEET POTATO MASH
6 sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered
¼ stick butter
¾ cup milk
1½ cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated
3 jalapenos, diced (seeded, if you wish, for less heat)
1 Place potatoes in a large pot of salted water.
2 Bring to a boil and cook until tender, 35-35 minutes.
3 When soft, strain water from potatoes and place them in a bowl.
4 Add butter and milk and mash with a potato masher.
5 Stir in sharp cheddar cheese (or white cheddar if you prefer) and jalapenos.
6 Serve with extra grated cheese on top.