As a child, Susie Jimenez helped her Mexican parents pick fruit. Working alongside her family in the fields helped plant the seed for Jimenez’s long relationship with food, which culminated in a successful culinary career and most recently in her second place finish on The Next Food Network Star. The 31-year-old California native lost to self-appointed “Sandwich King” Jeff Mauro on the show’s finale this past Sunday, but gained a ton of fans along the way.
Since the show’s finale, she’s been contacted for a flood of new catering gigs, but Jimenez took a break from her hectic schedule to chat with us about the cultural influences in her food and the immigrant experience.
Congratulations on making it to runner up of The Next Food Network Star! How do you feel?
I had a lot of time to marinate and process the whole thing. I knew it was coming so I was sort of dreading that moment. I didn’t think I was going to cry because I had already had my crying moments on the show but I think once they announced the winner, everyone was crying with me and hugging me. It felt nice to still have a lot of support and I’m nothing more than proud of myself with the whole experience. I can’t really complain about that. I never thought I would make it to runner up!
How important is your cultural background to you?
It’s so important to me. I think it was very obvious by how much I talk about my grandmothers, my mom and my family—where I came from. If it wasn’t for my grandmother having me take corn off the cob when I was a kid to make here own masa, I would never have gotten into cooking. My mom forced us to help out in the kitchen. We come from a very large family so as part of our culture, food always brought us together.
You helped your parents pick fruits when you were a kid. Tell us about that experience.
I think it’s so funny because my birthday is this Saturday and all my friends want me to go to the lake and they know that I avoid water because I don’t know how to swim. They’re like ‘Why don’t you know how to swim? Didn’t your parents teach you?’ And it wasn’t so much that it wasn’t a priority for my parents to teach me how to swim, but in summers we traveled up to Oregon or California. My parents had to go where the seasons were, so whether we went to Oregon to pick cherries and pears or to Stockton to pick strawberries, we went with the flow of the food. It was difficult to grow up in a family that wasn’t stable because we went from migrant camp to migrant camp and picked whatever in season. Once my parents decided to buy their own home, it made it easier because I had an established house and home to come back to. But for four months out of the year we had to go to Mexico because there were no crops to pick and then we would come back. That was life for a long time until I hit junior high and high school because I couldn’t miss school. To this day, my mother still picks cherries.
What do you think about the immigration controversy going on here in the U.S.?
It’s really hard for me because people blog about how they think I don’t belong on the Food Network and they think I’m illegal. I think it’s stupid because I was born here. People need to understand; I know that it is hard to have all these people coming in here illegally. My dad came here over 40 years ago when he was 14 and he got a permit to work here and he filled out his paperwork. My mom was stuck in Mexico for a few years until she filled out her paperwork and it was processed. If it wasn’t for my dad having a dream and coming to America to better himself, I don’t know where my life would be. All these people want is a better life and I’ve been to Mexico so many times; there’s a lot of hardship there. There’s not that much to look forward to. I think they just want the American dream, they just want to survive, they want to make money, they want to eat, and they want to get ahead. It’s hard for me because I want there to be a law so that they can just come and work here. America does need immigrants to come and pick strawberries and cherries and other field jobs. I never grew up saying 'Oh my God, I want to work in the fields'—but the fields are a lot better than what they have in Mexico.
Why do you think so many successful chefs are male?
It’s funny you ask that because before I was working as a chef in a restaurant and my boss had to go away and handle some paperwork back in France, where he was from. Before he left, I became executive chef and it wasn’t hard for me to take over the position. It was hard for the men to take orders from me and see me as their superior. I don’t know why that is. This is a very tough industry for women. I’ve just been honored to be able to have the strength, energy, and also I’m just a very strong Latina. You don’t mess with me, you don’t make me mad or a finger is going to come up and I’m going to say ‘No, he did not try to mess with me.’ There are not a lot of people that can take it. There should be a lot more Latinas in the kitchen, more women in the kitchen taking over because we’re good at that.
Has it been hard being a Latina women in the competitive culinary world?
I’ve always had a strong personality, so for me personally it hasn’t. You can ask everyone, I don’t take it. When I feel something, you’ll know. When I ask you to do something, you’ll do it. I just have a strong personality, there’s no way around it.
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