Merrin Mae Fuentebella’s fondest memory of growing up in Alhambra is always being surrounded by food. The first generation Filipina American would spend hours watching her father cook an adventurous fusion of Chinese and Spanish flavors. Years later, Fuentebella is now a sous chef at the Los Angeles Italian restaurant Sotto and has cut and diced her way onto Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen,” a TV competition during which four chefs must complete challenges involving stolen food, destroyed items, and lost time.
We sat down with Fuentebella, 29, to talk about cooking on television, her favorite places to eat in Alhambra, and what gets her out of bed in the morning.
Why did you decide to become a chef?
I tried to go to college, and it just wasn’t really fitting my mold. I went straight to work in finance. But then slowly I was realizing, this is a cubicle, this is killing my soul. So I quit and had no direction. I was jumping from temp job to temp job seeing what my niche was. I couldn’t find it.
My grandma was in her early 90s and could not cook, so I would cook for her. She strongly motivated and inspired me to go back to school, so I went to culinary school.
What challenges did you face entering the food industry?
I dealt with a lot of adversity being a petite woman. I’m a 5-foot-1-inch woman, and there was always a question of whether or not I could do the job. It doesn’t help that I also don’t look older.
One of my first jobs, the chef would purposely put things on higher shelves. We had big industrial can openers that you have to forcefully push down and crank, and the chef would say, “Everybody, Merrin Mae’s going to open up a can of tomato sauce.” It was like hazing.
I started climbing on the shelves and I tried so hard not to ask for help. If I can do it, I will do it.
Speaking of challenges, you compete on Sunday’s episode of “Cutthroat Kitchen.” How did you get on the show and what is the show about?
I auditioned for “The Taste” on ABC. I went through a couple of rounds but I didn’t end up on the show. Somebody saw me there and called me for Food Network, and I did a screen test for “Cutthroat Kitchen.”
There are four competitors and each competitor gets 25 grand. At the beginning of the round, they tell you what you’re going to cook. The fun part starts when you have an auction and buy sabotages. Say you’re making spaghetti and meatballs. The first auction you can buy the exclusive right to use spaghetti. The other three competitors have to forfeit their spaghetti. They have to make it as is and sell it to the judge. You can’t tell the judge any of the sabotages that were inflicted on you. At the end of the game, whatever money you have left is what you win. You have to strategically plan it out.
What was it like filming the show?
Mayhem. Disorienting. There were no clocks. There were no windows. They wouldn’t tell you what time it was because they didn’t want you to trip out. I understand why people cry on reality shows. To shoot one hour of television, it took two days. The first day was 12 hours.
It’s so weird how people react with a camera around, since there’s usually somebody behind the camera poking you a little bit. They wanted me to be mean. They said, “Well, how do you feel about this person?” I was honest, but I didn’t want to play dirty.
What’s your favorite type of food?
I love comfort food. I try to balance salty, spicy, sweet. I take comfort food and I give it a little bit of a spin.
What are your favorite places to eat in the Alhambra area?
Golden Deli is amazing. Usually, if I’m trying to get a quick fix of caffeine and a banh mi, I go to Lee’s Sandwiches. It’s really close to where I live. Soup dumplings are amazing from Din Tai Fung in Arcadia. I also shop for groceries at the Alhambra farmers market on Sunday mornings.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Food! The smell of food. I eat food and I blush. I get excited. People always go, “Well, isn’t the last thing you want to do when you go home is cook?” And I say, “No, not really.” I cook for my husband every day.
What advice or words of wisdom would you share with aspiring chefs?
Don’t use anybody’s knife in the kitchen. That’s a big no-no. Ask permission first. Always clean. Please, please, please be clean. I always say, “Dirty station, messy head.”
Be aware. Be open-minded. Lend a helping hand because you never know whom you’re helping. Be a nice person. Cook good food.
Merrin Mae Fuentebella will compete on the Food Network “Cutthroat Kitchen: Kiss My Grits” episode, airing Sunday, Oct. 6, at 10 p.m.
This interview was edited and condensed.