Some stars are born on the screen, while others are born in the kitchen. Chef Millie Fernadez, founder of RockStarChefz and contestant on Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen, has built success on both. Developing a business based on providing top-quality food in a friendly, community environment, Fernandez prides herself on putting heart into every meal. “It started as a concept in 2012,” she says. “I wanted to combine my three passions: entertaining, culinary, and giving-back to my community.”
Set to create dinner at the Children’s Aid Foundation’s 15th annual Women’s Golf Classic, Fernandez will call upon her talents for a cause that hits close to home: youth in care.
Born to a drug-addicted mother, Fernandez was abandoned in a Miami apartment at the age of two. “I was there for a couple of days until the neighbours called the police,” says Fernandez. Entering the foster care system, she was moved between three different foster homes before being reintegrated into her father’s family in Colombia.
“It hugely affected my confidence,” says Fernandez in reflection of her time in care. “I really felt like I had nobody to care for me, [like I was just] a number.”
Fernandez didn’t know it then, but moving-in with her father’s family, in particular her grandmother, would have a profound influence on her future. “I’d been jumped from place-to-place so my relationship with my grandmother was very big,” Fernandez says. “[My grandmother] was always in the kitchen, she had a huge heart. She was always cooking for the neighbours and homeless people who were passing by; it just inspired me so much.”
Motivated by food’s ability to bring people together, Fernandez eventually took over the kitchen after her grandmother’s death. “I always knew that happiness, that peace, that motivation, that cooking brought me was very powerful,” she says. “Food has always been the common denominator in our society; it brings family and friends together. Regardless of social status, beliefs, religion or colour, all humans need food and enjoy getting together for great meals,” she adds, saying: “It filled a lot of voids for me.”
Taking the leap to return to the United States at the age of 18, Fernandez moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a rapper. However, after enrolling in college, she quickly became famous amongst her friends for her ability to cook. “I actually still have a rough draft of 15 different recipes to make with [ramen] noodles, the “official sponsor” food of college,” says Fernandez.
“I always made something out of nothing; it reminded me of my grandmother and being able to put a smile on people’s faces. The magic of being able to create an amazing meal out of nothing became my trademark.”
Emboldened by her passion for food, Fernandez founded RockStarChefz in 2012 as a platform to provide collaborative dining experiences that emphasize delicious food and the best in customer service. “I have high-profile clients who can go to any fancy restaurant,” Fernandez explains. “But can they be served a delicious homemade meal like Grandma used to make? With my services they get that experience. These clients miss that; they want that warmth, that exquisite simplicity of Grandma’s food in the comfort of their own home.”
Extending this idea into a non-profit model, Fernandez knew that she wanted to put ten percent of the company’s monthly earnings towards a charitable endeavour, with a focus on foster homes. “People say ‘oh, kids in foster homes, they’re taken care of’, and it’s not always like that,” says Fernandez. “You may be taken care of in terms of some clothing and some food and a roof, but there’s other essentials that a child needs: education, love, emotional care… [they probably need love] more than the average kid.”
Fernandez connects with youth in care by cooking with them and educating them about eating healthy on a budget. She also shares her own story.
“I have the opportunity to inject motivation into these kids and give them hope and the ability to express ‘even if life has dealt you the worst cards and all the doors have been closed for you, you can still build a life for yourself, be happy, and make a difference’,” says Fernandez. “Some people may not understand the magnitude of accomplishing this because the average person hasn’t lived it. But I’ve lived it. I understand these kids and the emotions and emptiness that a traumatic childhood can bring.”
After appearing on Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen, Fernandez reached a new level of confidence in publicly sharing her experiences. “I had a lot of fears in terms of throwing myself out there in public and telling my story,” she says. “For me, being a child who came from a foster home, everything’s been so different. Just being able to say ‘I’m a chef and I’m doing this’, [in comparison to] where I started — two-years-old and abandoned in a room in Miami’; there’s a lot history, lots of ups-and-downs in that.”
While Fernandez has already made significant contributions to kids in care, she hopes to expand her reach and turn her non-profit work into a fulltime business. “People have asked me why I donate ten percent of a small business, but they’re not seeing the big picture,” says Fernandez. “I’m developing a concept, a dream that I’ve had all my life.”
Attributing her love for cooking with having helped her overcome past challenges, Fernandez says that she hopes to inspire the same passion within other vulnerable youth. She is determined to help them make the most out of their lives. “This is not the moment to fail,” she says. “We can be whatever we want to be, no matter what the circumstances. I strive daily to be an example of this.”