Her grandmother cooked for the Rockefeller family in Fayetteville and her father owns a restaurant in Spring Lake, but somehow Janese Henry never learned to cook. Her culinary reputation among family and friends became so bad that many of them — more than one — nominated her to compete on Food Network’s “Worst Cooks in America.”
Henry, a graduate of N.C. Central University in Durham, will appear on the show starting with this Sunday’s 9 p.m. season premiere.
Henry said her bad rep began a few years ago when she made a green bean casserole for a family dinner.
“I’ve been the laughing stock since then,” Henry said in a phone interview this week.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
When asked what was wrong with the casserole, Henry didn’t hesitate.
“I didn’t think anything was wrong with it!” she said. “They said it looked nasty. They take pictures. Around the holidays they’ll say on Facebook, ‘My holiday is almost complete, now I just need to see a picture of Janese’s green bean casserole’ — and people have it on demand, saved on their phones!”
Even though Henry will occasionally add “I just don’t appreciate it!” when recounting her family’s rejection, she says it with a laugh. She has a great sense of humor about all the grief she gets.
Her failings are not for her lack of trying, she insisted. With three young daughters — ages 2, 5 and 10 — she tried to cook more, but it didn’t get any better. She ended up cooking a lot of what she calls “heat and eat” meals, like spaghetti and frozen pancakes on a stick.
“The fanciest meal is probably spaghetti, when I put the Parmesan cheese on it,” she said. “The kind in the jar, not like the real Parmesan cheese. I didn’t even know Parmesan cheese came other than the grated kind that you put on spaghetti until recently.”
And her sauce? It’s from a jar. “I did not know that people actually made their own sauces,” she said. “I used Ragu. OK, let me not lie. I use the store brand of Ragu.”
But whenever Henry deviated from spaghetti and pancakes on a stick, her family revolted.
“When I try to make what I call square meals — a meat, a vegetable and a starch — they will not eat it. My middle child has literally gone to bed if I tell her, ‘If you don’t eat your food you’re going to bed.’ She’ll go bed.”
Her husband isn’t much braver.
“I’ll make him something that I think turned out really good,” she said. “I’ve found my food in the garbage can on many occasions. I’ve found my food hidden to throw away later because he knows I’m in the kitchen by the garbage can, so he’ll try to tuck it away somewhere and then forget about it.”
From a food family
Henry said she never learned to cook from her mother or grandmother because her mother was sick a lot when she and her siblings were little, and she just didn’t cook much. Her grandmother cooked all her life, but it didn’t rub off on Henry.
“I didn’t get any skills from her,” she said. “I was not allowed in the kitchen with her. My grandmother was a very ‘no kids in the kitchen’ type, very old fashioned.”
But food was always important in her family, she said, and there are a lot of family gatherings planned around food. “Food was always around, I just never got that part of it.”
Several years ago her father — “he’s really the cook in the family,” she told us — opened Saucy Wings, a restaurant in Spring Lake, and all her brothers have worked there. Henry worked there for a while, managing the front and the cashiers, but they would never allow her to cook anything.
Her two oldest daughters show some interest in cooking now, particularly the 5 year old. “My middle baby is the one who, we watch the cooking shows together,” Henry said. “She loves all that.”
And now that she’s back from “Worst Cooks,” she’s trying to involve the kids more in meal preparations.
“We love to make homemade pizzas together,” Henry said. She goes for the store-bought crust, but now her sauce is homemade.
So, is it really that bad?
Henry is adamant that she doesn’t think her food is that bad. She eats it, and she thinks it’s fine.
“Sometimes I really do feel like the food is good, so I don’t know what their problem is,” Henry said. “But I’m just like, look, either you eat it or you don’t. I don’t believe in wasting food.”
When friends and family members recommended she go on “Worst Cooks in America,” she looked up the show and figured they would never take her because her food was not that bad.
“I said, ‘No, that’s not me.’ Apparently it was me, though. So here I am.”
She said at least three different people nominated her. She isn’t mad, though, because she loved the time she spent on the show.
“The show was the best time of my life,” she said. “I value my experience with the chefs so much and I will hold on to it forever. … I got a world class experience with world renowned chefs.”
The premise of “Worst Cooks in America” is that a group of struggling cooks are selected to go through a sort of chef’s boot camp. They are taught basic cooking techniques and then the new skills are tested. At least one contestant is eliminated in each episode and the winner at the end of the season gets a cash prize. The hosts this season are acclaimed chefs Robert Irvine and Anne Burrell.
So did the chefs at “Worst Cooks in America” confirm her family’s assertions? Was she really that bad?
“I think people are gonna be surprised at some of the comments made by the judges,” she said. “And then I also think they’re gonna be like ‘I told you so.’”
The bottom line is that Henry thinks her cooking since learning from the chefs on the show is definitely better, but it’s “baby steps,” she said. “My family doesn’t completely trust me all the way, and I’ve still yet to cook for my parents.”
One of her goals is to get the same jubilant reaction from her Jamaican husband that his mother’s jerk chicken inspires.
“I’m still working on it,” she said. “I’m getting closer every day. I haven’t found any more food behind the door.”