An Exclusive Interview with Chef Carmen Miranda, winner of MasterChef Mexico

Chef Carmen Miranda

Winning MasterChef is a big deal in the culinary world, but some winners, like Chef Carmen Miranda, stay humble. Carmen is both humble and ambitious, putting emotions into every dish she makes. She started her journey by selling her violin to begin a tamales business in Mexico, and she ended up working with some of the best restaurants around the world.

Despite traveling the world and working with top culinary names, Carmen remains incredibly kind. If you’re curious about what it takes to become her mentee, keep reading. But this article isn’t just about skills and requirements; it’s a tribute to love, passion, and hard work, meant to inspire everyone who reads it.

What role did your family play in choosing your career path?

Chef Carmen Miranda: Tamales have been a tradition in my family for generations. My grandmother from my dad’s side used to sell tamales, and my grandmother from my mom’s side was a fantastic cook. When I started the tamales business, I was in a tight spot financially, so I had to sell one of my violins to get things going. It became a family endeavor, with my aunts and my mom helping me develop a new recipe. Selling tamales on the street was where my culinary journey truly began.

Not everyone realizes how challenging it is to make tamales. It’s a skill that not everyone possesses.  Currently, I don’t work for any specific company, but I collaborate with chefs to infuse my cultural roots into their establishments. I ensure that the flavors I incorporate evoke the same emotions I felt growing up.

It doesn’t matter if a dish is presented traditionally or with a modern twist; what matters most is how it tastes. If a beautifully plated dish fails to evoke any emotions or memories, then it doesn’t resonate with me.

Every time I cook, I aim to recreate the emotions I experienced as a child through food.

How has the participation and later win in Master Chef influenced your career?

Chef Carmen Miranda: I participated in MasterChef twice. The first time was in 2015, when I was running my tamales business. Participating in the show was a big deal for me because it was a dream I had, despite facing tough times. Before MasterChef, I had a bad experience working in a restaurant where I was mistreated. Despite that, I was determined to pursue my dream.

After leaving that restaurant, I felt proud of myself for not giving up. My dream was to go on MasterChef, and when I finally got the chance, it felt incredible. The first season was filmed in Colombia, so I got to travel and have new experiences.

Although I didn’t win, I believed that something better was ahead.

When I got eliminated, Chef Benito Molina encouraged me and offered me a place to continue learning in his restaurant. His words meant a lot to me, especially since I admired him. With my family’s support, I decided to follow my dream.

To pursue my dream, I moved to Ensenada with only $200. I struggled financially, but I was determined to become the best. I believed that being around the best would help me improve, so I enrolled in one of the top culinary schools in Mexico.

Afterward, I traveled to different places to learn more about cooking. I worked at top restaurants and learned new techniques. Each experience taught me something valuable and fueled my passion for cooking, especially Mexican cuisine. I went to Vancouver, worked at the best restaurant in Asia called Gaga, and even worked with a Michelin-starred chef in the United States.

Then, I got the chance to participate in MasterChef again, this time in a special edition. Despite facing personal struggles and doubts, I decided to give it another shot. With the support of my family, friends and faith in God, I pushed through the challenges.

During the competition, I faced difficulties, but I stayed focused on my goal. Despite making mistakes, I persevered, and in the end, I won.

It was a moment of gratitude and validation for all my hard work and belief in myself.

In your opinion, what are the essential skills and qualities that aspiring chefs should focus on developing?

Chef Carmen Miranda: To become a great chef, you must keep learning. Knife skills are crucial, as the knife is an extension of your hand. Practice cutting correctly and learn kitchen vocabulary, especially French terms like “brunoise.”

Before joining a kitchen, research the type of food they prepare and basic techniques. Even if you lack experience, show humility and eagerness to learn.

For instance, when I joined Gaga without knowing much about pastry, I humbly approached the pastry chef and expressed my willingness to learn. She graciously taught me everything I needed to know, demonstrating the value of being open to learning from others.

Listen carefully to instructions, and never give up on your dreams, despite what others may say. Remember, money isn’t everything; it’s our experiences that shape us. Lastly, cook with happiness and love. 

What qualities do you look for when hiring culinary professionals?

Chef Carmen Miranda: For me, what truly matters to a chef is not just their skill level but also how they treat others. Being a team player is crucial. Even if someone is incredibly skilled, if they mistreat their colleagues, it’s a red flag. We’re all constantly learning, and it’s essential to have a shared vision and respect in the workplace.  I’ve learned this firsthand, especially when I’ve encountered chefs who may be talented but don’t prioritize teamwork or respect. It creates a toxic environment that affects everyone.

On the other hand, when there’s mutual respect and a collaborative spirit, the kitchen becomes a place where everyone thrives.

Personally, I believe in creating a positive atmosphere where everyone feels valued and heard. It’s about enjoying the work and cooking with love. Honesty, respect, and happiness are key ingredients in any kitchen. When we cook with love and respect for our ingredients and our team, the food reflects that positive energy, making the dining experience truly special.

What role does mentorship play in a chef's career and how can young chefs find mentors?

Chef Carmen Miranda: For me, seeking mentors isn’t just about asking them outright to be my mentors, as some might feel overwhelmed and decline. Instead, I seek out individuals whose values resonate with mine. If our values align, I see them as potential mentors.

It’s important to research chefs thoroughly and ensure their personalities match the atmosphere of their restaurant. I recommend reaching out directly to chefs on Instagram to express admiration and inquire about opportunities.

Some restaurants, like Gaga in Bangkok, even offer accommodations, making pursuing mentorship more feasible.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of your job?

Chef Carmen Miranda: That is a really difficult question. I don’t really have a least favorite part. I love to cook, but sometimes working for someone else means sacrificing personal time. That lack of freedom can be challenging.

One thing that bothers me about my job is when people underestimate the value of food. For example, there’s a misconception that Mexican food should be cheap, especially in the United States. But creating authentic dishes takes time and effort. Developing a recipe can be a lengthy process, and street food isn’t necessarily cheap to make.  It’s frustrating when people don’t appreciate the effort that goes into each dish. I wish more people would spend a day in a kitchen, working hard for 8 hours, to truly understand the dedication behind every meal.

On the other hand, the best part of my job is making people happy. Seeing the joy in their eyes when they taste my food is priceless.

When customers come back and express their enjoyment, it’s incredibly rewarding. For me, that’s the biggest reward of all.

What final piece of advice would you give to young chefs and job seekers in the restaurant industry to succeed in their culinary careers?

Chef Carmen Miranda: I wish someone had told me how to handle difficult people. Working with difficult people can be challenging, especially when they try to undermine your dreams or belittle your abilities. Throughout my career, I’ve encountered individuals who didn’t want me to succeed, particularly due to my gender. There’s often a lot of ego in the kitchen, and it can be discouraging. However, I’ve learned to navigate these situations without giving up on my dreams.

One key strategy is to remain resilient and determined. Instead of letting negative comments or attitudes deter me, I use them as fuel to prove myself even more.

It’s important not to let the opinions of others dictate your path.

By staying focused on my goals and continuing to work hard, I’ve been able to overcome these challenges and continue pursuing my passion.

The culinary journey of Chef Carmen Miranda leaves a lasting impression. From selling tamales on Mexico’s streets to winning MasterChef Mexico, her path is a testament to perseverance and passion.

Chef Miranda’s advice on learning, humility, and resilience resonates deeply. She emphasizes the importance of mentors and teamwork, key ingredients for success in the kitchen.

As we bid farewell, let’s carry Chef Miranda’s spirit with us. Her story reminds us that with dedication and determination, culinary dreams can become reality.

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