What was your first big break on television? How were you discovered?
"It’s a very funny story. It’s kind of like serendipity: Everything that I had done, professionally, led to that one point. After I graduated from the French Culinary Institute, I looked in the weekly job listings and there was a posting to be a prep chef for a television chef. So I called the number and spoke to the culinary producer for Lidia Bastianich’s show. I was a huge fan of hers. I would have washed her dishes for free, so I jumped at the opportunity. One day at lunch during shooting, the crew sat down for a family meal and my producer said, ’What kind of food do you like to do?’ I told him I make all kinds of food, obviously, but the food that I turn to for comfort food has to be Puerto Rican. But I also make Latino cuisine—something of a personal interest, because those flavors and ingredients are native to me. Those are the flavors that my mother put in my mouth when I was a little girl. And he was like, ’Really? Would you be interested in doing a show about that?’ My jaw hit the floor. I thought, This guy did not just ask me if I want my own show. And that was it. Isn’t it crazy? Within that year, I started collecting my notes, collecting my recipes. It’s phenomenal. And so here I am. That’s exactly how it happened."
What are some of your favorite recipes from the show?
"I really have strong connections to a lot of the food in the show because they’re my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes. I would say one of my favorites is my grandmother’s pork chops marinated in citrus. They’re pan-seared and then just lightly braised. I love that recipe. I also love fideuá—a noodle paella that, start to finish, cooks in 20 minutes. It’s so dramatic and delicious, and you never have any leftovers because people always go back for seconds. And it’s simple. My 11-year-old could do it. In the time it takes the shellfish and the noodles to cook in the clam broth, you’re done. That’s one of my top-10 recipes."
What distinguishes you from other TV chefs? What draws your audience to you in particular?
"My show is upbeat without being frantic. My fans all say they have someone like me in their family. And it’s not limited to a Latino fan base; it’s across the board. I think that it has to do with the fact that Latino food is ethnic, but not alien. I’m making dishes with food that people are very comfortable eating: pork chops, loin of beef. The fried-plantain thing is a little different, but once you try it, it’s fabulous. And haven’t we all been wondering what the hell those big bananas in the market are? So, they learn new little tricks like smashing plantains, like steeping achiote seeds in oil. And achiote oil is not just for Latino dishes—paint your pasta with it. You make fresh pasta dough; throw some achiote oil in there. The color and the flavor are glorious. So this is ethnic food, but it’s applicable to other types of dishes. I got an e-mail from an Orthodox Jewish woman. She said, ’I was watching you make that pork dish with the guajillo-chile sauce, and that sauce looks so good, but I’m Orthodox. I have to keep kosher. Can I use that sauce with anything else?’ How fabulous would that sauce be brushed on seared salmon or grilled chicken breasts—awesome! It’s ethnic, but it’s not limited. There’s new ingredients and new little tricks like that on the show, but you can apply them to your own personal little repertoire."