PUEBLA, Mexico (AP) – A plain-spoken Mexican nun has become an unlikely television star while trying to save her congregation from mounting debts.
Sixty-eight-year-old Florinda Ruiz Carapia, 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 already made it past several stages that have whittled the 300 want-to-be chefs down to five finalists. With only three weeks left till the finale, Hermana Flor has proven so popular that Esquivel is a little 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.
"I think Hermana Flor's popularity comes from her being a very straightforward, very human, very sympathetic person," said Esquivel. "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."
It's not all sugar and sweetness from Hermana Flor; in fact it's her tasty, fiery chile sauces that 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 like 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. That's a kind of seafood I've never cooked here. We don't have the money for that kind of thing."
She also was a bit intimidated by thick cuts of meat.
"I did a chop (on the show), and it came out raw, because it was so thick. I ruined it," said the sister, who is around 5 feet (152 centimeters) tall. "Look at this," she said, pointing to a metal bowl of thin-cut flank steaks marinating in the seminary's kitchen. "The steaks we have here are paper thin; you put them on the grill and they're done. We don't have any medium, medium-rare, none of that here."
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 chile 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, routinely praising the sister's sauces. She has earned over 31,000 followers on her Twitter account in the 15 weeks since the show began, and fans crowd her Facebook page with comments like, "You're an inspiration!" and "She's Mexico's favorite nun."
But just don't try to congratulate Hermana Flor 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."
Keeping an eye over the three or four helpers in her industrial-size kitchen, Hermana Flor noted, "There's never enough money in the religious orders, money is never wasted."
She said she dreams of helping her order get out of debt, and funding missions in Africa or Mexico.
"We have debts, we have missions where we provide aid, and so with this contest, and the million pesos they offer ... I am going to be able to help," she said in a friendly but determined way.
She'd also like to attract new recruits to her aging, shrinking order.
"I'd like to invite the girls who are watching me (on television) and want to be like me, to come to the convent, so the order can grow, and so there can be many, many Hermanas Flor."