Where did you grow up, and what was your path to becoming a chef?
I’m a fourth generation Mexican-American and come from a big family in Texas with five sisters. Growing up, my grandmother was always cooking Mexican feasts for people and I was at her side when I could be. Food brought us together. She’d let me help and that’s how I learned.
After high school I went to school to learn the medical field. I had one more year to complete on my way to a job in radiology or to become an x-ray technician. But one day I said, “I’m not happy doing this.” So I visited Le Cordon Bleu in Austin and by the end of the day had enrolled for the fall.
My parents were upset with me, but I was paying for it and they accepted my decision. During culinary school I was working in Austin at an Italian restaurant. After culinary school I went to a job fair and Norwegian Cruise line was there. It was an American-based ship, mostly Hawaiian Islands. I had been to Hawaii in high school and thought this would be awesome. Of course living on a ship keeps your living expenses low, and I had student loans to pay off.
I started working there and loved it. I was a cook in charge of one of the specialty restaurants. I was in charge of all four restaurants in the years I was there, moving through various roles including Sous Chef and Garde Manger Chef, which involved a lot of detailed work like canapés. I learned a lot. Maybe not as much about food as about managing, because the quality of food is not up to the standard that it is here on Azamara.
When did you join Azamara?
I had moved to Miami for a few years and was working in boutique hotels. I got easily bored on land, unlike my time at sea. My friend was the Executive Chef at Azamara at the time and encouraged me to apply, so I did. I joined Azamara in 2010 as a Sous Chef for the Specialty Restaurants. I was then promoted to Executive Sous Chef, and to Executive Chef in 2015.
What are your responsibilities?
I’m responsible for managing the cost of food and labor and most importantly ensuring high food quality every day. I have a great team working with me; I oversee a total of about 58 cooks and chefs. My job is to keep everyone informed about the specific details of each cruise, including charters and special events.
We try to keep the food fresh as possible by cooking in small batches. That’s the difference between Azamara and a larger ship. It’s rare to use frozen fruits and vegetables, and this includes food for the crew. The quality of food is something the chef’s and myself are constantly monitoring.
Tell us a bit about your family, where you live now, and how you spend your free time at home.
When I’m not on the ship I live in Texas. I’m currently looking for a house to buy in Austin, but meanwhile staying with my sister. I’m single, no children, never married…so working on a cruise ship is very convenient for me.
What do you enjoy most about working with Azamara?
I’m not cooking as much now, but I do love being hands-on with the Best of the Best Dinner for the top suite guests. It’s a six or seven course meal. That’s my creation, my baby. So far guests have loved it…I’ve made several dishes which include quail, roasted beef marrow with lobster, sweetbread raviolis, and suckling pig for a main course. I want to bring color and texture and amazing flavors to each plate. I also want to show somewhat of a feminine side, and I think my desire for color comes from being Latin—it’s just part of my culture.
I’ll mix in Mexican food from time to time; I try to combine a fusion of everything. I did a tres leches cake topped with a crème brulee and Filipino gelato that was colorful but also simple.
Whenever I have time I go ashore to try the local food and see if I can create something similar.
What are some of your favorite foods?
I’m in love with Asia. It’s interesting because there are so many aspects to their cuisine that I’m not familiar with—fruits, vegetables and different seasonings. Learning about new foods is wonderful. I’m intrigued with everything Asian right now.
What’s the nicest compliment you’ve heard from a guest or anyone else on the ship?
I know quite a few guests since I’ve been on the ship since 2010. Many reached out to congratulate me when I was promoted, and that felt very good. And I love that they are always complimenting the galley and the kitchen. Our team works very hard, yet so many of them are behind the scenes. The front of the house is more visible, so it’s always nice when the back of the house gets recognized.
What’s your management style? How do you encourage your team to do their very best and deliver the best cuisine at sea?
I’m very honest with my team. We’ve all worked with each other for a while now; we understand each other and know what we’re aiming for. I do team dinners and there are times we just relax together over birthdays or themed parties after work, or a little dinner together. If we can, we try to give someone a day off when they’ve been working long hours. It’s hard for the cooks to get time off, so that’s always appreciated. A chef’s meeting every morning about the day ahead is so important…making sure we’re all ready to go and on the same page.
We recently had a women’s appreciation day with coffee, canapés and champagne for all the women staff onboard. We hung out with each other and it was nice to have some female time. And the person who really pushed to make it happen was Captain Carl, so that was nice.
Azamara guests are passionate about certain items on the ship menu. Based on your experience, what are their favorites?
Whenever we have lobster in the main dining room, guests love that. Or filet mignon and lobster—everyone seems to love surf and turf!
What’s your favorite meal—your go-to comfort food?
I always love Mexican food or some Texas barbecue. That’s what I grew up on. Over Easter, my sisters came over for a barbecue. Beef brisket, ribs, lamb t-bones, and simple side dishes.
What famous chef (living or not) do you admire most, and what did you learn from him or her?
I do love Anthony Bourdain—the way he’s combined food and travel—but I think I’d have to say my favorite is Thomas Keller. He’s just into simple, natural ingredients and he brings food preparation to another level. To me he’s the finest example of an American chef.
What’s your most memorable restaurant meal?
It would have to be in Barcelona. Whenever we are there overnight, I take a taxi to Catalenas, a tapas bar. It’s a happy, bustling great place to take a friend and eat all night! All local food and a beautiful setting. The place is always packed, and everyone is just talking and eating, with small plates all over the table.
Can you share a favorite recipe with us?
I’ll give you one so easy you don’t need a recipe: fish tacos. Grill some fresh fish, then wrap it up in homemade corn tortillas and serve with cilantro, lots of lime and maybe some fresh salsa. So simple and so good.