Zarela Martinez is one of America’s top culinary professionals and a 2013 inductee into the James Beard Foundation Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America. Her achievements as a chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, food television host, and product developer and merchandiser place her as a pioneering woman in the world of the multiplatform food personality. In today’s celebrity saturated culinary world, it’s not uncommon to find the roles of chef, cookbook author, television host, product line developer, and brand representative combined in one food personality. But Martinez wove these fields into a single career when it was uncommon in the profession, and a truly remarkable feat for an Hispanic woman.
Martinez was born in the Mexican town of Agua Prieta in Sonora State. Her family had been significant landholders in Chihuahua, and she was raised in a privileged and educated atmosphere. She learned to cook from her mother, Aida Gabilondo, who was herself a cookbook author. Out of necessity, she started a small catering business in Texas, and was later discovered by Chef Paul Prudhomme while attending cooking school in New Orleans.
Arriving in New York City in the early 1980s, she established Zarela Catering and participated in some of the founding events of the modern American food resurgence, working alongside figures including Paul Prudhomme, Alice Waters, Leo Steiner, Wolfgang Puck, Craig Claiborne, and others. Soon she was Consulting Chef and limited partner, and later Executive Chef, in the new Café Marimba, the first restaurant in New York to feature authentic regional Mexican cuisine. In 1987, she opened the eponymous Zarela, serving a changing menu of various Mexican regional cuisines. The restaurant remained a New York favorite for twenty-three years. In 2001, she opened Danzon, where the menu was based on the foods of Veracruz.
Martinez’ three cookbooks, Food from my Heart (1992), The Food and Life of Oaxaca (1997), and Zarela’s Veracruz (2001), have been praised as significant contributions to the literature of Mexican cuisine. Her third cookbook, Zarela’s Veracruz, was also the companion to a 13-part PBS series, Zarela! La Cucina Veracruzana.
She has consulted with clients such as Unilever Best Foods, Nestlé, Marriott and Taco Bell. She has made many guest appearances on television, including shows such as Julia Child: Cooking with Master Chefs and Martha Stewart.
But Martinez had a goal beyond success in these fields. She sought to bring a more authentic, culturally aware Mexican cuisine to the U.S., beyond the “slop and glop” that characterized most Americans’ understanding of Mexican food. She insisted that to master a dish one must comprehend the food behind the recipes, and understand the regions, their specific ingredients, techniques, and cultures. This led her to numerous research trips throughout Mexico, where she conducted interviews, took notes and photographs, and generally documented the wide context of the recipes that she presented in her books and at her restaurants.
For her efforts to introduce a vision of Mexico’s food and culture, she has been recognized by the Mexican Cultural Institute, and invited to lecture and make presentations to the International Association of Culinary Professionals, the James Beard House, the American Institute of Wine & Food, and been invited to cook for presidents and royalty.
Zarela has also been honored for her entrepreneurship and business accomplishments by Hispanic Magazine, the New York State Restaurant Association, the Women’s Venture Fund, the Women’s Leadership Exchange, and the Orgullo Award from the Coalition for Hispanic Family Services. She is a member of the Board of Directors of The Mexican Cultural Institute, and is active in other organizations including Latino Nutrition Coalition, National Hispana Leadership Institute, Women’s Venture Fund, City Meals on Wheels, and the Hispanic Children’s Fund.