Hermana Flor has made it past several stages that have whittled the 300 want-to-be chefs down to five finalists.
PUEBLA, Mexico — A nun has become an unlikely television star while trying to save her congregation from mounting debts.
Florinda Ruiz Carapia, 68, better known as “Hermana Flor,” is one of five finalists on Mexico’s version of “Master Chef,” a program in which contestants compete for a 1 million peso ($59,000) prize. That would at least make a dent in the approximately 7 million peso debt that her order, the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ, owes for loans it took out to build or expand schools, according to Alejandro Esquivel, producer of the TV Azteca show.
Passionist missionary Jose Antonio Barrientos confirmed the debt problems and said the order is also worried that new government requirements might leave some of the order’s schools out of compliance with regulations, perhaps requiring expensive renovations.
Hermana Flor has made it past several stages that have whittled the 300 want-to-be chefs down to five finalists. With three weeks left until the finale, Hermana Flor has proved so popular that Esquivel is worried about the potential backlash if the nun doesn’t win. A panel of professional chefs judges the contestants on the taste, presentation and speed of their dishes.
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“I think Hermana Flor’s popularity comes from her being a very straightforward, very human, very sympathetic person,” Esquivel said. “I think there will be disappointment if anyone is eliminated, but obviously, that will be much greater if it is Hermana Flor, because the audiences like her so much.”
Hermana Flor’s tasty, fiery chili sauces have gotten her this far.
At a seminary in the central state of Puebla where she cooks three meals a day for 150 seminarians, Hermana Flor runs a simple but sustainable and nutritious operation: a small mill grinds moist heaps of corn for fresh tortillas, sheep graze outside the windows, pigs and chickens eat the kitchen scraps and any leftovers go to local hospitals.
But it leaves Hermana Flor struggling with concepts such as plating food and presentation, something she doesn’t worry about when hungry would-be priests pile into the dining hall: She sets out a plate full of food for each table of 10, and everybody serves himself.
She also was flummoxed when the judges at “Master Chef” made her cook a lobster. “There are a lot of things I don’t know how to use, like the lobster,” she said. “That’s a kind of seafood I’ve never cooked here. We don’t have the money for that kind of thing.”
To dress up a typical day’s lunch menu — beef, grilled nopal cactus, grilled onions, rice, beans and tortillas — Hermana Flor uses the classic, local ingredients that don’t cost much and pack a punch.
“There is always chili in Mexico, and lots of it, and tomatoes, and onions,” she said. “With that, I can make you a tasty dish.”
The three judges on the show agree, praising her sauces. She has earned more than 31,000 followers on her Twitter account in the 15 weeks since the show began, and fans crowd her Facebook page with comments such as: “You’re an inspiration!” and “She’s Mexico’s favorite nun.”
Don’t try to congratulate her yet.
“Don’t tell me I’m famous. I’m not famous until I get that money in my hand,” she said. “I want to win, because I want to help others. I still have five (contestants) to go, and fame hasn’t done anything for me yet, it hasn’t given me one cent.”