Cafe Society

Serena Romeo, exec chef of Comida Cantina, on standing her ground, the mistreatment of animals and...a second Comida

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"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.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson