Local celebrity chef shares family recipes in bilingual children’s cookbook ‘Cocinando on Cook Street’
It’s surprising to learn that chef Marcela Valladolid didn’t cook much growing up. It’s a confession the lifelong local makes early on in her new book, “Cocinando on Cook Street: A Collection of Mi Familia’s Recipes.” Rather, she says, she had to “sit and observe and earn” her place in the kitchen.
“Times have definitely changed because we have so much more awareness of how to relate to our kids,” says Valladolid, referring to how she doesn’t exactly use the same model of earning a place in the kitchen when it comes to her own three children.
This approach, and her family in general, were not only the inspiration for “Cocinando on Cook Street,” but the subject as well. A cookbook aimed at young audiences, the book features her family’s recipes (presented in both Spanish and English), as well as illustrations of her family preparing and cooking the recipes. The author of five cookbooks — in addition to her career as a television personality on multiple cooking shows, including her own series (“Mexican Made Easy”) and as a judge on “Best Baker in America” — Valladolid certainly has nothing to prove at this point, but it’s hard to not to feel as if this was a highly personal project.
“All of my books have been super personal,” says Valladolid, who goes on to recall the experience of her first book and how, at the time, it felt like such a huge accomplishment. “Thank god that book did well.”
Still, “Cocinando on Cook Street” marks the first time Valladolid has worked on a book for children, and it’s a project that’s been decades in the making. Her oldest son, Fausto (now 18) was the early inspiration for the book and, as early as 2005, she had reached out to illustrators about creating a cookbook that was accessible to children. She credits the birth of her other children, David and Anna (7 and 5), who she lovingly refers to as “the second batch,” for reigniting the idea. Both children are raised in a bilingual household and Valladolid recalls that she would often be reading recipes to Anna and that the toddler would often ask what certain words meant in Spanish.
“The idea for me was to create bilingual content for children of my community,” says Valladolid, who also grew up in a bilingual household in Tijuana while going to school in San Diego. “That is, bilingual kids or Mexican American or Latin American kids. It’s something that’s lived in my head for a very long time.”
However, Valladolid says she had a different idea of what the book might be at first. In earlier iterations of the story, she saw it more as a story centering on fictional characters. But in the end, she decided she wanted to make it about her own family. It includes an extensive cast of aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws and even family friends and comes complete with recipes that have become staples and favorites in the household. The underlying themes of the book are that of inclusion and that every member of the family can be included in the cooking process.
“That was the most important thing. I think it’s much deeper than simply sharing recipes,” says Valladolid. “That’s why I wanted to show all my different family members and all their different colors. That’s the same reason I wanted to show the parents of my ex-husband. I wanted people to understand that my experience as a Mexican American in the U.S. has nothing to do with stereotypes. We don’t make mole and tamales every day. I don’t have a mariachi band playing.”
Valladolid chuckles before adding, “Well, actually, I do have a mariachi band at every event I throw so maybe that wasn’t the best example.”
And the recipes do run the proverbial culinary gamut. While some readers might expect simple, albeit innovative, takes on Mexican-inspired favorites, the book also includes what Valladolid says are “the recipes that are in heavy rotation in my own home.” Instructions for spaghetti with cauliflower béchamel are showcased as prominently as carne asada tacos and traditional Jewish latkes. The result is a lovingly curated collection that should appeal to any multicultural family.
“We’re often placed in this scenario where people want us to choose: Are you Mexican or are you American? I’m not choosing. Are you Jewish or are you Catholic? Well, I’m not choosing,” says Valladolid. “I really wanted people to understand that you can fully embrace being who you are even if you’re split into something like 20 different ethnicities. The most beautiful part of being here is all the new things we integrated into our traditions.”
The book also marks the first time Valladolid has collaborated with an illustrator. She says she’s passively worked with some artists in the past, but that working with Mexico City-based illustrator Eliza Moreno “just felt right.”
“I needed the book to just express joy,” Valladolid says. “Her illustrations are so whimsical, easy to connect to, but also magical in a way that makes them easy for kids to connect to.”
She says she originally wanted the illustrator to come live with her and her family, but then the pandemic happened and she ended up telecommunicating a lot with Moreno, sending her pictures and videos of the house, as well as candid moments of the family cooking. Valladolid says the experience was “highly collaborative” — so much so that her house on Cook Street (yes, the book is named after the actual street that Valladolid lives on) figures prominently in the book.
“The house is literally on the cover of the book and on every page. It became an actual character in the book,” Valladolid says. “It’s more than the backdrop of our lives. It’s the place where we continue to celebrate our culture, tradition and foods.”
Valladolid is already working on a new book, as well as a line of cooking products, and even a line of pre-packaged spices and food products that are made in Mexico. She’s also currently in production on a new Spanish-language television series for RokuTV. Whatever she’s working on at the moment, however, she says that she’s big on the concept of “takeaway.” When so many people are content in simply Googling recipes, Valladolid understands that, whether it’s a cookbook or a class or a TV show, the audience needs more than just a recipe. It has to be special, an experience, and in the case of “Cocinando on Cook Street,” something that might be passed down to subsequent generations.
“We live in a world where people’s attention spans are short,” Valladolid says. “So I want to make sure that it’s special and that there’s some sort of takeaway. I want people to learn something. That even if they don’t cook the exact recipes in the book, they still learn something.”
Warwick’s presents chef Marcela Valladolid
When: 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15
Where: La Jolla Riford Library, 7555 Draper Ave. La Jolla
Combs is a freelance writer.
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