EXCLUSIVE: Food Network's Marcela Valladolid On Growing Up On the Border

Marcela Valladolid grew up with her feet firmly planted in two worlds—she was raised in Tijuana, Mexico but attended school in San Diego, California. This melding of two cultures would later serve as the seed for the Mexican American chef’s culinary career. At 18, Valladolid was an architecture student but after working as an assistant at her aunt’s culinary school in Mexico, she dropped out to pursue her dream.

Fast forward and the now 33-year-old Latina is host of Food Network’s Mexican Made Easy. On the show, which featured fellow mexicana Eva Longoria as a guest last season, Valladolid simplifies Mexican recipes and transforms them into meals that are easy to replicate at home. Her love for food has opened up a ton of doors for her, most recently to the White House. This past Friday, Valladolid joined a group of other chefs to share tips on how the Latino community can stay active and healthy. The presentation was part of President Obama’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Valladolid spoke to Latina.com recently about her unique upbringing, her new book, Mexican Made Easy, and what it was like having Eva Longoria try her food.

You grew up in Mexico and went to school in San Diego, which was the inspiration behind Mexican Made Easy. How so?

I grew up with a foot in each of the two worlds at the same time. My family’s home was in Tijuana but we would wake up in the morning, pack up our school stuff, cross the international border, go to San Diego, do our schooling in San Diego, and then get in the car, go back home and do it all over again the next day. What’s so unique about living on the border is that you’re exposed to two very different cultures at the same time. My family is very traditional in how we celebrate our holidays, but I love being an American and being on the American side of the border. That’s what I mean – embracing both cultures and cuisines. Mexican cuisine can be very complex at times so it’s my American side that wants to break things down and make it practical.

Your first job was cooking at your aunt’s culinary school. Tell us about that experience.

I was a teacher’s assistant – I would grocery-shop for her [Valladolid’s aunt], I would assist in the class and clean up after her. I loved it – I loved it so much that I dropped out of architecture school. I was going to school in Baja and I was with my aunt less than a year and I made the decision that I was much more passionate and excited about cooking than I was about architecture. I dropped out and three months later I was at the Los Angeles Culinary Institute.

What are some misconceptions that you notice people have about Mexican food?

There’s a few – the first line in my first book (FRESH MEXICO: 100 Simple Recipes for True Mexican Flavor) was ‘there’s no yellow cheese in Mexican cooking.’ There’s a Mennonite cheese which is pale yellow but it’s not yellow-yellow. One of the other misconceptions is that it’s very carb-heavy. I grew up in Baja on the Pacific ocean so my diet was very consistent of very fresh, ocean-to-table dishes like ceviche and tostadas and all these things that are very light, healthy. When people associate Mexican food with something really heavy and really fatty and dominated by carbs – it’s the complete opposite of the foods that I grew up with.

During the premiere episode of your show last season, you had Eva Longoria as a guest. What was it like working with her?

She’s quite possibly the sweetest person I’ve ever met. She sent me this beautiful note congratulating me on the show, telling me that she was a fan. I wrote a quote for her cookbook and I felt comfortable enough to ask her to be a guest on my show. She agreed and she is just a lovely person with a sweet and generous personality. It was so nice to hear about her family stories – just like any Latina woman, a lot of our personal stories revolve around food and the kitchen.

Did you share any recipes between the two of you?

Oh yea! She cooked a guacamole that she loves to make, made with lemons instead of limes, which makes it a little bit sweeter. I had never really tried it before, I’m like a purist when it comes to guacamole. She also cooked a strawberry daiquiri, which was her aunt’s recipe. And I cooked these shrimp stuffed chiles... we were like ‘Eva, you need to stop eating and look at the camera or something’ but she loved them so much!

What is your favorite Mexican dish?

I have many but I think what takes me back the most is traditional mole that they used to make at my house growing up.  

Any other upcoming projects that you can share with us?

I recently purchased my own tequila label. I’ve got the book, I’ve got the show, and I’m at every food festival that you can think of. I’m also traveling to Shanghai with Pro Mexico, the government agency in charge of Mexico’s PR; I’m going to be the face of Mexico for their food festival, which is really exciting! It’s two whole weeks in Shanghai, cooking Mexican food and taking over one of the major hotels in the city. They’re swapping out their restaurant menu with my recipes so it’s going to be really exciting!