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Mexican-American Chef Marcela Valladolid Invites Us Home in New Cookbook, ‘Casa Marcela’

We’ve grown accustomed to seeing the border between Mexico and the United States as a troubled area of conflict and controversy, but for Marcela Valladolid, chef, noted cookbook author, and co-host of the Food Network’s Emmy-nominated show “The Kitchen”, it's always been home.

With the release of her latest cookbook, Casa Marcela: Recipes and Food Stories of My Life in the Californias, we see just how lovely and vibrant that home can be.

Casa Marcela book cover. Coral Von Zumwalt

Raised in Tijuana, the largest city in Baja California, Mexico, Valladolid spent her life moving easily between two worlds. She was well into writing her third book when border security became a central issue of a divisive presidential election. But where others saw a wall, Valladolid saw an opportunity for deeper understanding.

“I think there was a part of me that wanted to say, listen, we are one of these families that are some times mentioned in the news and we have all this to contribute to your society, as do so many Mexican-American families,” explains Valladolid.

Valladolid deftly bridges the two cultures in the recipes as well, adapting traditional Mexican cuisine to a fast paced, contemporary lifestyle without losing the heart and soul of the dishes she prepares for her family.

We caught up with Valladolid to ask her what the Californias have to offer and what you stand to gain when you’ve truly found your place in the world.

This book feels really personal and honest. You’re letting people into your home after all. Can you tell us how it came about?

I wanted it to be very personal. The book was shot here in my house, with my friends, my family and in my kitchen. About ninety percent of the props were things I use when I entertain or when I take photos for my blog. The recipes were cooked in real time. I wanted it to be really organic and true.

It evolved into, how do I — and my family — hold on to my Mexican roots and recipes and culture while living in Southern California? I talk about that in the book, crossing the border every day, living on the Mexican side of the border, but spending half of that time here.

Make these grilled beef tacos with salsa verde for Taco Tuesday 3:52

I think that was the inspiration. I didn’t want to claim it to be a traditional Mexican cookbook. I wasn’t dabbling in different regional cuisines. I just wanted to open up a window and take a peak at what happens in my house.

What was it like growing up on the border?

It wasn’t something that we even realized growing up. It’s such a unique dynamic for those of us that lived here. I grew up on the Mexican side of the border with Mexican parents. I crossed the border to got to school in San Diego every day then crossed back over. That commute back in the day wasn’t what it is now. It could be very short, wasn’t bad at all. For us that live here, even now, we really don’t see the border. For us it’s the region. It’s not the U.S. versus Mexico. For us it’s invisible. They’ve made it much more visible with everything that is happening.

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What sets Baja cuisine apart from what you’ll find in either Mexico or the United States?

We have the most traffic out of any [international] border on earth. Because of that, there are a tremendous amount of people who end up in Tijuana wanting to cross the border into San Diego. A lot of those people don’t cross the border but stay in Tijuana and contribute to us culturally and socially.

Marcela Valladolid Chef photo. Isabella Martinez-Funcke

From a culinary perspective, that has a huge influence on everything we do, not just how we cook but how we live our life. Tijuana is a baby compared to pre-Hispanic cities like Puebla or Oaxaca, the birthplace of mole.

In those cities, and rightfully so, they really hold onto original recipes and histories and how things are properly made. In Tijuana, because there’s such a mix and match of people and regions and we’re a newer city and everyone comes from some place else, I think we’re just given permission to play with our food.

Is there something you could with the recipes or storytelling for this book that you couldn’t do before?

It was just me and my son Fausto for about 5 years, moving around, renting places all over San Diego. There was really no home, there was no casa, nothing that I owned, nothing that meant anything to me really.

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When I walked into this [house], it was absolutely outside of what I could afford, but I envisioned everything I could do here — from my family, to my friends, to all the things we’d been talking about at work, to planting a garden. Soon after that, my fiancé came back into my life and the babies happened. It became very real.

The recipes show a lot of respect for traditional ingredients and techniques while being in tune with the way people live and entertain now. How do you find that balance?

I knew by watching, for example Rachael [Ray] or Bobby [Flay] that people here like easy and they like quick. They need to be able to shop for ingredients at their regular supermarket.

They don’t have access to an open market like I do in Tijuana, where you have 7,000 chiles to choose from.

What’s unique about growing up here is that you’re able to see both sides of the story. You’re able to see the side where it’s so culturally rich, where the recipe has so much history, where the mole has 27 ingredients, and you’re able to understand the U.S. side of the border when you’re watching these chefs on TV or reading their cookbooks where they need to be able to put a recipe on the table for their family in 30 minutes.

My role is to combine the two, not just to fill the void, but because that was my lifestyle, that was who I was.

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