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Interview with TV Chef Daisy Martinez

F&W talks to Daisy Martinez, host of PBS’s Daisy Cooks!.

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."

What is the worst experience you’ve had on TV? Any disasters?
"The one thing that came close was the first day that we shot. The dish was chicken and figs. I’ll never forget. It’s a braised dish, and you cook it off in the classic salsa española. I’d simplified the sauce without sacrificing the flavor, so that I could finish the whole dish in about 45 minutes, as opposed to spending two-and-a-half to three hours on the sauce. I’d worked in front of a camera before, but I had never had the responsibility of a show on my shoulders. So, I’m making the sauce and I’m going through the motions, and I realized that I forgot to add the Cognac. And I’m trying, you know, to remain upbeat—there has to be energy and the whole nine yards. And I kind of looked up, and I must have looked like a deer caught in headlights, and I just said, ’I forgot the Cognac.’ Everybody came running out of the production room. I don’t know what I must have looked like. They did everything short of come up with a stretcher. But they talked me down, and the director pulled me aside and said, ’Listen, I totally understand. There are, I am sure, 500 other chefs in a 10-mile radius who would never have forgotten the Cognac.’"

That was supposed to make you feel better?
"That’s what I asked him! I said, ’Where are we going with this?’ And he put his arm around me and he said, ’Not one of them could do what you’re doing right now. So, we’re here if you stumble. If you trip, we’re right here.’ I just felt so safe at that point that I was able to take a cleansing breath; I knew that they were there for me. And the other great thing that he said to me was, ’Daisy, I am editing this show. If it doesn’t end up on tape, it never happened.’ To this day, he’s like the big brother I never had. When you have a crew like that who you just feel so safe with, my God, it just makes your job so much easier."

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