“The Singing Chef” and his husband are living their dreams
By Makayla Silva
Photography by Todd Fairchild
Achieving culinary prowess is a labor of love requiring both talent and devotion. Perhaps the same can be said of show business. Dedication and passion are usually the ingredients for success, whether you dream of becoming a singer, dancer, or actor.
So, is it possible to attain mastery as both a chef and an entertainer? Neil Fuentes might say yes.
A Venezuela-born chef, Fuentes has worked in Connecticut kitchens for the last two decades, including at Southport Brewing Company (SBC) and as executive chef and partner at Branford’s Venezuelan restaurant Jojoto.
Widely knows by his adopted moniker, “The Singing Chef,” he makes regular appearances on WTNH News 8 and on national cable programs like the Food Channel’s “Hot Spots” and the Food Network’s popular cooking competition “Chopped.”
Fuentes also is a formidable showman, and since 2012 has run the New Haven Academy of Performing Arts along with his husband, Billy DiCrosta, also a singer.
Raised on a 17-acre farm in Venezuela as the youngest of five brothers, Fuentes started his culinary journey at a young age. When his older siblings went off to high school and college, he was the only one left to help his mother.
He came to Connecticut in 1995 after traveling the world as a flight attendant for three years and began working in the restaurant industry to make money, tabling his passion for show business temporarily.
“My first love is the performing arts. Cooking, for me, was a way of survival in this country. It was a way to form myself as an individual in the American society. It was a way to get to know the culture of the United States, but it was never what I always wanted to do,” Fuentes says.
Completely self-taught, working his way up the ladder within the local SBC Brewery & Restaurant chain in his 12-year tenure there, Fuentes eventually became the director of catering and training for all of the restaurants.
Then, while singing at an SBC karaoke night in 2009, he was approached by WTNH News 8 to appear on its midday lifestyle show “Connecticut Style.” For his first segment, he recalls, Fuentes went in dressed like Ricky Ricardo, “with the ruffles and everything,” singing an improvised song to the tune of “Cuban Pete” by Desi Arnaz. And voila – The Singing Chef was born.
Unlike plenty of esteemed chefs, Fuentes has always been a natural in front of the camera, with numerous YouTube shorts online. Whatever “it” is, he’s certainly got it. He appeared on “Connecticut Style” 112 times in five years and his local TV appearances led to national exposure.
From there, Fuentes was cast as a brand ambassador for Sabra in 2013, appearing in six commercials with Food Network chefs Maneet Chauhan and Chris Cheung, where he cooked recipes using assorted Sabra hummus flavors and salsas.
“The casting director for that particular show is the same casting director for Chopped. So I was cast on Chopped. And I was chopped,” Fuentes says.
Fuentes later went on to host episodes of Food Channel’s “Hot Spots,” which spotlighted New Haven’s Rubamba, Cromwell’s Chicago Sam’s and the Redding Roadhouse.
From there, he was invited to compete on Food Network’s “Rewrapped,” a competition show where chefs innovate with respect to America’s most beloved snacks. Chefs are asked to recreate the original food item from scratch, and then they’re tasked with using that snack food in an original dish.
Fuentes and his competitors were asked to recreate Swiss Miss Triple Chocolate Dream pudding and use it in a dish.
“I made a turkey sandwich. With chocolate pudding,” Fuentes says.
And he won.
Having been a three-time celebrity chef at the Greenwich Wine + Food Festival and as his popularity as The Singing Chef continues to grow, Fuentes says he’s happiest doing exactly what he’s doing now: teaching voice and performing.
“When I was a child, the only thing I wanted to do when I grew up was put on shows,” he says.
Since 2013, Fuentes and DiCrosta have helped thousands of students launch and develop their performing arts journey at the New Haven Academy of Performing Arts.
“At New Haven Academy of Performing Arts, we don’t do recitals, we don’t do competitions, we do productions,” Fuentes says.
DiCrosta, an international coach and vocal artist, has been performing professionally for roughly three decades. The youngest of an Italian family of six, DiCrosta started singing at age seven and fell in love with being a stage performer. He studied acting and vocal performance at Western Connecticut State University and, subsequently, musical theater at The Hartt School.
He has made his living as a performer, working in New York, on Oceanic and Celebrity cruise ships, and doing musical theater, concerts, and more. Most notably, DiCrosta has landed roles as Tony in “West Side Story” and Mike in “A Chorus Line,” and performed for the Clinton family at The White House in 1997.
Says Fuentes: “While I was appearing as The Singing Chef, my husband was traveling the world, singing on cruise ships. And after six years, I told him he needed to come home and be with his husband.”
Before founding the New Haven Academy of Performing Arts, DiCrosta worked with a handful of students, teaching voice out of the front porch of his home, through the Billy DiCrosta Vocal Studio. When the opportunity arose to share a studio space with Broadway Dance, owned by longtime friend Gina Helland, DiCrosta moved into her East Haven studio.
DiCrosta is accredited by the International Voice Teachers of Mix, and is an area administrator for that organization, helping educate new teachers. His students travel from all over to study his technique, and those who can’t travel take lessons via Skype or FaceTime.
For Fuentes, one of the most rewarding aspects of his role as an instructor is working with many children who have special needs. Two years ago, Fuentes was asked to join Vista Life Innovations, an organization preparing individuals with special needs with life skills, in the group’s production of “The Addams Family.”
“It was so amazing. I have never experienced someone who tells you every single day how grateful they are to have you. They are so genuine. I began teaching voice lessons for them and will be directing their next performance, ‘All Shook Up,’ in the spring,” Fuentes says.
In the last six years, Fuentes and DiCrosta have taught music, theater and dance through summer camps, private vocal and music lessons, and acting classes to 250 students each week from around the world.
“Everyone teaches voice in a specific genre, whether pop, rock, soul. We teach the individual from the science perspective how to use the vocal apparatus, regardless of whether you’re a man or woman,” Fuentes says.
Or, if you’re transgender.
“When you have a boy who wants to sound like a girl, or vice versa, you have to work with transgender people to help them find their voice when it comes to singing,” Fuentes says.
Fuentes met DiCrosta in 2004 on gay.com. They married in East Haven in 2007.
“All of my life, I have been extremely open with my sexuality. Because I came from a country where I couldn’t. Being gay was not an option. When I got here, I said, ‘I’m going to be who I am and that’s the end of it,’” Fuentes says. “I believe that by being true to ourselves, Billy and I are more successful in every way, shape and form. We have a lot of LGBTQ students who want to come here and see us as a power couple to look up to, that they can do it too.”