Vitals: Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Guatemalan parents (her father was an oral surgeon who practiced briefly in America’s first city), Sandra Gutierrez grew up in Guatemala. She attended American schools through high school and earned a degree in English from Smith College in Massachusetts. She always knew she’d write a book one day, but “I would have never thought that it would be about food,” says Gutierrez. Love and marriage took Gutierrez to Canada, and then onwards to North Carolina, where she fell in love with Southern food and soon made a career of writing, creating and talking about food.
Experience: Gutierrez is a self-taught chef who grew up under the tutelage of an aunt who was a respected caterer in her native Guatemala. Food was a way for the once-shy Gutierrez to communicate and share her unique sense of Guatemalan hospitality. Once in Canada, requests from neighbors on how to make savory Guatemalan specialties became full-fledged cooking classes. After a move to North Carolina, Gutierrez became a food columnist for a local newspaper, writing about local food history and providing restaurant reviews and recipes. She’s since been published in several national magazines and with one cookbook behind her, ‘The New Southern-Latino Table: Recipes that Bring Together The Bold And Beloved Dishes of Latin America & The American South,” is currently working on two forthcoming books about Southern-Latino food history and cuisine.
Early food memories: “I started cooking as a little girl in my grandmother’s kitchen. She was a legendary hostess who would entertain as many as 40 people for a casual Sunday lunch. And I was a very shy child, so I would go hide in the kitchen with the staff – on the condition that I had to help out! So I would shell beans, shape tortillas and make empanadas at a very young age and then later graduated to making sauces and more complicated elements.”
On being a self-taught chef: “I started cooking in my grandmother’s kitchen but I really learned everything I know about technique from my paternal aunt, who was a famous caterer in Guatemala. I was just 12 when she used to invite me to help, and that’s when I started learning how to cook and create with ingredients. She was French-trained so she taught me all she ever learned. And traveling so much as a child really allowed me to develop a headache early on so that I wasn’t afraid to try new things and experiment in the kitchen. Cooking with instinct coupled with great technique made me feel comfortable about using food as way to bring people together.”
On the job that launched her culinary career: “When I arrived to North Carolina with my husband for his job, I didn’t want to get back to catering with my two girls who were then very little. It was a new move, a new country and I wanted to do something else. And just two months later, that’s when I found the mission of my life – combining the teaching that I loved with food and writing. It all happened because an opportunity arose to write a bi-weekly cooking column, and then I became the food editor of the paper. That lead to writing for national publications and throughout all that I was teaching in cooking schools and homes across the country. I’ve been living my dream and have enjoyed every minute.”
On the dish that made her fall in love with Southern food: “I fell in love with grits at first taste; that’s the moment my Latina self found her inner Southern belle. Those grits were feeding my nostalgia for home with a flavor and texture that reminded me of tamales. Creamy, with a corn flavor that’s familiar taste for many Latinos. So when I started learning more about Southern food, I wasn’t exactly surprised to learn that the corn used for grits and the corn used for tamales is exactly the same – just treated differently. And for a long time I thought I was the only one to see that similarity but in my 15 or so years writing about the South, I discovered many were creating dishes based on the similarities between these two cuisines.”
On her Southern-Latino food philosophy: “I believe that is food is a catalyst that brings people together, and if you bring people together around a good meal, you can start a conversation. So I am always trying to find commonalities about people through food. And the surprising thing about Southern and Latino food is they actually have a lot in common. The first is that they’re both based on the same three ethnic groups: Spanish/Portuguese, indigenous peoples and of course, Africans. They both rely on the same bucket of ingredients: tomatoes, pork, corn, potatoes and chocolate. And the third is that we share many of the same cooking techniques: braising, deep-frying and barbecue. So given all these similarities, it’s not surprising that with the influx of Latin Americans moving into the Southern United States as early as the 1920s , those commonalities found their way onto the plate. It’s an evolution and I call it that because I didn’t invent this cuisine – it’s existed for many, many years. Jalapeños in cornbread, Cuban mojo marinade and chipotle peppers for barbecue – it’s there and you just need to know how to look for it.”
On the Guatemalan specialty she can never make as well as tia:“That’s easy – huevo chimbo like my aunt used to make. It is like a mixture of a sponge cake and a flan that is made with a very thick sugar syrup. It’s served in very thin slices because it’s very, very sweet. For some reason, I haven’t been able to perfect the recipe. It’s good, but it’s not up to par with hers. That extra ingredient, whether experience, love or the memory of family is missing.
The five ingredients she can’t live without: “I love, love tropical fruits like guava. Layer cakes are so traditional to the South and are served at every church supper and special event. I make mine special with the addition of guava layered with cream cheese, using a combination classic in Cuban desserts and making it very Southern. So guava is on my list, as well as avocados which I love to use in soups, spreads and even butter, which I serve with chile-cheese biscuits. Potatoes, of course, and coconut milk which I add to soups and flans. And lastly, peaches. Try using this Southern favorite instead of tomatoes in pico de gallo and thank me later!”