Auburn chef cooks his way to season 13 of "Hell's Kitchen"
When Fernando Cruz was finishing high school in Ponce, Puerto Rico, he was assigned a final project. While other students struggled with ideas for weeks, Cruz said he knew what he was doing in a heartbeat.
On the day of his presentation, Cruz walked to his senior classroom with a smile on his face -- portable gas stove in tow.
Cruz said his peers watched in awe as he effortlessly seared a skirt steak, mixed an Argentine chimichurri sauce and whipped mashed potatoes.
Ten years later, Cruz is the executive chef at the Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center and a recent competitor on season 13 of FOX's hit show "Hell's Kitchen."
"I didn't just wake up one day and say, 'I'm going to cook,'" Cruz said. "It just grew into me and became a part of me. From there, I set my goals high."
In 2003, Cruz left Puerto Rico to attend the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in hospitality and hotel and restaurant management in 2007.
The 29-year-old chef said his accomplishments are the product of hard work.
"My family didn't have any money, and the CIA was incredibly expensive," Cruz said. "But I went, and I told myself, 'I'll pay for it later.' I'm a very independent person and I've paid for everything myself. Even with all the loans, I could never regret my education."
Roy Khoo, culinary director at the Cancer Treatment Center of America in Newnan, Georgia, hired Cruz fresh out of culinary school.
"Fernando was young and he was green, but I hired him because he had an indescribable drive for success," Khoo said. "As I talked to him, I saw this passion in his eye and knew he had a keen dedication for what he does, and that he'd make it in this business."
After working with Cruz for five years, Khoo drove more than an hour to attend the "Hell's Kitchen" premiere watch party at the Hotel at Auburn University Sept. 10.
"The trip was worth it because I got to see Cruz's great performance on the show while being there with him," Khoo said. "This will give his career a boost, and he deserves it. People will know his name, and people will see the same passion I've seen in him for years."
Cruz said Khoo has been a mentor throughout his career, and Cruz wouldn't be as successful without him.
"Roy's the person who taught me how to be a leader," Cruz said. "When he hired me, I knew how to cook, but he was a mentor to me for so much more. He taught me something very special. I won't stop for someone in the kitchen, but I will always slow down for them and teach them like Roy did for me. I have so much respect for Roy and his teachings."
After cooking in different regions around the country with Khoo, Cruz said his experience made him an ideal contestant for "Hell's Kitchen," but that's not what led him to apply.
"I remember watching the show while I was at the CIA and thinking, 'These people are crazy, I would never,'" Cruz said. "I don't know what came over me. I wanted to see how I compared to other cooks across the nation and when the opportunity knocked at my door, I answered it."
While Cruz finished his culinary training years ago, the executive chef said "Hell's Kitchen" was an extension of his schooling.
"Gordon Ramsay is one of the greatest chefs I've ever met," Cruz said. "What you see on TV is what you get. The audience usually sees him stressed and angry, but his mentoring side is the side you don't see. He truly wants to help you grow and become a better chef. I couldn't have asked for a better teacher."
Maria Gomez, Cruz's wife, said she was concerned about his decision to participate in a reality television show, even with the opportunity he would receive if he won the competition.
"I rarely watched the show to begin with because it stressed me out," Gomez said with a laugh. "I just don't care for reality TV. Sometimes people are portrayed how they're not. From the Kardashians to 'Hell's Kitchen,' the producers can make something out of nothing, and I was worried about how Fernando would be portrayed."
To keep her husband grounded, she gave him a piece of advice before he left for filming.
"'Don't lose yourself,' I told him," Gomez said. "We have three kids under the age of 5, and he has an entire professional career at stake, but he never lost himself or his values. He didn't change, and I'm so proud of him."
Gomez, who also attended the CIA, met Cruz while pursuing her bachelor's degree in culinary arts.
"We've been successful, but we're not making filet mignon at home," Gomez said. "We are very simple, and we aren't food snobs. We'll feed anything to our family if it's fresh, good and done right. Simplicity is what it's all about."
Now, seeing her husband's success, Gomez said she's been able to put her concerns aside and enjoy the "Hell's Kitchen" experience with her children.
"We're all so happy and proud of him," Gomez said. "We're so young, and he's going to have such a long and successful career. We have a lot to look forward to."
Cruz said he's glad "Hell's Kitchen" shaped his culinary abilities and not his personality.
"I got a part on 'Hell's Kitchen' by being who I am," Cruz said. "The show didn't change that, and I couldn't be more proud of the way I handled everything."
The Hotel at Auburn University is hosting watch parties every Wednesday throughout Cruz's run on "Hell's Kitchen." The parties are free and open to the public.
"On TV or not, I'm still a part of this community," Cruz said. "I want everyone to come and enjoy this experience with me, young and old. I'll prepare the dishes on that night's show, and it will create great memories."
Cruz said he's grateful he set his sights high, and advises other young people to do the same.
"Don't let anything stop you," Cruz said. "Set your goals as high as you can. You won't be able to achieve them tomorrow, but that's why you work on them. If you have a goal and fight for it, but are able to remember who you are, someday you'll achieve more than you ever thought possible."