- Associated Press - Saturday, February 25, 2012

MIAMI BEACH, FLA. (AP) - A decade after Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez helped Latin music explode into the mainstream, Latina chefs are doing the same for food.

From Food Network’s Marcela Valladolid and Evette Rios on ABC’s “The Chew” to uber-restaurateur Michelle Bernstein and cookbook author Lourdes Castro, these senoritas are proving to be the new face in cooking _ especially on television.

The stereotype of Latina mothers living in the kitchen makes sense to these Latina chefs.

“We all grew up around mom in the kitchen, that’s just how it was,” said Bernstein, who is of Latin and Jewish descent and runs Sra. Martinez and Michy’s restaurants in Miami. “And maybe that just better represents what Latin food is, coming from the momma.”

“It speaks to Latinas,” said Lisa Navarrete, a spokeswoman for The National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization based in Washington. “You have a lot of talented women, very personable, very telegenic, who are also great cooks.”

Like music, food is a gateway to people learning about another culture, she said. And in this case, one that is expanding. Hispanics are the fastest growing population in the country, accounting for 50 million people, or 1 in 6 Americans.

Also fueling the rise of Latina chefs is the fact that Latin cuisine is no longer considered “exotic” or difficult to cook. More people today are comfortable cooking at home with ethnic ingredients such as jalapenos and cilantro, or marinating meats with Cuban mojo or chimichurri.

“Latin cooking is probably becoming more mainstream than it has been in the past,” said Castro, who was born in Miami to Cuban parents. “And women in particular are being focused on more since people want to know what to do with these ingredients.”

That’s because women traditionally cook the family meals in the Latin community, she said.

Rios, ABC’s “The Chew” correspondent, is of Puerto Rican descent. She’s a self-taught cook who defines “perfectly Latina” as a woman who can do more than cook: she shows you how to make a cocktail or a dessert, as well.

“I feel like it’s a very Latin thing,” she said. “Women in general do this, but I feel Latin women are just much more involved in everything.”

But Rios also noted that it has taken a while for Latin cuisine to make it big.

For one thing, there is so much variety and so many ingredients that “it’s been so hard to make a name for itself,” she said. Plus, the Latin culture has a “lot longer to go” in terms of acceptance since American culinary schools have been slow to embrace Latin food.

Until now.

The Culinary Institute of America has a new program starting at its San Antonio campus next month focused exclusively on Latin cuisines. It will feature both indoor and outdoor kitchens equipped with Peruvian pachamanca pits, a Brazilian barbacoa pit, Argentinian parilla grills and Mexican wood-fired comals.

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