This is part one of my interview with Serena Romeo, exec chef of Comida Cantina. Part two of our interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Before her two-year stint on a food truck, Serena Romeo had never worked in a professional kitchen. But at 47, after several decades of teaching elementary-school kids and working in social services (specifically at a battered-women's legal clinic, although she also taught first-offender DUI classes), she decided it was time to turn to what she loved most: food. "My dad was born in Sicily, and food is a huge part of Italian culture, so really early on, he taught me about the importance of eating well, knowing where your food comes from and making sure that everything was as fresh as possible," recalls Romeo, now the executive chef of Comida, the Longmont cantina that Rayme Rossello opened in February.
Romeo remembers her dad coming home from work and immediately starting a pot of water on the stove, to make a stock or boil pasta. "That's the first thing he'd do when he walked through the door, then he'd take a shower, and he and my mom would finish making dinner together," she recalls. "My dad loved the control he had in the kitchen. He was the master of his domain, and he would constantly taste as he was cooking." It wasn't until she was a teenager that her dad allowed her to play a role...as taste tester. "He'd let me taste, if only to tell me that it needed more salt -- and why it needed more salt," Romeo says. "For him, it was as much about the science of cooking as it was anything else."
When Romeo was in college, she landed a job as a deck hand with the Blue and Gold Fleet in San Francisco, where she prepped, cooked and lent a helping hand in the catering department. While she stayed on deck for nearly four years, another 25 would pass before she went into another kitchen that wasn't her own. "I was living in Boulder by then," she recalls, "and went back to grad school to get my master's degree so I could teach elementary school, but in 2010, the school board decided to close the school because of low enrollment, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, what am I going to do now?'" Romeo interviewed for several teaching jobs but was repeatedly chided for being overqualified -- and in any case, the pay was too low to support a single mom with two kids.
"All of my family and friends," she says, "everyone kept telling me that I was a really good cook, that I needed to be in a restaurant or open a restaurant, and I knew that if I couldn't teach, I wanted to cook." The opportunity came when she spotted a post on Facebook advertising for staff to run the Comida food truck, and she encouraged her daughter to apply. "She came home and said, 'Mom, I can't do it, because I have school, but you should!'" Turns out that Romeo knew Rossello, and after an impromptu phone call followed by a face-to-face, she was hired. "I've never worked so hard in my life, and while I knew I could run a classroom, I wasn't as confident that I could run a kitchen," she admits.
But Rossello didn't share her doubts, and two years later, when she made the decision to open the cantina, she offered the exec-chef job to Romeo, who by then was undaunted by the challenge. "I love creating, finding and testing recipes, and I love feeding people -- it's all connected -- and I feel incredibly lucky, because there aren't many people my age who make an extreme career change and do well," she says. "Rayme believed in me -- and I believe in me."
In the following interview, Romeo sounds off on the mistreatment of animals, reveals where she'd eat if she only had 24 hours in Denver and Boulder, and explains why the working poor are her culinary heroes.
Six words to describe your food: Inventive, fresh, meaningful, yummy, colorful and worth eating.
Ten words to describe you: Creative, patient, mother, humor, hardworking, alive, loyal friend, humble, lover of my sweet daughters, the beach, a good book, cooking by candlelight, delicious coffee, laughter, the Sunday New York Times, flip-flops, a good pedicure, picnics and eating outside under little white lights. Yes, I know it's more than ten.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Anything that's fresh, fresh, fresh.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? A really good knife and thin cotton kitchen towels.
Most underrated ingredient: Salt. A little bit can make every flavor pop. I think most people are afraid of it, and finding the right amount can be tricky.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I get a lot of what I use from the farmers' market. Whatever looks good, smells good and inspires ideas right there on the spot ends up in my basket. At Comida, we have great relationships with our purveyors; I've learned that they're one of your biggest allies.
Favorite spice: Right now it's cumin. I love the way it smells and the way it complements the dishes that I've been working on.
One food you detest: I can't tolerate the bad "stuff" that gets put into our foods -- things like high-fructose corn syrup or the famous "pink slime." And it drives me crazy the way in which animals are mistreated -- the way they're caged, the way they're handled, their lack of mobility. That's not the way it's supposed to be. Here we make sure that our chickens are free-range and organic, and that the pigs are raised humanely, too.
One food you can't live without: Really good chocolate. A little piece every day makes life taste a bit sweeter.
Food trend you wish would disappear: I think food trends are a good thing. They allow us, as chefs and consumers, to get exposure to different techniques and products, and anything that gets people to experiment a little with food is positive. The good ones will sustain themselves; the others will come and go.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Respect. No temper tantrums. If you need to cool off, that's what the walk-in is for.
What's never in your kitchen? Attitude. Leave it in your car.
What's always in your kitchen? Clean hands, the best olive oil I can afford, a good wooden spoon, music, humor, humility and, depending on the time of day, a nice glass of red wine. And I always wear a fun apron but never kitchen wear -- that's not my thing. I've been known to cook in a skirt.
Favorite dish on your menu: I love our Tender Belly Pork taco and the pineapple habanero salsa. It makes my mouth water. I also really enjoy the "Situation" taco and the chorizo quesadilla; the pickled onions really add an unusual bite to it.
Biggest menu bomb: The menu here is pretty solid. Rayme Rossello, who owns Comida, really created something that makes it easy to be successful. We just started brunch here, which was a group effort, and the dishes are not only unusual, but a treat for the tastebuds. I'm sure my bomb will come one day. Let's just hope it's not a Hiroshima type of experience.
Culinary heroes: Any parent, especially those who earn a low income, who has the desire to feed their family healthy, fresh foods. It's such a challenge. I have so much respect for people who work hard, and there's a huge hidden population of those people within our community -- the working poor -- who have to then creatively grocery-shop and go home and cook for their families. Cheers to you. You are my heroes.
Most humbling moment as a chef: When we transitioned from the truck to the restaurant and hired our kitchen staff, 90 percent of them had gone to culinary school, and they made sure I knew it. I didn't go to culinary school, and I was, like, back off. I was constantly being watched -- scrutinized for my knife skills, everything. But I came in one morning and said enough is enough. Stop. I'm not going away. Since then, they've totally come around, and we now have tremendous mutual respect for each other. But I've had a lot of humbling moments. That's how I grow personally and professionally, and I don't mind those moments. They aren't always pleasant to feel, but I get that I don't know it all, and those humbling experiences are what make life rich.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Mother's Day brunch. It was a great morning, and it felt good to run the line with another mother, Erika. And it always feels good to hear a guest say that this is the best dish they've ever had. But what really makes me happy the most is preparing a meal for family and friends. That said, I have very high expectations of myself and I'm my own worst critic, so I don't always digest the compliments well. I'm trying to get better at that.
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What's your dream restaurant? That's my something to create one day.
What do you have in the pipeline? You'll see. We definitely have plans for another Comida...maybe in Denver.
Last meal before you die: It would be a long one with the people I love in a place -- somewhere in Italy -- that makes me smile. The meal would be filled with delicious wine, fresh food, wonderful conversation and contagious laughter, lit only by candles and a honking Fiat trying to get me to scoot my chair in.