Game Changer: Grace Ramirez

The Culinary Institute of America announced earlier this year that, for the first time since 1946 when the CIA opened, female students outnumber male students. As a result, women-owned food businesses are on the rise. But the media and the buzz-worthy conferences and award programs need to play some serious catch up, neutralizing the disparity in male-female coverage and accolade. Our Game Changers series will highlight the personalities and accomplishments made by  women in the food and hospitality industry throughout the Americas, celebrating the kickass women that you might not otherwise know about. To learn more about the column’s mission, you can check out our introduction to the series. Next up, chef and food personality Grace Ramirez.

Producer, director, contestant, host, chef, author, daughter, granddaughter — these are just some of the ways you can describe Grace Ramirez. The Venezuelan-American chef and host of Food Network Latin America’s Destino con Sabor has lived all over the world, though she sticks close to her Latina roots, which are on passionate display in her latest project, cookbook La Latina. Originally published in New Zealand, where she lived for four years, it has recently been released here in the States by Random House. Now firmly back on New York soil, we caught with the chef as she made quick landfall after the 50 Best festivities in Colombia and before a trip to Puerto Rico to help in the post-Maria efforts.

New Worlder: Though you were born in Miami, you have a varied Latin American history; your mother has lived in nearly every Latin country from Mexico to Uruguay, while your stepfather is from Peru. How has that become part of your identity?

Grace Ramirez: I’ve been very privileged to have been brought up like that. I used to work in TV and I would work from Mexico a lot of time, which shaped me. I refer to myself as the New American girl, because even though I was born in Miami and was raised in between New York City and Miami, I also lived in Venezuela for ten years, and traveled back to South America often. Those travels create a social responsibility in my identity in that I want to celebrate Latin culture through food. Because food in Latin culture is so important, it’s at the center of everything we do. I grew up tasting all these different flavors and learning about all these different cultures. My book La Latina is a culmination of that, and a celebration of the diversity of Latin America. I, of course, could not put all of the Latin dishes into a cookbook of 300 pages, but the book reflects Latin dishes I’ve personally experienced and crave when I visit certain countries/regions.

Tell us about how you came to work at the Food Network and your television career. Your worked on Throwdown with Bobby Flay, but what came before that?

GR: I used to work as a director and producer for MTV — first Nickelodeon, then MTV. I obviously come from a big family in which food is extremely important; I always kept a strong bond with my grandmother and food was our talking point. I ended up quitting MTV to work for the Food Network without having a job at the Food Network! I started asking everyone I knew, using all of my remaining savings until a connection said they knew someone that ran Bobby Flay’s production company. So, I went on an interview and they hired me, but not as a director. I started from the bottom again as an associate producer. So there I was, this supervising producer from MTV who went to work for the Food Network, and essentially started over. But through the years I climbed the little corporate ladder and went from associate producer to producer to director of Bobby’s show.

How did that job evolve into Master Chef and then attending French Culinary Institute?

GR: Working at the channel and for Bobby really changed me. I love television, but I also love food, and I secretly always wanted to be a chef but I didn’t think it was possible to switch careers. I was already in debt from having paid my way through school and I had a big accident without insurance at the time, so I just thought it was impossible. But everything changed when I did Master Chef, the first Master Chef series — over ten years ago. Even though I got kicked off the show in round two, [host] Gordon Ramsey encouraged me to go to culinary school and come back. As Bobby attended the French Culinary Institute, this was the place that most interested me. I began asking for recommendations letters from everyone I knew and I ended up receiving a partial scholarship. It was nine months, so I said to myself, “people have babies in nine months, you can do anything for nine months!” Looking back, it took a lot of courage and an immense leap of faith to take this risk. But I really feel that when you follow your dreams, everything works out somehow. It’s not easy, but it’s worthwhile.

From Miami to New York to….New Zealand?  How did you wind up across the globe and what draws to you to New Zealand?

GR: From Miami to New Orleans to New Zealand to New York, really. I’ve always been a nomad, or gitana, a gypsy at heart . There’s so much to see in the world and again I carry this sense of social responsibility with my culture and roots. I always end up going to a place and applying what I have learned, like the use of plátano and yuca and corn and all of these beautiful traditions around food that fill my heart with joy. How New Zealand happened: after Master Chef and later culinary school, I was in love. My boyfriend at the time asked me to marry him and then received a big advertising job in New Zealand, so we moved there together. It was actually a great move for me as a chef. I had always been a city girl and moving to New Zealand allowed me to get to the roots of ingredients, cultivation, and the whole organic process. It was an essential and intricate piece of growth both personally, and for me as a chef. I got married and became a chef in a very short time, lived in New Zealand for four years, participated in the Garden to Table program — which has become close to my heart — and then came back to New York.

You do a lot of giving back – Garden to Table, Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos – why is this important to you?

GR: Giving back is an essential part of who I am. I grew up very privileged in Venezuela, and then we lost everything. I think it’s essential to give back and especially if you’re in a position of power as a chef or a communicator. For me, there’s no option in turning a blind eye to what’s going on. I believe we have to be the change that we want to see in the world. My mother would take me to orphanages and hospitals growing up to donate time or supplies. That changes you, shapes you, and makes you aware of your privilege. Garden to Table is an essential part of who I am. My mission is to be part of having more Garden to Table programs around Latin America. We do have a choice as chefs and consumers as to who we buy from, I like to call it cocina consciente. We have the power to decide at every moment to do the right thing, and every small purchase from a small consumer makes a difference. We’re going to Puerto Rico with some solar cookers as part of our next initiative. We’re going to teach them how to use these cookers. This project has formulated very quickly, but it’s one that I’m very passionate about.

This is your first cookbook! What was the seed that began the La Latina journey? What was the process of creating La Latina like? 

GR: The book began with my grandmother and her sisters — all cook amazing! I remember Sundays at my home in Venezuela where, as a family, seventy of us would enjoy these immense feasts where the table almost felt like it was bending under the weight of all the food. Whenever they cooked, everyone would come because the food was that good. Then when you go off on your own, like I did living alone in Miami at 18, you miss that home cooking and sense of family and community. I became interested in reviving the smells and flavors of those dishes from my childhood, but didn’t know how to make them. So, I started calling my grandmother for these recipes, spending hours on the phone so that she could guide me through the process. I continued to grow, nailing one recipe after another and inviting coworkers at MTV over to enjoy these home-cooked meals with me. I fell in love with being the person who could bring everyone together. I started to become obsessed with documenting all these recipes, because otherwise they would be lost. My cousins, who are also chefs, started writing down their recipes, too. My goal was to share this legacy with my grandmother, for her to see the culmination of her cooking in written form. She died a year after the book was published, but she was able to see and enjoy the cookbook. Seeing her face when she first read La Latina was priceless and a moment I had dreamt of for a long time. Now, we have even more recipes, as we’ve all been collecting to make more cookbooks.

In the prologue to your book, you pay beautiful tribute to your great-grandmother Abuelita Vincy, Abuela Mary, and your mother. Can you speak to these powerful women who you say passed you their superpoderes, or superpowers?

GR: In the book I pay tribute to, basically, all the women in my life. I come from a strong group of women, there are many of us — more so than men in the family — a legacy of independent, entrepreneurial women who were always working. My father died when I was just one year old, so my mom was a single mom, and it’s a tribute to her hard work ethic. It’s also a tribute to all the strong Latin women I’ve met along the way that have been kind enough to share their recipes with me. Looking back, I have had so many beautiful role models of generous and gracious women that bonded together around food. Food is the excuse to get together and unites us. It’s for all of them, but first and foremost is dedicated to my grandmother. Looking back, it’s the greatest gift I could have given to her. For her to be honored in that way and see herself in the cookbook. The book was a journey and a labor of love, but it was so worth it. In La Latina, I see the recipes, my grandmother and the full circle of it all.

How were you able to choose what to include from all of the wonderful Latin American recipes across so many countries?

GR: It was a very hard process as each culture has its version of a dish. Take shredded beef stew for instance; this dish will be done in a certain way in a variety of countries. And I ended up having to pick one country for such dishes. When picking an arroz con pollo recipe for the book, there were so many versions and it was hard but I ended up ultimately going with a Cuban dish that utilizes beer as an ingredient and whole pieces of chicken. It was challenging, and I’ve received some complaints for not including some recipes, but it’s a very personal book; it’s my journey and my story.

Is there any specific Latin dishes that you gravitate towards more frequently?  For example, when you’re sick?  When you’re sad?  To celebrate?

GR: There are! For celebrating, I always go with ceviche because people love it — it’s everyone’s favorite. My sexy guacamole dish and my arroz negro, a black ink rice paella, dishes are also big hits for large parties. When I’m sick, I always make Grandma’s chicken soup and when I’m sad I make myself Mexican brownies with dark chocolate. Dark chocolate helps activate those happy glands, so chocolate is my go-to. Those brownies make me so happy and they’re decadent and gluten-free.

Do you get back to Venezuela often? Is your family there?  Would you want to comment on the current political situation happening there?

GR: The current political situation is very complicated, but yes, I go there often. Especially when my grandmother was sick, I spent various weeks there. It’s crazy because with what’s happening there — extreme food shortages, hunger — at the same time there are many beautiful initiatives taking place that return faith in humanity. I always say to fellow Venezuelans who haven’t been back, you have to go you have to live to see what’s happening down there. It’s so raw and wrong, but at the same time there is a lot that is inspiring. I’m all about celebrating what’s good. The bad will fall, I really believe I that. If we all elevate our energy and focus on what’s good, the bad has to fall. I fundraise a lot for Venezuela. A recent fundraiser with fellow women in New York raised over $50,000 to send back to four different organizations in Venezuela. Every time I go down, I queue for food, to know how that feels. When you see what that’s like and see what your family goes through, it gives you more strength and motivates you. The products and food coming out of Venezuela, like what the guys are doing at Alto and other rum and  specialty chocolate producers, however, these are the things that keep me inspired and keep my faith in Venezuela alive.

You’re now based back in New York, yes?  What’s next for you?

GR: I live in New York and I’m so grateful to live in a city where you feel like anything is possible. That energy continues to push me to dream big and remain motivated. Every time I’m feeling down and overwhelmed, I step outside the door and remind myself that I live in New York City and anything can happen here. So many exciting things are just around the corner for me. I’m planning on doing another cookbook — a pressure cooker cookbook because I’m in love with pressure cookers and they remind me of my grandmother. I also love teaching very busy people how to cook delicious food so I’m teaming up with a small publishing company for that project. We’re also gearing up for the second season of Destino Con Sabor, my Food Network LatAm show, and I just did a pilot for Food Network here in the States, so hopefully that works out. I would also like to start a La Latina cookbook feast/tour where I do pop-up dinners so people can experience La Latina live, that magic surrealism that surrounds Latin food in general. I’m headed to Puerto Rico next week, partnering with a solar cooker company, to teach people how to use them and what to cook in them.

Below, an assortment of the recipes featured in La Latina. From left to right, Alfajores, Choripán with Guasacaca, and Arepas. If you want your own copy of Grace Ramirez’ La Latina, click here to purchase your own copy. 

The Game Changer Five

Last supper, last cocktail?

A big feast with friends and family having margaritas and a mixture of foods from La Latina.

Next up on your travel bucket list? 

I’m excited to return to Puerto Rico and help out a bit. Also, a place I haven’t been to that I would like to visit next is Jerusalem. I think the countries in the Middle East are places where one has to focus on the beauty in the chaos. I like places that are not picture perfect, travels where there is beautiful food, culture, but one also has to think.

Mentor/Idol/Girl Crush?

This is a tough one for me, but I would have to say I love Gabrielle Hamilton, her memoir, everything she’s been through, and her overall food philosophy. I also have a big crush on Kerry Diamond, one of Cherry Bombe‘s founders. She is such an advocate for women and I love the Cherry Bombe community. Also, Alice Waters! For me, she was a game changer at the forefront of the garden-to-table program.

Best lesson your mother taught you?

To cultivate internal love and consciousness. She taught me that you individually have to be your biggest cheerleader and that you have to be the change that you want to see in the world. My mom is a spiritual person, she runs a meditation center, so she’s been an important balance for me in terms of cultivating self love.

How do you inspire the next generation?

I am a clear example of dream big, work hard, follow your dreams and everything will come together. I’ve always been a big dreamer with big aspirations, but hard work was always at the backbone of everything. I’m a first generation born in the States, from a Latino background and I think by doing what I’m doing, I’m inspiring a lot of people.