Sometimes a dish is more than just food — it’s an experience, it’s a collection of memories, it’s sights and sounds and relationships just as much as it’s tastes and aromas. For me, that dish is roasted pork — pernil, to us Puerto Ricans — with rice and beans and a side of Mojo dipping sauce, and it reminds me of my mother.
I grew up with my mother and my two brothers in Flushing, Queens, New York. Being raised by a single mom with no job made it extremely difficult to get by, but we always made the most of it. I remember how early she’d get up each day, 4 to 5 AM, so she could clean and start preparing food for us. Once the Spanish music came on we knew Mom was cooking! Even to this day I love listening to classic Spanish music on Pandora early in the morning — there’s nothing like a little Marco Antonio Solis to put me in the right zone.
Growing up, Mom was always in the kitchen, always cooking, but always reading, too — wolfing down culinary books on every type of cuisine you can imagine, from Indian, to Japanese, to Thai. Learning about exotic new foods through my mother triggered something in me I’d never known was there: my creative culinary side. While my two brothers were more interested in playing outdoors, I began to stay inside with Mom, gazing observantly over her shoulder as she’d chop, slice, and simmer. On weekends we’d go food shopping together, visiting colorful local markets where she’d show me how to smell and squeeze each fragrant fruit and vegetable to recognize their ripeness.
I remember vividly the first time my mom taught me how to make pernil — how to marinate the pork with fresh oregano, white distilled vinegar, tangy orange juice, fresh oregano, and sazon, a Puerto Rican spice mix that she liked to put on everything. We’d cook the rice and beans with sofrito made with recao (a spice made with the Caribbean herb culantro) and ají dulce, then add roasted cubanelle peppers, pimientos, yellow onions, garlic, tomatoes, and cilantro. It’d all cook down slowly until the the whole house was filled with delicious aromas and our stomachs were growling with anticipation. Then, when it was finally time to eat, we’d tear in, mopping up every morsel of hand-pulled pork with mojo sauce made from garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, oregano, and salt.
As I grew older, I started to face backlash from my family about my love of cooking. “We have such high hopes for you,” they said. “We know you can do more with your life than cook.” I told few people about my secret hobby, embarrassed by what they might think of me. By the time I reached college the family backlash had reached new heights, and I was hurt and confused by their lack of support for my passion. But what I didn’t understand at the time — what my mother wasn’t telling me — was that she was showing signs of breast cancer.
My mother kept that painful secret from me the entire time I was away at college, hoping to keep me focused rather than fearful. I worked full time through school to help with the bills, never realizing that much of that money was being spent on medical care, and proudly graduated with a bachelor’s degree in food science three years later. I moved back to New York and promptly landed my first major job at Le Cirque, Manhattan’s hottest high-end French restaurant. My family’s hesitations about my career didn’t matter anymore; I’d made it!
But after I’d been at Le Cirque for some time, the call from my mother finally came. “Son,” she said, “I’ve got something I have to tell you.”
I was literally knocked off my feet with shock and heartache that day. The breast cancer required surgery, and I voluntarily left Le Cirque to help take care of her. She’s bravely dealt with many surgeries since — at least six — and though I’ve since resumed my career as a chef, I go to work each day knowing the heavy toll the cancer has taken on her. That’s why she’s the inspiration behind every dish I make; my motivation to work hard and continue to grow, so I can be the chef she always knew I was. And even to this day, when I go to visit her, she always asks if I want to help her cook pernil with rice and beans.