The new season, which premiered on March 19, sees Fernandes competing against 14 other “Top Chef” frontrunners and fan favorites. Contestants include Queens native Gregory Gourdet and fellow New York chef Nini Nguyen.
“It’s a unique experience to be on the show to begin with,” said Fernandes, “and then to have the opportunity to do it a second time is an incredible feeling. You’re surrounded by so many other people who have similar interests, but are also so different.”
Fernandes initially appeared on “Top Chef” Season 4 in Chicago in 2008, finishing in a tie for second place. Back then the Toronto-born chef was living in Queens, fulfilling the dreams of her six-year-old self, working at high-end restaurants like Public, Mai House and Dos Caminos.
“I always wanted to be in the kitchen,” she said, recalling a time when she was hovered over a pan at age seven, standing on a chair to reach the stove, making scrambled eggs for the first time.
“I’m sure that they were regular scrambled eggs,” Fernandes said, “but because I made them, they tasted so much better to me.”
In 2013, Fernandes launched a southeast Asian-inspired food truck called Sweet Chili, which recently landed a permanent home in a Bushwick storefront last year.
Focusing primarily on Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese traditions, the restaurant features a menu of dishes and cocktails that showcase Fernandes’ interpretation of regional flavors.
According to Fernandes, her unique, modern fare is a complement to the neighborhood’s “balance” of diverse cuisines. She is known for her inventive style and spicy bites.
“People have opened up to it and become very receptive,” said Fernandes.
Originally, when the city rolled out measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 that limited restaurants to takeout and delivery, Sweet Chili was staying open and offering neighbors, as well as members of the LGBTQ community, free essentials like toilet paper, gloves and meals.
As the volume of the outbreak grew, Fernandes made the difficult decision to close shop for now, but not before giving away the restaurant’s leftovers and donating boxed lunches for roughly 160 employees sewing protective masks at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
“I started becoming concerned about the safety of my staff and delivery drivers,” the restaurant owner explained. “It became a concern of public safety, and I wanted to make sure we were not contributing at all to the spread.”
Now, Fernandes is taking the steps to make sure her first restaurant venture survives the economic impact of coronavirus. She is also working hard to support her staff during this time, as well as the rest of the city’s food service community.
“I think this will change how people eat in restaurants forever,” said Fernandes. “I’ve always said that as a chef I'll always have a job, but for the first time in my life I feel like that’s not necessarily true.”
In the meantime, as we continue to tread uncharted territory, Fernandes is encouraging people to reach out to her and other chefs on social media with their culinary questions. She even posted about it on a dating app.
The veteran chef of two decades says she’s connected with people in quarantine around the world, guiding them through recipes based on what they have available in their kitchens. Not only has this been a fun distraction from the current chaos, she says, but it’s simultaneously a way to continue contributing within her role as a chef.
“Part of the mental health portion of what food brings is making something that you didn't think you could,” Fernandes explains. “It gives you a sense of accomplishment when you’re stuck wherever you are. And you get to engage and learn about the food.”
And even if you fail, says Fernandes, at least you can have a good laugh.
Reach out to Chef Fernandes on Instagram at @cheflisanyc.