In Netflix’s new culinary competition show, Snack vs. Chef, contestants must try to replicate a variety of well-known snack foods as closely as possible, before creating a new treat loosely inspired by the original. In one episode, a group of three contestants were challenged to make a new take on a shelf-stable sandwich snack. One contestant made a whoopie-pie-esque sandwich cookie inspired by German chocolate cake. Another made a little sandwich cracker, with summer sausage, jam, and cheese crackers. Portland-based chef Luna Contreras, on the other hand, made a macaron with both Brandy Alexander and spiced chocolate meringues, tamarind-fig jam, and cheese frosting. Co-host Meg Stalter described it as “what the rich people in the Hunger Games would eat.” Contreras called it a Fig Mac.
“It’s a balance of Mexican and American flavors,” Contreras says on the show, while talking through her macaron. “Different worlds coming together — Luna’s world!”
In Luna’s world, we watch the chef bounce around the kitchen, dancing nervously near the oven while she waits. Contreras, the chef behind the pop-up and hot sauce line Chelo, has become a well-known name within the Portland restaurant world, now cooking at the newly opened Pearl District restaurant Janken. But her appearance on Snack vs. Chef is, in many ways, her national introduction as a quirky, meticulous, and impressively creative chef. Eater Portland spoke with Contreras about her approach to the show, what she learned about herself as a chef, and what’s maybe coming next in 2023.
Eater: The thing that feels unique about Snack vs. Chef is that it’s really not just based on culinary creativity, but actual food science. How did you prepare for a competition like this?
Luna Contreras: Definitely a lot of research into things like stabilizers, learning a lot about nutrition facts. Research into things like maltodextrin, agars, it helped me make the Chelo hot sauces shelf stable. But we had a kitchenette in our hotel rooms, and we got a stipend to practice. I was just practicing with a little toaster oven basically. We got a heads up in terms of the list of snacks on the recreation challenges, but we didn’t know which one we would get.
If you could have chosen which snack you’d try to emulate, which would you have chosen?
I felt really comfortable with the Oreo, I practiced that one a lot, as well as the Pringle or the Gushers. I’ve made lots of gummies. Or the Ho Ho — I would have really loved the Ho Ho. But I ate a lot of Oreos before the competition.
How did you feel when you saw the Oreos drop from the vending machine? Did you feel confident, anxious? What were your immediate thoughts in terms of approach?
I felt a little anxious, just because it was my turn. I was just mentally preparing, thinking through how to manage the time: “In one hour, I needed to do this first, gather everything…” that sort of thing.
In your episode, we get to see you dance around the kitchen a bit — is that something you do in restaurant kitchens or during pop-ups?
Definitely. I think it’s sort of a mechanism to make me feel comfortable. I do it at Janken too. It helps me feel at ease, and I think it helps me open up a little bit. I didn’t used to do that before my transition, actually. I definitely felt more at ease when I started HRT (hormone replacement therapy); that’s when me having fun in kitchens started. I still take the job super seriously, but it’s supposed to be fun, as well. It was fun to be able to do that there, to not feel so shot down.
The pool of competitors weren’t just chefs; there were food scientists and a food editor involved, as well. How did it feel to compete against a larger pool of people?
Yeah that was actually really intense. I was competing against a food scientist, someone who was really smart. You have to go, “Okay, I just have to see if this research actually helps.”
Did you come into the show with an idea for your original snack, the Fig Mac?
I had recipes for all the episodes done; I prepared snacks for every one of those challenges. I had done one that was called “Little Lunas,” something like a chocolate croissant. I was really comfortable with the Fig Mac, I had done a collab with Michelle Ruocco with that, so I felt super confident with that one. I had also wanted to do a fish-and-chip one.
Do you think you would do a pop-up with all the developed snacks? Everything we didn’t get to see?
That would be fun. I’d love to do those sorts of things if I ever open a bakery. I’d love to open a bakery with some small snacks.
Is that something you’re considering for 2023?
What did you learn about yourself as a chef after finishing Snack Vs. Chef?
It definitely tested me a lot in terms of being on the clock, that red clock ticking down. Working in a kitchen that was just set up for reality tv, not knowing the ovens, it also helped me prepare for the pop-ups in a way — I got confidence to do the pop-up run. I felt like, “I can do this. If I can cook with a camera following me around, I can definitely do pop-ups.”
The full first season of Snack Vs. Chef is available to stream on Netflix. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.