A Portland chef once again takes the spotlight in a Netflix food show—another win in a year when our city was highlighted in Street Food USA, Somebody Feed Phil, Chef’s Table: Pizza, and more. Chef Luna Contreras, formerly of Nightingale and who now runs the pop-up Chelo, competed in the new Netflix show Snack vs Chef, which debuted on November 30.
Chefs were tasked with recreating one of several classic corner store snacks—Pringles, Lay’s, Kit Kats, Hot Cheetos, Gushers, Ho Hos, and Oreos—and then putting their own spin on their assigned snack. In episode 4, Contreras is selected by the ever-powerful vending machine to recreate Oreos. Serious cookie cravings, nail-biting time limits, and dancing in the kitchen ensued. We talked with Contreras about her first TV appearance, her test kitchen lab, and keeping it fun in the kitchen.
How did you get picked for this show? What was the filming process like?
When I was at Nightingale, ITV America reached out to see if I was interested in doing the show, because I guess they had trawled the Instagram and seen all these baked goods and snacky kind of things. I went through the casting process, maybe three Zoom interviews, and got picked. It was my first time on TV, so it was a little nerve-wracking, and it was during the pandemic, so we were covid testing all the time. But it wasn’t such a cutthroat kind of show—it was supposed to be fun, and food science-y, so I felt more comfortable once things started.
How did you prepare for making snacks on the show?
We had a kitchenette in our hotel rooms, and we had a stipend for ordering things on Amazon. I took my own tools when I traveled. I had a little toaster oven, and practiced all the snacks, because I wasn’t sure which one I would get. I had an induction burner, too. I was even making macarons in the toaster oven, on a tiny little sheet pan. Some chefs even brought a tabletop fryer.
That sounds dangerous. What were the other contestants on the show like? I saw one of them called you a “dancing baker” and claimed he could beat you because of that.
We weren’t allowed to talk to each other during filming—only after the filming stopped. But everyone became really good friends, we’re still all in one really big text thread. There was no anger or egos, even though I was called a dancing baker or whatever.
Do you always dance in the kitchen?
Yeah, baking and dancing really helped me during hormone replacement therapy, how it helped my nerves and makes me feel calm. The show also made me realize I really love baking, and it’s something I want to focus on now—a hybrid with food and lots of baked goods.
Do you think your experience as a chef gave you advantages over people who were in fields like food science, who don’t have that same time pressure in their job?
Yeah, especially coming from the Bay Area, where you do lots of covers, and prix fixe dinners at Ox and Agnes.
Yeah, they commented you were very meticulous at your workstation—is that your restaurant experience showing through?
Yeah, in Michelin kitchens, you have to work super clean and super small, cause you’ll get knocked if you’re not. It’s how I like to work, too. Like my pop-ups at Magna—Magna is so small, so I have to work small. It helps me stay focused and like my brain is clear when I see my cutting board area organized—it helps me stay calm.
What’s your favorite snack?
Growing up in Mexico, there was a little grocery store across from my grandma’s house, and you could always pop in there for M&Ms. I still eat Oreos. I love Pringles. All these snacks, I eat at home, and that’s why it was a really fun show to be a part of.
What are your plans for opening a brick-and-mortar?
We’re gonna start the Kickstarter in January for the bakery-restaurant hybrid, a lunch-brunch concept, things like tlayudas and enchiladas. A couple days for others’ pop-ups, a couple days for prix fixe dinners and events. I’m happiest if I get to create. I’m working at Janken right now, for stability, and I don’t get as much input, but it’s still really nice to be part of a chef team.
What kind of feedback have you gotten since the show came out?
It’s definitely helped with followers on Instagram. And people from all over the world message me, especially trans people about representation. Some people say, I loved your energy, loved that you were dancing! It’s been really positive.