Carmen Gonzalez has earned an impressive reputation as a chef specializing in Puerto Rican cuisine, which she elevates through the use of classic technique and heritage ingredients. (Photo/Courtesy Ted Axelrod)

Chef Spotlight: Carmen Gonzalez on the soul of Puerto Rican cuisine

Vitals: Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Chef Carmen Gonzalez has made it her mission to put the intoxicating flavors and ingredients of her island on the map when it comes to fine dining.  A contestant on season two of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” Gonzalez has appeared on numerous television shows (think “The Martha Stewart Show” and Food Network’s “Today on Food”). She’s currently the host of own Spanish-language show, “La Chispa de Chef Carmen Gonzalez,” which is now in its second season and airs both in the U.S. and in more than 20 Latin American countries.

Experience: Gonzalez had already earned her stripes managing Café de San Juan in Puerto Rico when she decided to leave the island to study at the New York Restaurant School. After graduation she worked the line at New York City’s Quilted Giraffe until the warmer climate beckoned her to Coral Gables, Florida, where she opened Clowns in 1990.  After stints at a slew of Miami’s hottest restaurants, she spiced up the local food scene with Carmen the Restaurant which garnered accolades ranging from Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence to AAA’s Four Diamond Award. A move to Portland, Maine has proved to be one of her most fruitful challenges to date, where she’s cooking up a storm at for 80 guests a night at her new restaurant, The Carmen at the Danforth Inn.

On growing up around food: “It was tradition in our family to eat Sunday dinner at our favorite mom and pop fish restaurant at Joyuda in Mayaguez. The husband would bring in the catch on his boat and literally pull up to the beach and pass the fish to his wife to cook. Each of us – my mom, dad, brother and I would eat an entire snapper. It was a bit of competition at that weekly meal between my brother and I to see who could eat every morsel of fish from its bones. Whoever won would get free dessert and to this day that’s one of my fondest memories. There are many others, but gathering around food is the essence of why I cook the way I do. I may be using local Maine seafood now, but the soul that made the snapper so delicious is what I aspire to bring to my diners on a daily basis.”

On the day she became a great chef: “I was a good cook and then became a good chef. And I think I became a great chef the day I learned to really manage people. When I had my restaurant in Miami, I placed an enormous amount of pressure on myself; I was obsessed with each plate being perfect. I adored my staff but I can say that I never enjoyed that restaurant because I was tense in the kitchen and demanded perfection in a bad way. Now everything is different – I love what I’m doing in Maine and with my television show, but it’s all because of my new mindset. I’m determined to enjoy every minute and make my happiness reflected throughout my food. I always had the philosophy that if you were sick or pissed you weren’t allowed to come into the kitchen as my employee, but now I make sure to do the same for myself. I now approach every day with a fun attitude that that’s transported immediately on the plate.”

On moving her life (and restaurant!) to rural Maine: “After the restaurant in Miami closed down because of a fire in the hotel, I’d thought I’d come back to New York to open something new. I was lucky that before papers were signed, I realized my vision wouldn’t really happen the way I wanted it to and ended that project. I knew Portland was a big town for food and a chance conversation with [Bon Appétit magazine food editor) Andrew Knowlton about the scene in 2008 sparked a turn of events where I was able to turn 800 square feet in my friend’s inn into something that’s very dear to me.”

On the soul of Puerto Rican cuisine: “I’ve traveled all across Latin America and through my show, have had a chance to work with some of the most respected Latin chefs around. And while the food is all delicious, there’s just something wonderful about Puerto Rican cuisine. It’s that abuelita influence; a strong hand for flavor that makes us unique. Garlic and oregano – it’s all there and let me tell you, you can eat beans in every part of the world but you can’t beat the way we make them in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are very loud, voluptuous people and our food reflects that. It’s all or nothing!”

On her dream vacation: “I’m a cheap date! But if I could go anywhere and eat anything I would go to the beach I would visit growing up in Aguadilla. I have wonderful memories of going to the beach with friends and by noon, waiting under the hot sun we’d all be waiting for the fishermen to come back with their catch. And my favorite fisherman’s wife, Hela, always cooked the catch perfectly; seasoning the fish steaks with salt and pepper and frying it in hot lard. She’d serve that to you with breadfruit tostones and key lime, which you’d eat on the sand with a chilled Coke. To relieve those memories is all I’d want. That’s my life, my food: simple, delicious and representative of the Puerto Rico I love.”

On her proudest moment: “The smallest things make me the proudest. I had a gentleman and his wife visit the restaurant last night, and as I was making the rounds saying hello to guests, this man-made a point to tell me that his meal surpassed all expectation he had coming in. He was someone who travels the world, eating at the best restaurants, and here he was, telling me how my food was the best he’d ever had; that he found my technique impeccable and that he could feel the love and passion with which I had cooked in each dish. That almost made me cry, because that’s what I live for.”

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