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Food Network's 'Worst Cooks in America' gathers the inept

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This should have been Wilhelmina Josephine's first clue that she was a bad cook: Her husband would routinely call the Aliso Viejo stay-at-home mom in the afternoon to ask what she was making for dinner. And then, more often than not, he would tell her he was going to grab something else on the way home.

Her second clue? He couldn't have been more enthusiastic when she came across an online casting call for a new TV show offering to teach people how to cook. "He said, 'Hey, honey, you should do that. Doesn't that sound like fun?' And I was like, 'Really?' "

Josephine is one of the 12 contestants on Food Network's newest cooking competition, "Worst Cooks in America," which starts Sunday at 10 p.m. It's up to chefs Anne Burrell and Beau MacMillan to try to teach these kitchen klutzes how to cook. Their motivation? Their reputations as cooking instructors: The last two contestants standing will cook a meal for a judging panel and have a shot at a $25,000 payday.

If other competitions such as "Top Chef" and "Chopped" are aspirational in nature, "Worst Cooks in America" takes the opposite approach. Viewers will no doubt enjoy a smug moment or three watching these inept cooks. Asked to make a signature dish for the judges, for example, Josephine serves up her Turnip Surprise, a recipe that she made up, and there's no doubting that claim: It involves little more than peeling a bulbous turnip, applying heat and serving whole.

Josephine, in all seriousness, defends the dish to this day: "I was trying to be creative. How many meals do you see with a turnip like that? . . . I thought it looked pretty."

It was this kind of attitude that had chef Burrell slapping her forehead at times.

"This is what I could not understand. They know that they don't know how to cook. And then they come in here and do these big elaborate dishes and have never opened a cookbook," she said. Another contestant made a pasta dish using a powdered cheese sauce "and pineapple. For crunch."

"I said, 'Are you kidding me?' " Burrell recalled.

Which brings up the question: How do the chefs know they're not being gamed?

Turns out there were plenty of ringers trying to sneak into the nationwide casting calls. But they were easily spotted, Burrell said. When you have confidence in the kitchen, it's difficult to fake it.

"You can spot knife skills pretty easily. If you know how to chop an onion properly, it's hard to pretend you can't," she said.

Added MacMillan: "Believe me, these people had no idea what they were doing."

rene.lynch@latimes.com

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