Zarela Martínez has had a wildly successful culinary career, due in no small part because she loves what she does and is relentlessly passionate about Mexican food and culture. The renowned chef and longtime owner of Zarela Restaurant (www.zarela.com) in New York City was recently named to the board of The Mexican Cultural Institute of New York (www.lavitrina.com), and is leading the Institute’s "Food is Art" program as curator with the help of her daughter, Marissa Sanchez-Bastien. (Her son Aarón Sánchez is a Food Network personality and an accomplished chef/restaurateur in his own right.)
For Zarela Martínez, cooking and culture are tightly woven together: "Making our culture known and understood, that's my goal."
The Sonora, Mexico-born chef took time out of her frenetic schedule to speak with Hispanic Kitchen and answer our 10 Questions.
HK: What's your culinary point of view? ZM: "I am about traditional Mexican food, served family style. My style of cooking is about creating layers of flavors. With each bite, you taste something different, and when you swallow, it should blossom in your throat."
HK: Best thing you ever ate? ZM: "Mancha Manteles (literally "Tablecloth-stainer," a stew of assorted meat, chiles, vegetables, and fruits). A family from Chiapas invited us over, and I discovered a new dimension of Mexican cuisine. I was 16 and I never forgot it."
HK: Favorite ingredient to cook with? ZM: "I enjoy working with everything, but if I have to name something, it is hoja santa ("holy leaf"), a native Mexican herb. I serve it in sauces and as a vegetable wrapped around corn and cheese. At first, restaurant guests wouldn't touch it. Now they love it."
HK: If you had to choose: sweet or salty? ZM: "Salty. I hate sweet-savory dishes."
HK: What's your idea of comfort food? ZM: "Sopa seca, Mexican pasta done pilaf style."
HK: Do you eat what you cook or do you cook what you eat? ZM: "Both. I wake up with a craving and I look forward to the meal. I like to enjoy my food."
HK: Favorite snack? ZM: "I'm addicted to hard cheese." (Manchego is one of her favorites.)
HK: What's next on your culinary to-do list? ZM: "First, writing another book, and secondly, re-launching my website in a big way, and of course working with the Mexican Cultural Institute."
HK: Who/what inspired you to become a chef? ZM: "I have always liked to cook. I married a widower with 3 children and I literally started making cookies for the children. That's how I started. ... I work till 4 in the morning. It doesn't feel like work to me. I love what I do."
HK: If you weren't a chef, what would you be doing? ZM: "I would be an entrepreneur. I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. ... I'm creative and assertive. I would've been in business. I would have figured something out."