N eil Fuentes is a natural.
The question is: a natural what? He cooks professionally, sings in a band, makes a mean cocktail, teaches classes and can work a room like nobody’s business.
So why narrow it down? The Venezuelan-born Fuentes chooses, instead, to embrace his myriad talents, as evidenced by his adopted moniker, “The Singing Chef.” It’s a title he’s earned during repeat performances on WTNH’s lifestyle television program, “Connecticut Style,” where, you guessed it, he croons and cooks.
At the moment, we’re not in a TV studio but in the kitchen of Fuentes’s Morris Cove home, where he teaches weekly cooking classes. “Put a lot in there, this is the holidays,” he instructs, smiling, during a recent group class on Latin-inspired Thanksgiving sides. He’s speaking to Daniella Wilde, who is finishing up her “mofongo”—a mixture of cooked green plantains and vegetables—with grated Parmesan.
Olive oil is normally his fat of choice, but today’s class is a special occasion. Like he says, it’s the holidays, and adding whole sticks of butter to frying skillets of bacon is a pardonable overindulgence.
Wilde and Nancy Oliveira are regulars at Fuentes’ classes. Today, under his watchful but relaxed instruction, they also make “fufu,” a delectable hash of ripe plantains, sweet potatoes, bacon, onions and brown sugar, as well as mashed yucca with butter and cheese and a dressed-up version of rice and beans (which contains bacon as well).
Dishes are tasted along the way to utter delight—this is delicious stuff and there’s plenty to go around. The students, who have brought some of the necessary ingredients with them to the $40 session, will take home the leftovers.
This is not a class for the persnickety or inflexible. Fuentes, who measures informally by sight when preparing the usually Latin-themed dishes, says that he’s “just a home cook who cooks from here,” and then points to his heart. This isn’t an act; he grew up on a farm in Venezuela watching his mother harvest fruit and vegetables grown on the property, cook farm-raised meat and make her own cheese. His cooking has a folksy, unaffected quality because, to him, authentic homemade food is the only option.
Fuentes’s penchant for entertainment is the perfect foil to his cozy cooking style. He claims that if he could be on a stage every single day, he would be.
His publicist, however, ensures that Fuentes—who gets in trouble for saying yes to everything—doesn’t burn himself out. Nevertheless, merely listing his various commitments is tiring. In addition to the regular cooking classes, Fuentes does private classes, is one of three chefs acting as brand ambassadors for Sabra hummus products—participating in an ongoing web series, the “Sabra Recipe Makeover”—performs at a variety of events (from 10,000-plus crowds to small parties) with his ten-piece band Sonido Libre and is a guest chef at many food events and fundraisers and on various programs.
Which brings us back to “Connecticut Style,” where I’m told Fuentes has been featured over 40 times. It’s all the more impressive considering his first segment wasn’t even planned; someone from the WTNH team had spotted him cooking—and singing—during a literary fundraiser, and invited him to film a show segment last-minute when an already scheduled chef cancelled.
That was some good luck, but, mostly, it’s been a goal-centric labor of love. And Fuentes has another, important goal in mind: his own television show, based on the idea of “The Singing Chef.”
“I will have my own show,” he says with absolute certainty.
What about downtime? If you can believe it, Fuentes says he enjoys cooking at home. Already confident with the Latin American cuisine he regularly prepares, “I like to get out of my comfort zone,” he explains, by exploring other cuisines or skills he’s less practiced in, like bread making.
But remember: this guy’s a natural in the limelight—on stage, front and center, all eyes on him. “Downtime” is a relative term.
“For me,” Fuentes says, looking around his bustling kitchen during the Thanksgiving class, alive with the sounds of bubbling, sizzling and the laughter of his student chefs as they chat, stir, chop and grate, “this is relaxing.”
Neil Fuentes, The Singing Chef
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.