I am from the very small town of Aguadilla on the west coast of Puerto Rico. Our family—my grandfather, aunts, uncles, and mom’s friends—ate well every day; everything about our lives revolved around food.
Even if we were on the beach, it was all about the food—waiting for the fishermen to come to slice the fish, then to fry the fish so we could eat it on a paper plate. Everybody was excited and happy: “Oh, here they come! Here they come!” we’d be shouting.
My mother made the gorgeous, simple dishes of Puerto Rico, like arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), asopao de camarones (shrimp stew), and pork roast with rice or plantains, and also loved to try recipes from magazines like Women’s Day and Family Circle. She took courses on making wedding cakes and would create beautiful cakes and also cater a little bit for family friends. Through her I learned about the process of creating something that was tasty while also making sure it looked great. My father was the master of pork, marinating pernil (pork shoulder) or lechon (whole roasted pig) for days on end. And we had an amazing vegetable garden that was the envy of the whole neighborhood. Indeed, food was very big in the Gonzalez household.
From the time I was 9 or 10 years old I knew I wanted to be a chef. I did some catering when I was 13 or 14 years old, then worked as a chef/skipper for charter boats in St. Thomas and Tortola. When I was around 19, I realized that I could make some money at it and started catering. I realized how happy cooking made me and started seriously thinking about it as a profession. In fact, every Sunday I read the classifieds in the San Juan Star, looking for restaurants that were for sale. My dad would laugh and say, “What are you going to do when you find the one you like?” I said, “I'm going to buy it.” Of course, I was 19, still lived at home, and had very little money (I did have a part-time job, but spent the other part of the time lying on the beach). But I actually did find the right space, and, amazingly, recruited a neighbor to be an investor. I opened a cafe in Old San Juan, all the way across the island, serving sandwiches and local dishes like conch salad. That was my first, but sadly short-lived, experience in the restaurant business. It was pretty popular, but I was young, and really didn’t know anything about business, so it didn’t last very long.
After my parents separated, my mom moved to New York. I came to visit and we had a very long talk. I told her that I wanted to see the culinary schools in New York. She said, “Sure, make appointments to go.” The first one we visited was the New York Restaurant School, right by the Empire State Building on 34th Street. The door opened and I saw everybody dressed in their white chef jackets—it was everything I had dreamed of. I got as many student loans as I could and I started right away.
I graduated on a Saturday and I started working at the Quilted Giraffe that Monday. I was working shifts of 14 hours and loving every minute of it, even though I was scared because I was in the big leagues. But I never doubted it; I never turned back. Barry Wine ran such a top kitchen, and he was hard on all of us, but that just pushed me and made me want to succeed more. He also taught me a level of respect for the food and the clients. He had a way of doing things: Everything was done the Quilted Giraffe way. You would chop vegetables the Quilted Giraffe way. You would do this and that the Quilted Giraffe way. The Quilted Giraffe way was tasting and testing everything many times. It was about consistency and perfection and making sure everything looked good on the plate, that a lot of thought and care was put into the dish.
I left the Quilted Giraffe after two and a half years and I cooked around New York for a while before moving to Miami and striking out on my own to open the restaurant Clowns. At Clowns we had Latin dishes, Southwestern dishes—it was kind of all over the place but it was a very important step for me. I soon realized that I needed to focus in order for my cooking to mature. We got a few great write-ups, which led to Silverspoon, my catering company. Then the Biltmore Hotel asked me to create Carmen the Restaurant at their sister property, The David William. It was amazing: John Mariani came in and three months later, my restaurant was named one of the “10 Best New Restaurants in America” by Esquire. After that, things started to really skyrocket for me. Carmen the Restaurant continued to be named the best restaurant in Miami almost every year. We got four diamonds from AAA. I had a small weekly spot on Univision. Unfortunately, there was a fire in the hotel, and because of water damage we had to close the restaurant.
But I always like to say that I’m like the toy you punch down that keeps popping back up. I left for New York with plans of opening a Carmen the Restaurant. In the meantime, I cooked at Phil Suarez’s Lucy for a couple of years. After that, I did mostly consulting jobs, anywhere from kitchens to private dinners.
Then Top Chef Masters called. It changed my life, as it has done for a lot of people. It gave me confidence and exposure and I developed close bonds with other chefs who I consider friends for life. And because I made it to the Champions Round, I was able to raise $10,000 for the ASPCA, my charity. Overall, it was a fantastic experience.
Because of Top Chef, I was able to open Carmen at The Danforth in Maine, and I was also approached by MGM Latin America about a cooking show. The result is La Chispa de Carmen Gonzalez, which is actually more than a cooking show—it’s part talk show, where I chat with and cook with many Latin celebrities; and it’s part travelogue, where I visit Latin American countries and explore ingredients and flavors of places like Peru and Costa Rica. Even though Carmen at the Danforth has now closed, I continue to do La Chispa. But I’m ready for the next adventure, scouting out new spaces in New York.
All of these experiences have made my cooking what it is today: Latin-influenced American food with French technique and a light touch. The recipes in this collection showcase my style and demonstrate how different my food can be, but at the same time, how all elements are married and balanced. Mostly they reflect my journey from a young girl opening a small café in Puerto Rico to a professionally trained chef who continued to travel and grow, learning to focus and earning credibility in Miami, coming into her own in Maine, and finally allowing her natural cooking style and personality to shine through on television. The dishes that follow reflect all of these experiences, through ingredients and technique, but mostly through flavor.