This Hispanic Heritage Month, we decided to ask cooks who inspire us which is their ingrediente secreto (secret ingredient). How a traditional dish can take us to a place, make us feel nostalgic, happy, or daring, and, at the same time, hold the history and the memory of the chef itself.
One of the things we know for certain is that this amazing chef has shown up nonstop to spread her culture and flavors, love for what she does, and eagerness to keep on growing.
Meet Alejandra Schrader, an award-winning author, food TV personality, and activist featured on all major US networks in English and Spanish. Her passion for delicious food, sustainability, and biodiversity can be discovered through her recipes and her culinary journey. And above all that, what everyone can appreciate and learn from her is the energy she shares and her love for her land, Venezuela.
“Being a Latina in the US means that I get to embrace my superpower—being a proud Latina—while enriching the fabric of American society. Our beautiful culture and traditions are meant to be celebrated and I am grateful to have the platform to share it with other communities around the US,” Alejandra shares proudly.
You might look at her picture, read her name, and think “This woman rings a bell,” well… most probably. Alejandra began her journey on MasterChef USA with Gordon Ramsay, and since then she has participated in competitive cooking shows such as HGTV Hogar’s El Sabor de Aarón and NBC’s Food Fighters.
This Hispanic Heritage Month, this proud Latina in the US who is opening her path as a professional and sustainable chef shares with COCINA the meaning behind her motivation, inspiration, and resilience.
Familia: Where Your Heart and Cooking Are
Leaving home is not easy. Taking an adventure abroad to fulfill your dreams is a challenge that most face and are grateful for. Alejandra is no exception.
Originally from Chicago, Alejandra moved to Venezuela (the country where her family is from) and learned el ingrediente secreto behind cooking. Inspired by her family, and her surroundings, this chef is well aware of the impact that the human race has on the Planet. Therefore, she chose to be a chef with a twist: not only does she represent her land in her recipes but a positive message about taking care of our common home.
Alejandra Schrader calls the United States a home away from home. Since for her, being a Latina in the US represents familia (family).
“The majority of my blood relatives are back in Venezuela but, wherever I’ve lived, the Latinx community has offered me a ‘home away from home’. Our people are warm and kind! I’ve been able to learn traditions and costumbres that I didn’t grow up with but that I’ve made part of who I am now.”
Her optimism and resilience have taken her through a long and successful road, but even though she’s already been featured in high-profile printed media outlets like The New York Times and Forbes, and has published her own book, “The Low-Carbon Cookbook”, Alejandra keeps pushing for more opportunities in her community.
“I think our community should be given greater and more equitable access to training and education in the US. The Latinx community deserves the opportunity to better themselves and to be represented in academia. Better grants and support systems, especially for underprivileged and indigenous peoples living in the US.”
A Recipe From Home, A Memory, And Alejandra’s Secret Ingredient
When thinking about home and family, there are a lot of memories that come to mind no matter where you are. For Alejandra, it’s all about making hallacas with her family.
“Making hallacas—the Venezuelan version of tamales—is my all-time favorite food-making tradition. I have the best memories of cooking with my abuela, Mamaita, my mom, sisters, aunties, and cousins. Everyone had a role in the kitchen! From making the masa, to preparing the stuffing, to applying the garnishes, to actually wrapping each hallaca in banana leaves.”
In Latin America, there are moments and recipes to be shared, and also legacies. Some recipes, like Alejandra’s hallacas, are learned thanks to being integrated with your family’s cuisine experience, other recipes are just passed down generations to keep memory and identity alive.
Alejandra shares that in her family are many recipes that fulfill this mission. “From quesillo, the Venezuelan version of flan, to stews and rice dishes. My favorite is Mamaita’s black bean soup. The aromas of her dish transport me straight to Caracas.”
Most chefs carry these memories and recipes with them. Some of them, like Alejandra, provide a twist to make a positive impact on their surroundings. For those who breathe and bleed the love for food, cooking is more than just combining, measuring, and adding spices. It is part of who they are. Familia. A place to call home wherever they are. So, they build their lives around it, add their childhood memories, the flavors that transport them to the place they cherish, and hide the secrets of their flavors in it.
Alejandra’s ingrediente secreto has a lot to do with sentiment and freshness.
“Although “love” is always a valuable ingredient in any recipe, I think the best secret ingredient is freshness. Because when we make something from scratch, no matter how humble the dish, we are able to put so much care and sazón in our food.”
If there’s something we can learn from Alejandra is that there’s nothing more rewarding than to appreciate the path you are on. For her, it’s all about making something from scratch not only in your kitchen but also in life, and that’s how she shares her food and career: taking separate ingredients and making it whole.