For most of his life, the smell of burned food was not uncommon in any of the kitchens where Michael Haydin ever lived. The former Sherman resident had always been a horrible cook.
"I would burn grilled cheese and undercook chicken. I always told people whatever I cook either comes out pink or black," said Haydin, a graduate of Shepaug Valley High School in Washington, and South University in Georgia.
Recently, Haydin, 25, got the chance to improve his cooking skills after being selected as one of 14 contestants on the fourth season of the Food Network's "Worst Cooks in America" -- a reality competition show for people with poor cooking skills. He learned to cook directly from top restaurant chefs Anne Burrell and Bobby Flay, and had a chance to win $25,000.
The show, which was filmed in Brooklyn, N.Y., in October, premiered Feb. 17 and is on every Sunday for the next six weeks. In a recent interview from his home in Rye Brook, N.Y., Haydin shared what his experience was like on the show.
Q: Michael, I have to tell you, this story hits very close to home for me. As my husband and four children can attest, I'm a terrible cook. You're very brave for wanting to be on this show and to cook in front of others. How were you able to get on it?
A: My wife and I watched the show's prior episodes and she would joke that I should be on it. When she learned it was casting for its fourth season, she contacted the show. Shortly after that, I got a call from a casting agency and went through several rounds of auditions. The show cast thousands of people from all across the United States. I guess there are a lot of bad cooks out there.
Q: What is the goal of the show?
A: In every episode, the chefs will demonstrate a dish and we'll need to replicate it as close as possible within a set period of time. By the end of each episode, the contestants who were least successful at this were sent home. There are two competitions taking place -- one between the chefs to see who is the best teacher, and the other between the contestants to see who is the best learner. At the end of the first episode, I cooked a successful pork chops and potatoes dish, so I got to stay on the show.
Q: How critical were the chefs of your dishes?
A: They criticized every aspect of them, from taste to texture to looks, as well as our cooking procedures, such as safe and effective knife skills and cooking carefully to avoid cross-contamination.
Q: What was the process of filming the show like?
A: I had to take time off from work. All the contestants were sequestered in a house in Brooklyn. We weren't allowed any contact with the outside world -- no cellphones, no Internet, no TV, and definitely no cookbooks.
Q: What was it like working with Anne Burrell and Bobby Flay?
A: Chef Anne really knows how to put things in a way you can easily understand. With Chef Bobby, you can tell he spent years perfecting his craft by seeing how comfortable he is with food and flavors.
Q: Would you say you're a better cook from this experience?
A: Definitely. I got over my initial fear of cooking and realize cooking can be pretty fun. I now cook three or four nights a week, a lot of Italian and Asian food.
Q: So, I see you seem to like bow ties. Did you just wear them on the show?
A: No, that's me. I always wear bow ties. I wear them every day to work. I don't like ties because they get in the way.
Q: What was your biggest fear while you were on the show?
A: I wondered what they would do to me if I burned the whole studio down.
Sandra Diamond Fox is a freelance writer in Connecticut; Sandraifox@aol.com.