Acclaimed Puerto Rican chef Giovanna Huyke. (Photo/Courtesy Giovanna Huyke)

Chef Spotlight: Giovanna Huyke explains why cooking from the heart requires courage

Vitals: A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Giovanna Huyke is one of the island’s premiere chefs and a sensation on the mainland.  Huyke has had several long-running cooking shows, has written several cookbooks (“Lo Mejor de La Cocina de Giovanna” and “Postres”) and her recipes have been published in publications such as the New York Times and Food and Wine. Mother to two grown children, she’s the culinary expert that Martha Stewart calls on when it comes to all things related to Puerto Rican cuisine. After 22 successful years in broadcast television as the host of several cooking shows, Huyke decided to return to her first love – the kitchen – and is currently the executive chef at Mio, a fine-dining Puerto Rican restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Experience: Dubbed the “Julia Child of Puerto Rico,” the 55-year-old says that her she owes her early culinary education to her mother, a professional chemist who taught cooking classes in her free time and exposed her daughter to all things food and cuisine very early. “Monday through Friday we always ate Puerto Rican food,” reminisces Huyke. “But the weekends were always centered around trying European foods and culinary trends.” At ten years old, Huyke began cooking professionally, selling cheesecakes for pocket money; by her early twenties, she decided that she would rather cook for a living than pursue the acting career originally she thought she wanted. With the encouragement of mentor and celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme, Huyke worked at several fine dining restaurants in New Orleans before heading back to Puerto Rico where she opened her own catering company and worked for the Caribe Hilton before eventually working as the executive chef and owner of her own restaurant, Aioli. Aioli’s success made her an icon on the island and she went on to host cooking shows on Puerto Rican television for 22 years before giving it all up to once again to return to the kitchen at Mio, the only Puerto Rican contemporary eatery on Capitol Hill and one which has earned numerous accolades from local publications.

On her big return to the kitchen: “Cooking – actually cooking – is what I missed most. I wasn’t doing that when I was on television and since I had sold Aioli when my daughter was only three years old, it had been more than 22 years since I had been in a professional kitchen. Of course, I was active as a chef on television, as a consultant, giving lectures but after divorcing my husband, I realized what I wanted more than anything was to cook. I work six days a week now and I adore every minute. At the beginning, I had some catching up to do and trends to learn, but I think that the maturity I have now has helped me become a better chef. It’s a humbling profession, but for me, every day is exciting and a challenge. It’s been scary, but I’ve learned how important it is to have a bit of courage in order to pursue what you really love and to cook well.”

On the challenge of cooking Puerto Rican food in the nation’s capitol: “Traditionally, the food in Washington hasn’t been that great – people’s palates weren’t ready for anything different or exciting. But the number of Puerto Ricans here, mostly professional, have been growing and were ready for a restaurant like Mio when we opened in 2007. We do traditional cuisine from Puerto Rico and other parts of Latin America. And it’s not a fonda – it’s a bit upscale because that’s how I think my food should be showcased. I want people who may not know anything about where I come from to feel impressed by the layers and depth of the cuisine.”

Her style, explained: “I’m a woman and I embrace my femininity. At the core of my womanhood is my identity as a mother, which definitely influences my style. I want more than just to feed someone: I want to satisfy and nourish someone. So the essence of what I do is home cooking; it’s very soulful. I want you to feel and know exactly why every element on the plate is there. But it has to be beautiful and deliver an emotional experience.”

On her kitchen trademark: “I can never send out a dish to a diner without adding a few final touches. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I never feel as though a dish is finished unless I put something on top or on the side that makes the flavors shine. So I always keep a little tray of garnishes near the expediting station: things like fried shredded plantains and roasted pepitas.”

On the secret to a national favorite, Puerto Rican-style red beans: “When I was around ten years old, my father began asking for me to cook the habichuelas instead of my mom – and I’ve been doing it ever since then. The trick is to caramelize the sofrito; a mix of onions, garlic, peppers and tomatoes. Most people add the sofrito right into the beans, but you need to caramelize it to bring out the sugars and savory elements of the vegetables. You can use a little rum to help the process along and then once the mixture has cooked down, you can add the rest of the ingredients for the habichuelas. It’s a simple step but it makes all the difference in the world.”

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