When Juni Cuevas is in the kitchen, he’s in control.
The 28-year-old Raleigh home cook who is making a name for himself right now on Fox’s “MasterChef” can control every aspect of a dish — the ingredients, the flavors, the look, the taste. It’s that need for control that gave Cuevas a sense of peace during a time of personal upheaval and a sense of purpose as he lives out his dream on national television.
Cuevas, born and raised for the first part of his childhood in California, has lived in North Carolina for 17 years. His parents are Mexican immigrants who moved their family across the country to escape the environment of drugs and gang violence where they lived.
But things were bad between his parents, and they split up.
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“It didn’t go so well because my father broke a restraining order that she had filed against him,” Cuevas said. His father had legal status, but his mother was still working on hers. There was an incident between them, and his mother ended up deported.
“She’s always been a strong person, at least in my eyes,” he said. “She’s dealt with a lot of things, like domestic violence. She was always trying to do the best for us.
“Just having to be involved in all that while I was in school, it really took a toll on my mental health. I fell into a deep depression because I felt like I couldn’t really control anything in my life. Everything was falling apart. It wasn’t until I got into the kitchen that I felt like I was gaining control of something. When I’m cooking, it’s like I can control how everything looks, how everything tastes. That’s where I really found my happy place.”
Cuevas, currently in the Top 20 on “MasterChef” (which airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on Fox), says his mother taught him a few things in the kitchen, but he’s mostly self-taught by necessity — a necessity born of his oldest sister being an awful cook.
“Growing up, whenever my parents would go to work they would leave my oldest sister to take care of us — and my oldest sister is a terrible cook,” he said. “Her signature dish is eggs with hot dogs. I guess being exposed to not-so-great food, I would watch my parents cook and when they left, I’d go into the kitchen and try to recreate some of those recipes. That really kind of got me into the kitchen."
He became vegetarian in his teens and spent time in the kitchen learning to make his favorite Mexican dishes meatless.
Being vegetarian not only satisfied his ethical concerns about the treatment of animals, it made him healthier and more confident, he said.
“For me, seeing all of the ways animals are being treated in the United States and things that are going on with the meat industry, I just didn’t feel like I wanted to contribute to that,” he said. “And it helped a lot with my self-esteem. Growing up I was a little bit of a chubby kid. So after I changed my diet and started exercising, the pounds just kind of fell off. I gained some self-confidence and everything just kind of fell into place.”
Perfecting the 'drag brunch'
Another self-esteem boost came while in college at N.C. State when his friends encouraged him to perform in a charity Cabaret drag show.
“It’s fun to put on a different persona, essentially, and perform for the crowd," Cuevas said. "Having had a lack of self-esteem and never feeling adequate, especially growing up here in North Carolina where if you’re not really a Southern person or white a lot of the times, you’re kind of seen as the outcast. And so it just made me feel good to be on the stage and have everyone pay attention to me.”
After that, Cuevas started performing in drag more often and even won a pageant at one of the local gay bars. He stopped performing a couple years ago, but still likes "to play dress up,” he said.
One way he does that is by hosting drag brunch parties at home for friends.
“I’ll dress up and present an elegant meal, but it’s more tongue-in-cheek,” he said. “I would love to take it mainstream if possible, something to contribute back to the LGBT community of Raleigh that really helped me find myself and empower me.”
Cooking is his creative outlet
It’s a creative outlet after working a day job — he’s a disability analyst for the state — that doesn’t allow for much creativity.
“That’s one of the other things that helps me,” he said. “When I go home and I’m in the kitchen, I’m able to fully express myself and be creative outside of work — because you can’t really be creative with peoples’ lives.”
Cuevas studied abroad in Paris and has visited more than 11 countries. He loves French food and Indian food (his favorite Raleigh restaurant is Kadhai on Glenwood Avenue), and enjoys combining the flavors of those cuisines with the food of Mexico.
For one of his brunches, for example, he might serve a lavender flan, incorporating a flavor popular in French cuisine into a traditional Mexican dessert.
He doesn’t ignore his Southern influence in the kitchen, either. Another dish he’s currently working on perfecting combines elements of French, Mexican and Southern cooking: an eggs Benedict on brioche with sautéed collard greens with chorizo and a jalapeño hollandaise.
'MasterChef' as a validation
Cuevas can’t say much right now about his time on “MasterChef” (episodes are taped in advance) but says he’s still in shock to be in the Top 20 out of the thousands of people who auditioned for the show.
In his "MasterChef" debut on June 6, Cuevas described himself as a "middle-aged suburban housewife trapped in a gay man's body," and then whipped up a "magical" chili relleno that landed him on the team of chef Aaron Sanchez. Later in the episode, Cuevas competed in a mystery box challenge and was given an ingredient that host Gordon Ramsay said "screams where you're from" — the sweet potato.
He made a sweet potato biscuit with chorizo and jalapeno hollandaise, and also a sweet potato hash. He cruised to safety.
“I do have a passion for food and I really enjoy cooking, but I never saw myself standing in front of Joe Bastianich and Aaron Sanchez and Gordon Ramsay with them tasting and judging my food,” he said. “Growing up I never felt like I fit in or that I was good enough, so to be on the show has really been a validation of myself and my capabilities.”
He says the contestants are “all a big cooking family,” but admits there’s “definitely some drama this season.”
“We all have different views of life, but when we’re in the ‘MasterChef’ kitchen, we can all relate to one another because we love cooking and we love doing this and it doesn’t matter what else we do outside of that, we can always talk about one thing — and that’s food,” he said.
Apart from the fact that being on the show has been a nice self-confidence boost — or perhaps because of that — Cuevas wants his time on the show to serve as an example to those who maybe had a rough start, like he did.
“I’m doing this because I want to serve as an inspiration for any other little gay boy out there — or anybody else — who may not have felt like they fit in,” he said. “As long as you set your mind to it, you can really accomplish goals and become whatever you want to be.”
"MasterChef" airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on Fox