NAME: Ronaldo Linares
HERITAGE: Cuban, Colombian and American
HOMETOWN: Born in Medellín, Colombia, now living in Somerville, New Jersey.
OCCUPATION/TITLE: Classically trained chef, restaurateur and cookbook author Ronaldo Linares is a salsa-dancing, MMA-fighting, former US Marine who is CEO of Ronaldo’s Cocina and Executive Chef of Martino’s Cuban in Somerville, New Jersey. His first cookbook “Sabores de Cuba — Diabetes-friendly traditional and Nueva Cubano cuisine” comes out May 10, 2016 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.
How did you hone your cooking skills?
I was a decent student but I wanted to go in different ways, so I told my mom, at a very young age, that after I graduate high school, I want to go to the Marine Corps. My father was in the military when he was young and I always looked up to him and wanted to do something for my country. Plus, I knew I needed it, I knew I needed the discipline.
I went in as a Private and got out a Sergeant – I made 5 ranks in 4 years, was awarded the Navy Achievement Medal and got other awards for being a leader. While I was there I cooked for 6,000 every day and I was good at it – one of the best. I took additional college courses in food to focus and discipline me.
When I went to culinary school, I loved it, I gave it my all. I would have to wake up at 4 in the morning, 5 days a week, but when you find something you truly love, you want to wake up and go do it.
Did you always cook at your parents’ restaurant?
When I got out of cooking school I wanted to broaden my experience so I started working in catering at the Hilton and moved up the line to staff chef. I would have become the sous chef but I had to go back to the family restaurant because family took precedence.
I was about 25 years old and I got there and at that point my mom was the main chef and my dad was also cooking so they were like, “Go peel the potatoes.” And I was like, “Let me cook” and they were like, “No, you’re not ready.” So I kept cooking on the side, kept going through the menu, practicing with a better repertoire and I started developing dishes on the side.
I filled composition notebooks – 10-12 notebooks that I still have – with ideas. I would do that and cook and cook and cook outside of the restaurant.
In the restaurant I was out with customers, promoting the business, doing all the operations and it was a blessing in disguise because I learned that side of things.
How did you get into the healthy eating and your partnership with the American Diabetes Association?
Behind everything I’ve been able to do – to have the energy to hustle the way I do – I always knew health had to be number one, so I trained like a maniac, I ate well, relatively.
But then I met a friend at the restaurant who was a nutritionist and I started understanding the macronutrients and the numbers for protein, carbs, fat — I started doing that and started feeling so good.
My cooking changed a lot, it had to. I started using less fats, changing whole butter to healthy oils, roasting more, etc., and my palate got better as I ate cleaner.
"I wanted to make eating healthy sound cool especially to young Latinos and others. That led me to the book."
Throughout our whole lives my brother was really unfit. He used to weight 290 pounds and after a journey of two-and-a-half years of eating better he’s down to 205 and he’s found exercise to be his new addiction. And thank god he didn’t get type 2 diabetes.
My wife’s family is Puerto Rican and there’s Type 2 diabetes in her family and it’s a scary disease – I’ve seen people lose limbs. It’s definitely a legitimate epidemic, especially for Latinos, but people just don’t get it. So I started to do expos and events to get the word out. I wanted to make eating healthy sound cool especially to young Latinos and others. That led me to the book.
I went to a book fair and went to the American Diabetes Association’s section and I said 'We’ve got this idea, A Cuban, healthy, family-friendly, diabetes-friendly book. We’ve got to show that hey, Latin food is healthy. It’s not always full of grease.'
They said 'Yes' and it took on a life of its own. Hopefully it will be able to motivate people to get back in the kitchen, to get back to cooking and teach kids to cook, that’s what’s missing. My best memories are of cooking with my parents and that just doesn’t happen as much anymore.
How does “Sabores de Cuba” help people get back to cooking?
It’s all about the home cook. Every recipe was created at my house, with the salsa blasting and my son bugging me…we’re talking real, live, home cooking. I got the cooking times close as possible, so people can plan, and I listed the ingredients in order so you can just check off as you go. And all the ingredients are easy to get at your regular supermarket or most of this stuff you’ll already have at home. Plus, it’s written in a way that if you read it and follow the instructions you will cook a perfect dish each time. It’s very, very simple.
"Every recipe was created at my house, with the salsa blasting and my son bugging me…My best memories are of cooking with my parents and that just doesn’t happen as much anymore."
We had to put in Cuban classics, of course, because the Cuban people are going to be like, 'Where’s this and that.' But every recipe is nutritious and you can put in MyFitnessPal if you’re keeping track of your calories with an app, so it’s perfect across so many levels. I want people to taste these dishes and be like, “Oh my gosh, this is what I grew up with it, but it’s healthy.”
Plus, 90 percent of these recipes have an awesome story at the beginning that captures you, so when you eat it you can relate with me a little. And the best, best thing: it is bilingual - the recipes are English and Spanish on opposite pages back-to-back so if you’re English or Spanish is so-so, you’re covered.
What’s the secret to your success?
Belief. Number one, you have to 100 percent believe in yourself. You cannot let anything influence what you think about your dream or your mission. And you can’t go off the popular thing at the moment, you have to believe in what you are doing then bring in the passion, the research and then the practice. If you want to accomplish something you have to devote all your time to it – it’s not just 6 or 8 hours a day, you’re constantly doing it, constantly finding ways to make it grow.
If you’re young – like 17 or 18 – you have to put the time in, there’s nothing more important to a hustle than to put the time in.
And it takes a lot of time and perseverance. I asked my parents 1,000 times, “Let me step up to the plate, let me cook” and it wasn’t until that 1,001st time that I got a “Yes.”
Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based journalist and a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.