Sandy Springs resident and local animal trainer Alejandro Valdivia is showing his passion for cooking on competition television show MasterChef. 

Valdivia has made it through the first elimination challenge and will compete again on the Wednesday, June 30 episode with pastry chef Sherry Yard. The show, which airs on Fox, will announce a winner in mid-September.

A native of Cuba, Valdivia entered the MasterChef competition to prove his skills as a chef. His goal is to showcase, through food, where his family came from and what they are about. He also wants to pay it forward to his family and those who have believed in him. 

“Opportunities sometimes only come once in a lifetime and only the brave … step up, regardless of the moment,” Valdivia said, who is vying for the chance to win the competition and a $250,000 prize. He also hopes his Masterchef journey leads to his own cooking show. 

“I’ve lived in a different set of circumstances under a different set of rules. And even when we wanted to, we did not have the option or we did not have the right to dream. In America, you can always dream,” he said.

His culinary start

Valdivia moved with his family from Cuba to the United States in 1994. His mother won a visa lottery from the U.S. government. It took a year and a half to complete all the paperwork before they could leave Cuba. He calls coming to the United States his greatest blessing.

“I remember seeing the lights in Miami from the sky right before we landed. And it was nothing like Havana where I grew up in a fishing town … and there were barely any lights,” he said.

Miami was a big shock after growing up in Cuba, but there was so much opportunity, he said. Seeing so much food was a complete culture shock as they were food deprived when he was a child, he said.

Valdivia got started cooking during the summer after his family moved to Miami.

“I was home most of the time by myself, and I would just watch cooking shows. And I tried to put dishes together with whatever we had in the refrigerator,” he said. 

As a teenager Valdivia said he was always hungry, so he tried to replicate whatever dish he saw on TV.

Moving to Atlanta

Valdivia discovered Sandy Springs when he came to run the IMG Marathon (now known as the Publix Marathon) in 2010. He came back to Atlanta to run the Peachtree Road Race and realized he wanted to make the city home. 

He moved to Sandy Springs 11 years ago, bringing along his personal animal trainer company. Based in Sandy Springs, AV Dog Training allows Valdivia to follow his other passion — dogs. It specializes in obedience and behavioral training, with an emphasis on owner education. 

The competition

Valdivia said his family is excited, but also afraid, during each episode of MasterChef because they don’t know the outcome. 

He said he thrives on the pressure, which works to his favor during the shows. But it does get a bit frightening, he said. When something needs another 10 minutes to cook, you might only have 10 seconds left on the clock. You either put it on the plate or go home, he said.

“You still have to do it even though you know it’s not ready or it’s not as good as it could be. But that’s the competition and that’s cooking on TV, so you don’t have the luxury of time and planning,” he said.

The show throws curveballs at the contestants, too, such as forbidding the chefs from going back to the pantry to get an ingredient they forgot. At home, a chef could just go get it, but on MasterChef they have to innovate with what they have, he said.

Meeting the judges during the competition is humbling and frightening because contestants don’t know what they will say about the food. But it gives him a chance to show his passion for cooking is as great as theirs, Valdivia said.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.