We love reading cookbooks especially those that include stories behind the food and people. In our humble opinon, Chef John Verlinden created a new genre in the world of literary food that reinforces food, family, culture and history are interrelated.
In our interview, Chef tells us the story-behind-the-story of his cookbook To Cook Is To Love including lessons learned from his amzing menor Mami Aida. He also also gives new chefs some advise, offers some party planning tips, provides a peak into where he’s headed next and some timely views about U.S. Cuba-Relations. Enjoy!
Diva Foodies: Today there are so many avenues in the food world for chefs to pursue. Add digital opportunities, like the video series you created, and the choices can be overwhelming. Chef Verlinden, your culinary career took you from chef and owner of a popular and innovative Cuban restaurant Restaurant Mucho Gusto Café, to cookbook author, food columnist to founder of a success party planning company and a private chef.
For the young chefs in our community, who have a dream of a successful culinary career, what would you tell them about making career choices?
Chef John Verlinden: First of all, I congratulate you on pursuing a culinary career. There’s never been a better or more exciting time to be in the food industry.
Being a chef puts you at the intersection of art, business and entertainment.
The opportunities today are limitless, and there are so many different career paths available to you including self-employment, hospitality (hotel/restaurant industry), agri-business and manufacturing (food production, processing, packaging, marketing and food science), public policy (farm policy, food safety and food insecurity), activism (fighting hunger and famine, advocating for sustainable food systems), communications (food writing and entertainment), and more.
To help ensure your success, I encourage every young chef to specialize in and gain competence at a second area of expertise – e.g. business, agriculture, science, journalism, design, government, communications, etc. Having a more diverse background increases your creativity opening your mind to possibilities that you might not have even imagined before. It will also significantly broaden your career choices, qualify you for additional opportunities and enhance your competitive position amongst your peers by making you more attractive to potential employers.
Lastly, find your unique culinary perspective, your passion – then express it, talk about it and promote it.
Diva Foodies: The story of how you discovered Cuban cuisine, which led to a life-long passion, is a wonderful double or perhaps triple love story: your partner, Mami Aida and of course, Cuban food. I’m wondering what role the cultural aspect of Latin life played in your love of the food?
Chef John Verlinden: For me it’s impossible to separate cuisine from culture and history. The art, music, literature, language and food of a place are all interwoven. As are all of the peoples that came to that place over the years, intermingled with others and contributed their unique influences to the cuisine. Food complements and amplifies the touch, sounds and ambience of a culture and vice versa.
Diva Foodies: To Cook Is To Love is a most unusual and unique book. For me it was a memoir about an amazing woman, Mami Aida, where her recipes were integrated into the book to help tell the story. How did you come up with the concept?
Chef John Verlinden: To Cook Is to Love began as a really small, really simple idea. I was planning to create a little recipe booklet for our customers at Mucho Gusto Café – a half dozen or so of our favorites. Then, I thought, “wouldn’t it be nice to include a little story from Mami Aida about growing up in Cuba?” So, I sat down with her and we began to talk.
Well, when Mami Aida began to tell me about her life I soon discovered she wasn’t just a loving mom and amazing cook, but a strong, complex woman with insight, who’d lived a turbulent, but quite remarkable life. Now, I had to share her powerful personality, internal strength and compelling story with others. Well, of course, once I’d gone there, it was just a short journey for me to decide: Okay! This will be a major cookbook with two hundred recipes interspersed with reminiscences from Mami Aida’s life. And it should also include fun facts, some history, nutrition and health information, wine pairings, musical accompaniments and much more…. And, that’s how my little recipe booklet idea turned into To Cook Is to Love.
Diva Foodies: Fascinating. The journey you went on took several interesting turns. The way the photos of Mami Aida’s life were scattered throughout To Cook Is To Love gave the book the feel of a personal journal or scrapbook. Beautiful. However, I found it interesting there were no images of the food from the recipes. I’m curious, why did you choose to go in this direction?
Chef John Verlinden: This is a very interesting question. Because To Cook Is to Love, is much more than just a cookbook, it was important to take a unique approach to the illustrations as well. Using images of pre-revolutionary Cuban memorabilia – travel brochures, advertisements, menus and more, vintage family photographs and original illustrations give the book a delightfully warm and nostalgic look and feel, and reinforces the message that food, family, culture and history are interrelated.
Cuban food is beautiful, and images of the prepared recipes are wonderful eye candy, but I find that images can impede a home chef’s creativity, particularly when she may need to make substitutions of ingredients due to convenience or budget concerns. I do have lots of beautiful images of prepared recipes from To Cook Is to Love on our website and Facebook pages. I invite all you to check them out.
Diva Foodies: What did Mami Aida teach you that you that you use in your work today?
Chef John Verlinden: Mami Aida not only shared her history, cooking methods and secrets with me, she helped me to truly embrace and integrate the mantra: “To Cook Is to Love” into my everyday work. Mami Aida’s heart is big and her favorite way to show her love was to make a special meal for her guests.
Today, every time I begin a job, I think of the ultimate consumer of my work – the guest who’s going to eat, enjoy and be nourished by the food I’ve prepared for them, the reader who seeks inspiration, insight or perspective from my writing, or the student who’s interested in learning a little bit about Cuba and my ‘Nuevo Cuban’ cuisine.
Diva Foodies: We all learn from each other. Although Mami Aida might have been a mentor, I’m sure she learned from you too. What do you think you gave her?
Chef John Verlinden: I like to think that I helped her take her beloved Cuban cuisine to a broader audience.
Our goal at Mucho Gusto, has been to make Cuban cuisine accessible to everyone and to bring it into the kitchens of mainstream home chefs – by simplifying recipes, by making them a bit lighter and healthier to consume, and by extending Cuban-style hospitality to each and every guest we have an opportunity to serve.
Diva Foodies: Count me among Mami Aida’s fans. What is Mami Aida up to these days?
Chef John Verlinden: I’m sorry to report that Mami Aida’s life has taken another turn in recent months — her health is very poor these days. But, as with every other challenge she has faced in life, this one too she has taken in stride with dignity and humor. She is always glad to see us and loves our hugs and kisses.
Diva Foodies: Please give Mami Aida a virtual hug from us! Life can lead us to many different paths. It seems these days your main focus is growing your personal chef and party planning business. How did owning Mucho Gusto Cafe prepare you for this new aspect of your career?
Chef John Verlinden: I really enjoy the personal party chef business. Because the parties are typically small and take place in my client’s homes, I have an opportunity to make the events extra special – delicious food, beautiful presentation and flawless service. And, because I’m onsite throughout, I can personally ensure that each guest is taken care of, that everyone has a good time, and that the event is hassle-free for the hostess — so she’s able to enjoy the party and her guests, and not have to worry about party clean up afterwards.
Diva Foodies: This may not be a fair question but … how does being a personal chef compare to that of a restaurant chef? Would you ever consider going back into the ‘restaurant world?’
Chef John Verlinden:
Once a restaurant chef, always a restaurant chef – it never leaves your blood.
There isn’t a more exciting job and restaurant people are such fun to be around. So, I would never rule out going back into the ‘restaurant world.’
In many ways, what I do now is an extension of being a restaurant chef. At Mucho Gusto Café, my partner and I invited guests into our Mucho Gusto home for dinner, now I take Mucho Gusto into the homes of our clients and host their guests for an evening of fun and entertainment.
Diva Foodies: Would you pass along a couple of tips for the ‘home party planner’ to add a bit of pizzazz to our next party?
Chef John Verlinden: Pary Planning Tips
- Begin with your guests in mind – what will they enjoy most?, what can you do to make the evening unique and fun for them?, do they have any special needs or dietary restrictions?, etc.
- Make a plan, let guests know what to expect (time, location, dress, are they free to bring a guest?, are you celebrating a special occasion?), and prepare as much of the food and drink as you can in advance. This way, when guests arrive you’ll be able to welcome them and make them feel at home.
- Remember, entertaining is all about the senses – make it your own, make it beautiful and pay attention to the details – set a beautiful table, put on some music, turn down the lights a bit, light a candle or two. When serving the food, be thoughtful about presentation – we eat with our eyes first.
I’ve included a home party planning guide in To Cook Is to Love, along with a couple of essays about how to prepare a beautiful table and attractive ways to present your party trays.
Diva Foodies: You have several social media, we like to call them assets, e.g. Blog, Twitter, Facebook and Twitter. How are you using digital and social media to extend your brand for your cookbook, party planning and personal chef ventures? Do you use digital and social media differently for each venture?
— John Verlinden (@mucho_gusto) May 1, 2014
Chef John Verlinden: This is a great question. One that I struggle with all of the time. I certainly don’t feel like I am doing what I need to do. I am of a generation that is still just getting comfortable with social media and all of its potential. I continue to fumble away at it, and am interested in learning about how best to use these venues to get the word out, but I’m still a novice. I’d certainly welcome help from you Diva Foodies out there in promoting my work and would appreciate hearing your thoughts about how best to use these new media.
Diva Foodies: We’d love to help you in your social (ad)ventures Chef! What’s on the horizon for Chef Verlinden?
Chef John Verlinden: I have a couple of new projects that I am excited to tell you about.
We plan to introduce some new products on muchogusto.com in 2015. I developed a spice mix that we’ll be offering for sale. I created Mucho Gusto’s Mescla de Especias to be a reduced sodium alternative to the Latin spice mixes available in supermarkets (e.g. adobo powders and sazon packets). The number one ingredient in these store brought products is salt and many also contain MSG. In addition to the spice mix, we’ll also be offering our special Café Cubano coffee blend, some aprons and other apparel as well as a variety of vintage collectibles.
And, with the presidential election season ramping up, I plan to do some writing about food and politics. I wish to explore topics such as world population and sustainability, food insecurity, food safety, water resources, farm policy, GMO foods, and more, and to encourage folks to find out where politicians at all levels stand on these issues and then factor that into their decision-making when selecting a candidate.
Diva Foodies: We’re tossing the virtual mic to you Chef Verlinden. Wrap it any way you’d like!
Chef John Verlinden: Thank you so much for inviting me here to chat with you.
On U.S.-Cuba Relations – As you know, an important milestone in U.S. – Cuba relations recently occurred when President Obama announced that our two counties would begin the process of normalizing diplomatic relations after more than 50 years of estrangement. We’re very excited about the possibilities. We hope that it will create an open window for expression and exchange between our nations. That it will provide many more opportunities for average Americans and Cubans to meet and share with each other their unique experiences and cultural heritage. And, that it will ultimately lead to a better future with free expression for the Cuban people.
I ask you Diva Foodies everywhere to get engaged regarding this issue, explore the different perspectives, make up your own minds about it, and then share with others to help shape our future relationship with one of our closest neighbors.
Hat Tip to Lisa Ekus and David Carriere of Lisa Ekus Group for the warm intro to Chef Verlinden.
Bloggy Disclaimer. We received a complementary copy of To Cook Is To Love. All opinions are those of Diva Foodies.