BISMARCK — For a man with the word "baker" in his name, Evan Baker realized early on that he was no top chef, though he kept a "positive attitude" about his attempts to re-create the Mexican food he grew up with in Southern California.
But after a disastrous mashup in the kitchen — a "particularly offensive" dish combining leftover eggs, spaghetti and guacamole, efficient in its approach but rough in its execution — his wife, Cassandra, had enough.
Baker, 36, moved to Bismarck seven years ago for a job at the University of Mary, where he now works as a mission advancement officer, and met his future wife just a month or so later. They now have two kids and recently moved into a house in Bismarck.
He says he didn't think he was that bad in the kitchen, so he didn't take it seriously last year when his wife jokingly threatened after that leftover meal to nominate him for the Food Network show "The Worst Cooks in America."
A couple months later, he got a call back from a casting agency, and Baker flew out to New York City in mid-January to become one of the 14 "kitchen disasters" competing in the show's 20th season for the chance to win $25,000. The new season will premiere at 8 p.m. Central time Sunday, June 21, and while Baker wasn't allowed to discuss how it all turns out, he did share some of the lessons he learned.
Not too long ago, he kept things simple in the kitchen. Even now, he still has a bit of an "aversion" to the microwave, and he tries to steer clear of raw meat when possible — even when it comes to washing dishes that held raw chicken.
"I actually just leave it to the side," he says, adding that at their previous apartment in Bismarck, the family didn't have a dishwasher, which only made things worse. "Once, they got so bad that I hid them in the oven."
He really only felt comfortable trying to make simple Mexican dishes, such as quesadillas or bean and cheese burritos, but his wife was getting sick of it, and even he didn't like the end results.
But his casting on the show could change that. The Bakers were already fans of the Food Network show, and he says he didn't know what to expect when he got to the set, though he was curious if host Anne Burrell would be as "harsh" or "brutal" as she appears on the series.
He says he mainly wanted to just get better.
"I was getting all amped up because I thought this is my chance to help my family, to be honest," he says. "This is like a culinary boot camp, and this is a chance for me to really gain some tremendously valuable experience."
He says he was surprised to learn he'd also get to work with Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli, but he knew whoever the new mentor was, "the ability to learn from these top-notch executive chefs that have been in the industry for decades would be nothing short of amazing."
While the ongoing coronavirus pandemic means he can't have a large gathering to celebrate Sunday's season premiere, and the family's lack of a cable subscription means they can't watch it at home, Baker says his family is very involved in Bismarck's Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, and the rector, Father Josh Ehli, invited them to the rectory to watch. He hopes to have a bigger gathering when the season comes to a conclusion — and get a chance to prove to his wife and friends that he did, indeed, learn a thing or two.
"I definitely gained a deep appreciation and that propelled me to want to experience more in the kitchen and obviously to help more and cook more for my family," he says.
Some of those lessons might seem like a no-brainer, he says, such as the importance of salt for flavor.
"That never dawned on me before," he admits.
He's also learned the importance of using "common sense," he says, such as having everything in order ahead of time and keeping an eye on potential safety hazards.
And he's more appreciative than ever of just how important food is, saying it "brings people together" like few things can.
"I don't mean to get all teary-eyed or all emotional, but it's true," he says. "It's something that's just a little deeper than nourishment or calories or what have you. There's a lot more to the experience than just that."