Vitals: Born and raised in Guynabo, Puerto Rico, Kleis – whose father is Danish and mother is Puerto Rican – grew up with Caribbean food as the focal point of the evening meals. With a head for numbers, Kleis attended Brown University to study applied mathematics, where she would cook up arroz y habichuelas in the dorm kitchen for classmates. Halfway through earning her degree, Kleis switched majors and studied French, a language she loves (“I’m such a Francophile,” she says). A move to Miami from Puerto Rico a few years ago lead to a position as Research and Development manager at popular chain Latin food restaurant Pollo Tropical, where Kleis is charged with creating new menu items and giving beloved staples healthy makeovers in 90 company-owned locations.
Experience: A semester abroad in the French town of Lyons as an undergraduate opened up the opportunity to study cooking under chef Georges Blanc’s restaurant La Mére Blanc. Kleis shone during her time in a traditional French kitchen and decided to pursue a culinary career. After college graduation, she began working at the Hotel Caribe Hilton in Puerto Rico before returning to France in 1986 where she had a variety of pastry and cooking internships that gave her a firm foundation in classic technique. She eventually moved to Geneva, Switzerland as one of two female chefs at the five-star Hotel Beau Rivage, returning home to Puerto Rico in 1990 to begin one of the island’s foremost catering companies, which quickly became known for creating posh fare for everyone from the governor’s inauguration balls and Major League Baseball to the Puerto Rico tourism company. A married mother of four, Kleis calls her current work at Pollo Tropical one of her most exciting challenges to date.
On breaking the glass ceiling in the traditional kitchen: “I had already graduated from Brown when I decided to apply to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York City. Back then it took a year to process your application, and in the meantime I went back home to Puerto Rico and took a job at the Caribe Hilton. The head chef there encouraged me to go back to Europe to be trained rather than paying for it in culinary school and while I was there, I cooked day after day for men that could hardly accept that there was a little Puerto Rican girl in the kitchen. For many years, I was the only woman in the kitchen and had to be strong in the face of tempers, criticism and judgment. I view those years as a test of my love for cooking, and I’m thrilled to have made it in the toughest of environments.”
On defining what it means to be a chef: “You have to love cooking, at its very core. And if you’re not passionate about it, it’s difficult to develop the discipline that will make you successful in your career. Chef means “chief” in French – that tells you a lot about our field. The title doesn’t have much to do with how you cook, but how well you manage others. In culinary school, you study how to cook and then you have to work your way up, accept lots of criticism and learn how to create a team environment in the kitchen – and that’s the only way you truly become a chef.”
Why Pollo Tropical? “My work is really needed, because in Latin cooking, there’s a huge emphasis on carbohydrates — just because traditionally fresh vegetables have been hard to come by or expensive. And the portions are huge! There’s a lot of healthy elements in our favorite meals, but I think offering smaller portions, healthy alternatives and changing traditional recipes with less salt and fat are a great challenge. Our restaurant is popular because so many working families want their favorite food fast, and it’s up to me to make sure they get it in a healthy way. At Pollo Tropical, I’ve made over many, many menu items and it’s a joy for me because it’s a way for me to give back to the community that I love so much.”
How home cooks can cook healthier: “It’s as simple as using extra lemon to season your chicken instead of adding lots of salt. Use less canned products, think about alternative cooking techniques — baking meat instead of frying, steaming instead of using lots of olive oil. Tackle one dish at a time — don’t make it hard for yourself. We’re all busy, but all it takes is one step to make a difference in the health of your family.”
On new beginnings: “In 2006, I started a healthy food restaurant in Puerto Rico that catered to busy families. I focused on creating healthy meals with Latin flavors – an idea that I thought was sure to be successful. My husband and I put all of our money into it, and it was even named a favorite restaurant by the local press, but it just didn’t take off. It was heartbreaking, but I realized I had to move on to the next challenge and support my family. Moving to Miami was a fresh start, and although leaving my family and island was painful, I found my calling here at Pollo Tropical. It may be difficult, but the next step is always worth taking.”
On her favorite kitchen tool: “I’m a working mom, so I’m all about making life easier in small ways. I get home tired and can cook fast because of my training, but my not-so-secret weapon is the pressure cooking. You can put everything in there – meat, vegetables, seasoning – and in no time you can have a great meal made. And it’s great for picky eaters, who won’t notice there are sweet potatoes and spinach in with the chicken. My biggest piece of advice is don’t be afraid of it! Just shut it well and let it do its work – and here’s another tip: the pressure cooker braises cheaper, tougher cuts of meat beautifully so it’s a great way to make economical meals.”