HIGHLAND PARK, IL — A fashion model and Highland Park native nicknamed 'Banana Hands' managed to make it through the first two rounds of an elimination-based televised cooking competition for a chance to win the $25,000 grand prize.
Zach Ignoffo, a 2011 Highland Park High School graduate, won a jerk chicken challenge in the season 20 premiere of Food Network's "Worst Cooks in America."
"Obviously, cooking is a craft," Ignoffo said. "I love food, I've been around food my entire life. My dad's a great cook. All throughout my travels I've had food. But I'm super clumsy."
On the season's second episode, Ignoffo again managed to avoid getting cut — which has historically been a challenge for him, even leading to a visit to the hospital a couple years ago.
"I was cutting garlic and I wasn't paying attention, and I cut the top tendon of my thumb to the point where I saw bone and my thumb just went limp," Ignoffo told Patch.
Following surgery and rehab for that injury, Ignoffo said he mostly stopped using knives, donning oven mitts for protection whenever he did.
Appearing on a cooking show required him get over his fear of knives and take on the challenge of a range of new tools, he said.
"Their kitchen's magnificent, in 'Worst Cooks.' They have huge whisks, hammers, tools, automated screwdriver things," he said. "I didn't even know what half the stuff on the walls were."
Ignoffo, who launched his full-time modeling career shortly before the coronavirus halted entertainment industry, spent several years in China after studying Mandarin in college.
In 2016, he earned a graduate certificate in sustainable development and consumer preferences from Nanjing University before returning to the United States and becoming a cybersecurity consultant.
Cooking was not a priority in either role, he said. Ignoffo said lunch in China would set him back about 50 cents, and he could splurge on a large dinner for just $2. Back in the U.S., he has found new reasons not to develop cooking skills.
"When I was working late in a corporate job you don't eat. And now that I'm a model, you really don't eat," he said. "You wake up, you inhale a big gust of wind — that's breakfast. You have a kale for lunch, and you swallow your feelings for dinner."
The 14 contestants on "Worst Cooks in America" were divided among teams mentored by celebrity chefs Alex Guarnaschelli and Anne Burrell. Ignoffo is on Burrell's team. By the third episode, which airs Sunday, both teams are down to five members.
The finale of the seven-episode season is set to air Aug. 2. It will feature the cast's two "most-improved" cooks, who will prepare a three-course meal for judges Mary Giuliani, Julian Rodarte and James Tahhan, who will determine the winner of the $25,000 grand prize in a blind taste test, according to Food Network representatives.
The show was filmed over four weeks in Queens, New York, ending in mid-February, according to a casting call. A Food Network spokesperson said the COVID-19 pandemic had no impact on the show's production or post-production.
Part of his motivation for improving his cooking skills, Ignoffo said, is the risk of missing out on a symbolic hand-me-down.
"[There's] a longstanding tradition in my family, on my dad's side, of passing down this Italian flag apron, kind of like a family heirloom, for the male chefs. I was at risk of course of not getting this apron," he said. "My dad really held it over my head and said, 'You're not going to get it, your sister's going to get it.' It's going to be the first in the long line — I think it's going back four generations — of this heirloom, and without knowing how to cook I was going to miss out on it."