Interview with Chef Edgar Leal and Mariana Montero De Castro of Cacao - Coral Gabels, FL

November , 2004

Amy Tarr: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
Edgar Leal: I finished high school at 16. My parents are scientists and wanted me to go to university, but my dream was to be a hippie and go all around the world. So I figured I could be a photographer, a hairstylist, or a chef. I picked chef.

AT: What is your philosophy on pastry?
Mariana Montero: My philosophy in pastry is the same for all of my cooking- use the best ingredients possible. Using the best and freshest ingredients ensures the highest quality pastries that the customers of Cacao have grown accustomed to.

AT: Where did you train?
EL: I trained under Chef Pierre Blanchard at Deuxime Etage Restaurant in Caracas from the ages of 16-22. Then enrolled at the CIA after 6 years with Blanchard. The best thing is to get at least 10 years working for others and to go to school. In school you learn why things happen and management. In the real world, it’s go, go, go.
MM: L'Ecole Superieure De Cuisine Francaise in Paris, France. I won an award for the Best Student there.

AT: Who are your mentors? Which chefs do you consider to be your peers?
EL: Blanchard and Provost, and I also did a stage at El Bulli. At El Bulli I learned you need to take time to research and to practice. You have to organize yourself and your time.
I consider Jordi Valles, Carmen Gonzalez, Andrea Randazzo, and most famously Michelle Bernstein. They’re all great people. We go out and share things about our businesses.

AT: What chefs do you most admire?
EL: Jean-Georges inspires people, and I love his management and style.
MM: Pierre Hermé, Gaston Le Notre, and Albert Adria.

AT: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
EL: Silpat. Everything we make uses them.
MM: Using the non-stick Silpat means I don't have to use any extra fats in my baking.

AT: What cities do you like for culinary travel? Why?
EL: South America- Lima, and Sao Paulo, and Santiago, Chile. There are so many amazing restaurants and places to party.

AT: What are your favorite food haunts in your city?
EL: Ouzo, a Greek restaurant on 71st St. We go there a lot. The food is great and they have $18 Greek wines. Plus it’s close to my house.

AT: What is your favorite spice or ingredient? Why?
EL: We use seeds of a sweet chili (aji dulce) that no one else has. It hasn’t killed anyone yet. We have friends with a garden that have 3 bushes of them. You can’t buy it here -- the plants are from Venezuela.
MM: "El Rey" Chocolate from Venezuela - it is the best chocolate available on the market.

AT: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way?
EL: Variations of arepa. Instead of heavy dough we make it like a cracker that breaks in your mouth.

AT: What are your top three tips for dessert success?
MM: Precision, the best ingredients and concentration.

AT: What are your favorite desserts?
MM: I love to make miniature chocolates, parfaits and espumas.

AT: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential line cook?
EL: Who are the people you’d like to become? I love when someone knows who the chefs on top are. I like to see people who know what’s going on in the field, who realize the world is very big.

AT: What advice/tip do you have for culinary students just getting started?
EL: Attitude is the main thing. I’d never hire someone with a great background and a bad attitude. But I would hire someone with no background and great attitude. No arrogance.

AT: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
EL: I dream of becoming like Jean-Georges or Nobu, but with South American food. That’s my dream. I can’t say if we’ll make it or not. The better you get, the longer you see the road is, and you appreciate the people who made it.