SABOR: ‘MasterChef’ Claudia Sandoval Demonstrates Incredible Skill, Embraces Latina Identity

Claudia Sandoval, winner of the sixth season of the hit FOX series “MasterChef,” welcomed the entire world into her cocina by continuously demonstrating incredible skill, showcasing robust Mexican flavors and relentlessly representing Latinas everywhere.

Gordon Ramsay and the other expert judges announced chef Claudia’s victory on Sept. 16 after a grueling three months of culinary adventures and challenges. The “MasterChef” was awarded a number of prizes, including $250,000 a deal to pen her own cookbook and the coveted “MasterChef” trophy.

The La Mesa, California-born chef came from humble beginnings. She and her brother were raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet. The two children frequently traveled their neighborhood, selling flour tortillas to earn extra income for their family. Then, Claudia’s stepfather, or her diddito, came into the picture, and financial tension eased a bit. However, his presence meant significantly more than just an added income: It meant she and her brother had a father. A former cop from Mexico, her father left his job and relocated to La Mesa to be with her mother. There, he worked his way up from dishwasher, becoming a line cook. She credits him, her grandmother and her mother for teaching her how to “burn” in the kitchen.

“I will always say my mom is a better cook than I am, and I don’t think that will ever change,” chef Claudia told Latin Post.

“I may know different techniques, more French techniques and more Italian techniques and all of that, but I think my mom moves with such finesse in the kitchen, it’s just natural…and some people just have that. I think my mom would’ve been an amazing chef if that’s the route she wanted to take in her life.”

When asked to pick a favorite dish made by her mother, it took a moment for choosing because so many dishes are well crafted and delectable. The brazed dishes are fantastic, but ultimately it’s her mother’s tostadas that are the most delicious.

“Someone could say, ‘oh yeah, that’s very Mexican…that’s not something that takes a lot of time,” said Chef Claudia.

“But, actually it does take my mom a lot of time because there are certain parts of the recipe, which I couldn’t share or she’d kill me, but it does take a lot of time. There’s a specific process and she puts that Mexican non-spicy on top on the tostadas that absolutely makes it amazing. It’s a recipe that lots of people have asked for, it’s a recipe that I’ve fought my mom for to include in my book that’s coming out. It’s still an ongoing discussion about whether she’s going to give me that one. If I had to have my last meal on earth, it would be my mom’s tostadas. They’re incredible, they’re fresh, they’re vibrant, they’re textured. You have the creaminess of the frijoles, you’ve got the pieces of chicken that’s all savory, and there’s also the vibrancy and the texture of the lettuce, and all of the other components.”

For chef Claudia, family and culture are the foundation of cooking, and it’s what keeps her grounded. She considers her mother her best friend and she’s extremely close to her daughter (who plans to manage her restaurant some day). Her family has a legacy of culinary excellence dating back to her great-grandmother, Julia, who had a pop-up restaurant on the beach where she grilled fresh muscles and fish for tourists.

“I come from a long lineage of women who’ve cooked, and who were known for their cooking. People still talk about my great grandmother,” The future cookbook author said.

“Family is at the foundation of who I am, and that’s one of the things that led me to my success. I was never embarrassed or afraid to say, ‘Yes, these are humble ingredients, but I’m not going to shy away from everything I know and love.’”

Onions happen to be one the ingredients she knows very well. Not only are onions a big part of Mexican food, but they’re an irreplaceable ingredient that’s at the base of so many dishes.

“Every good meal in my head, like sopas, everything that’s anything…even Mexican rice, always starts with that sautéed onion at the bottom of your pot,” chef Claudia said.

“That’s definitely something, throughout my life that I’m liked. Also, poblanos. I’m using it a lot more. The fresh poblano peppers charring them on the stove and all of those amazing smokey flavors. I sometimes use poblano in the kitchen in a salad with a honey vinaigrette. I love finding different ways of using it because it’s such a fundamental and really cool ingredients. There are all these different variations of it. Poblanos are definitely my thing right now.”

“MasterChef” showed that chef Claudia explored those ingredients and other Mexican flavors, but she also used a number of techniques to create panna cotta, steaks and soufflés. Even when using Mexican flavors or ingredients, or adding her little twist on things, she still managed to show her range and implemented her own style in way that didn’t necessarily illustrate fusion but exposed the miracle of masterful execution.

“I didn’t go into the MasterChef kitchen thinking I’m only going to cook Mexican, but I did know that [my community] was going to be a big part of who I was. That’s who I am. When you look at me, you know that. You see the red hair and the crazy loud laugh. It’s that passionate attitude, I’m just generally very Latina. I knew definitely that was going to be a part of my image or my character. I definitely knew that I couldn’t shy away from that. [But,] one of the areas where I struggled with, and I talked with chef Graham Elliot about, is how do I elevate Mexican food without it seeming like I’m always cooking Mexican food.”

Chef Claudia believes her role of the show was extremely important as things were happening in politics that questioned Latinos’ contribution to the country. For that reason, it became more important to highlight that she was proudly Latina, that people see that Latino culture is important and attractive. She believes her role as the first Latina MasterChef speaks volumes about the direction the country is moving.

Since winning MasterChef, everything in chef Claudia’s life has changed. She and her daughter are looking forward to moving from a one-bedroom apartment to a three-bedroom home. Also, the chef will be able to fulfill a promise she made to her daughter, taking her to Paris next year. Even her sleeping pattern has changed as well as the time she’s able to spend with her daughter.

“Even now I’m still absorbing the fact that this has happened because so much of my life has been focused on making ends meet, making sure I have a roof over my head, making there was food in my daughter’s stomach, and making sure my gas and electric didn’t get shut off,” chef Claudia said.

“So, I never offered myself the opportunity to really push myself beyond what I thought were the positions or jobs that I could really do.

“I had every excuse not to go. At the last minute, I created a GoFundMe account. I didn’t want to ask anybody for anything, but I did. In three days, I raised $3,500 to pay my bills for the three months I would be gone. I put it in God’s hands. I said, if I raise $3,000 I know I can make it, I know that I can at least go and try. When I raised that money in three days, I thought, this is the universe telling me I need to do this… There’s every reason to say, ‘I can’t.’ But, just that one time…I said maybe, and look at what happened.”

Chef Claudia is currently completing her first cookbook, which will hit bookstores during the spring of 2016. The book won’t only share incredible recipes, but it will tell charming stories about her family, and detail her journey to master recipes. During November 2016, she will be on the MasterChef Cruise, which will sail to the Caribbean. Also, beginning Nov. 2, she will be hosting a cooking show on Monday mornings, which will be designed for those who like delicious yet inexpensive meals. Additionally, she’ll be working with Tajin Seasoning in the near future.

Check out Claudia’s recipe for Chilaquiles Mexicanos below:

Ingredients:

6–8 Corn Tortillas Cut Into 1" bite size pieces
 4 Medium Tomatillos
 1 Medium Tomato (Roma)
 1 Jalapeño
 6–8 Chile de Arbol chile pods (stems removed)
 1 garlic clove
 1/2 Medium Onion (Thinly Sliced)
 1 Cup + 2 Tbsp Oil of Choice
 1/4 Cup Queso Fresco (Crumbled)
 1/4 Cup Sour Cream
 4 Tbs Chopped Chilantro
 Salt and Pepper to Taste

Directions:
 1) In medium stock pot with hot water, set to boil 2 tomatillos, tomato, and jalapeño. Turn of heat when tomato skins have begun to break from tomato or jalapeño has darkened in color.
 2) Fry Tortillas in cup of oil until golden brown. Remove from oil and lay over paper towels to absorb extra oil.
 3) Place tomatillos, tomato, and jalapeno in blender along with 3/4 cup of cooking water and add garlic and chile de arbol. Blend on low for 20 seconds, then turn up to medium for another 40 seconds. Remove and set aside.
 4) In hot sautée pan add 2 tbs of oil, sliced onions and cubed remaining tamatillos. Sautee until tomatillos start to change in color.
 5) Add approximately 1 1/2 cups prepared salsa and season with salt and pepper to taste. Allow mixture to come to simmer and turn down to low. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
 6) Add crispy tortillas and fold 1/2 of cilantro.
 7) Top with Sour Cream, Cheese, and Cilantro as desired.

Chilaquiles are a staple in Mexican cooking. They are vegetarian… unless paired with some fried eggs (wink wink) or fried in lard. However, this easy-to-make breakfast is delicious, texturally substantial and more importantly quite nice and spicy! Provecho!
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Be sure to tune in to “MasterChef Junior.” Season 4 premieres Friday, Nov. 6 at 8/7c on FOX.

TagsClaudia Sandoval, MasterChef US, MasterChef Season 6, MasterChef US Season 6, masterchef Claudia Sandoval, Claudia Sandoval Sabor, SABOR, SABOR

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Originally published at www.latinpost.com on October 17, 2015.