Chef, author and TV host Marcela Valladolid talks about her family's holiday traditions and why it's important to live in gratitude

After wrapping up your holiday shopping this weekend, you can get in the Christmas baking spirit Sunday night watching local culinary celebrity Marcela Valladolid host the premiere of the Food Network series “Holiday Gingerbread Showdown.”

The Chula Vista-based TV host, chef and cookbook author says she’s proud to be the first Latina to host a prime-time show on Food Network. But the candid mother of three does have a minor confession to make. Before the series was filmed, Valladolid had never made gingerbread. It wasn’t a part of her family's holiday tradition when she was growing up in Tijuana.

Valladolid, 40, was born in San Diego, then spent most of her childhood south of the border, where she worked in her Aunt Marcela’s Tijuana cooking school.

Christmases were spent making tamales and the elegant French dishes her father craved — not baking and assembling gingerbread houses. But viewers of the new series needn’t worry about her expertise. The seasonal sweets have been added to her cooking-baking schedule this year.

‘I choose to live in gratitude’

Holidays are serious business in the historic 1912 Chula Vista home that Valladolid shares with her fiance, talent agent Philip Button, their children David, 3, and Anna Carina, 2, her 14-year-old son from a previous marriage, Fausto, and the family’s 5-year-old male springer spaniel/retriever mix, Kongo.

Valladolid insists on formal attire at holiday dinners as well as elaborate table settings and fine china and silverware.

“There are only a couple of nights a year we can get dressed up like that and take photos that will remind us of that day for the rest of our lives,” she said recently during an interview in her Chula Vista home.

She enjoys sharing many of these photos with her 217,000 Instagram followers, as well as some far-less-formal shots of herself in pajamas without any makeup on. She uses social media to promote her work and her love for Mexican culture but generally avoids politics and negativity.

“I’m not going to focus on the bad days,” she said. “I choose to live in gratitude. The more you make an effort, the more life gives you things to be grateful for.”

‘Full circle moment’

Valladolid entered the American public consciousness in 2010 when she began hosting the Food Network show “Mexican Made Easy.” By then, she’d already made a name for herself in Mexico.

After a childhood spent in Tijuana, she moved to California at age 19 to attend the L.A. Culinary Institute. That’s when she met Button at an L.A. nightclub. He was working at the time in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency.

They dated seriously for a few years while she earned a pastry degree in Paris, worked as a food stylist for Bon Appétit magazine and competed on “Martha Stewart: The Apprentice.”

But the relationship with Button fizzled out when she moved back to Tijuana in her mid-20s to start her own cooking school and catering company. That’s where she landed her first cooking show, the Spanish-language “Relatos con Sabor” on the Discovery en Español channel.

That led to the publication of her first cookbook “Fresh Mexico: 100 Simple Recipes for True Mexican Flavor” in 2009. It also brought her to the attention of Food Network executives, who hired her in 2010 for “Mexican Made Easy.”

On the show, which was filmed at her former home in San Diego, she showcased the traditional dishes of Mexico without all the heavy sauces and cheeses found in Americanized versions of the cuisine. It ran until 2013.

Over the years, she has co-hosted and competed on several other Food Network shows, including “The Kitchen,” “The American Baking Competition,” “Throwdown! with Bobby Flay” and “Iron Chef America.” In January, she’ll begin filming the third season of “Best Baker in America,” which she co-hosts with Jason Smith, winner of the 13th season of “Food Network Star.”

Besides hosting the monthlong “Holiday Gingerbread Showdown” series this fall on Food Network, she also has an upcoming appearance Nov. 28 on “The Dish on Oz” food chat show on the CW network.

In 2011, Valladolid published her second cookbook “Mexican Made Easy” and in 2017 she released “Casa Marcela: Recipes and Food Stories of My Life in the Californias.”

She’s now finishing up her fourth cookbook, “Fiestas: Tidbits, Margaritas and More.” It will feature 75 cocktails and appetizers she serves at her own parties. The book, coming out April 2, is a homegrown effort, with everything made in her kitchen and photographed at her home in natural light.

For the past few years, she and Button have talked about selling their Chula Vista home to move to L.A. for better business opportunities. But they love the sunny seabreeze-swept home and its backyard organic garden. They also like being close to her siblings in Chula Vista, her widowed father in Tijuana and his parents in La Jolla.

Button came back into Valladolid’s life five years ago. Both of them were recently divorced, her “Mexican Made Easy” TV show had been canceled and she was at a low ebb, both creatively and personally.

“I wasn’t happy with where I was. My son (Fausto) was the only thing I was proud of at the moment,” she said.

‘A wonderful life’

She reached out to Button, who had remained a friend and adviser through the years, and the sparks reignited.

“I’ve known Philip half my life, but we had both changed so much. We had to get to know each other all over again. It was a beautiful full circle moment for us,” she said.

The couple is planning a formal holiday turkey dinner with all the trimmings on Christmas Eve. This year, Valladolid won the annual family tussle over dinner-hosting responsibilities, so she and Button will be serving dinner to more than 25 family members. The guest list includes her father, her brother Antonio, 47, and sister Carina, 43.

Between the three Valladolid siblings, they have a combined 11 children, so much of the evening will center around the kids. There will be sparklers and a piñata. And there will also be a Nativity scene ceremony, where each child will place a sculpture into the manger scene and say what they’re thankful for. Valladolid’s daughter Anna Carina is the youngest grandchild, so she gets to place the baby Jesus at the end.

Valladolid’s fans can expect to see many of these festivities showcased on Instagram (@chefmarcela), where she regularly and often humorously responds to pesky readers’ questions about why she and Button have yet to tie the knot.

“The more I work on myself, the more I find that stuff like that is not a priority,” she said. “Those societal rules put us in boxes and we don’t have that need. I kind of love the idea of teaching our kids that you don’t have to follow the rules to be incredibly successful and live in harmony and have a wonderful life.”

“Holiday Gingerbread Showdown”

Premieres: 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 25

Channel: Food Network

pam.kragen@sduniontribune.com. Twitter: @pamkragen

Copyright © 2018, Pacific San Diego
58°