Jul 16, 2021 • 17M

A Conversation with Mariana Velásquez

Talking to the author of 'Colombiana' about her style, the significance of women, and her native country's many regional food styles.

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Alicia Kennedy
A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.
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I got dressed up to talk to Mariana Velásquez for this interview. From experiencing the elegance of her cookbook, Colombiana: A Rediscovery of Recipes and Rituals from the Soul of Colombia alone, I knew I had to wear a nice dress. Then I browsed her apron collection, Limonarium, and saw ever more style expressed.

But there’s also substance, in the exploration of the regional foods of her native Colombia, the recipes for foods she grew up with and adapted to her life in New York City, and the styling, which is drowning in light and dripping in color. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Mariana. Thank you so much for being here. 

Mariana: Hi, Alicia. It's a pleasure being here today. 

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Mariana: I grew up in Bogotá, which is the capital of Colombia. And it's a city perched up 9,000 feet up in the Andes. And it was a pretty urban life growing up. 

However, I had the gift of going out to the country on the weekends and over holidays to my grandparent’s little farm in the flatlands near Venezuela. And we grew up eating arepas, which are these great delicious corn cakes. Pan de yucas, which are also baked—you got flour and cheese biscuits. And lots of fruit, lots of tropical fruit. I feel like my childhood was all about smoothies and juices and desserts, and kind of going outside and picking mangoes for the—from the trees.

Alicia: And you write that you never wanted—your mother never wanted you to be a cook. But at 18 you were working at Sierra Mar in Big Sur. So what was it in your upbringing that led you to that at such a young age, too?

Mariana: Yeah, I mean, I realized pretty early on at about 12 or 14, 13, 14, that food had so much power. And in my family, the table has always been the center of it all. And so, I wanted to do something that really had a beginning, a middle and an end. That satisfaction that you get from cooking that it's pretty instant. You prepare a beautiful meal, and you see it. And the satisfaction from people enjoying it happens, and it's right there. 

And so I wanted to do something that I was good at. And I started to feel a lot of pleasure from the process of cooking. So I sort of ventured into the world and against my parent’s opinion back then, and started cooking in restaurants and exploring that life in the kitchen.

Alicia: And what did you enjoy about it? What kept you there?

Mariana: I love the process, the meticulousness, the—that exercise of finding ingredients and turning them into something. Making that scene, the beautiful plating, the ritual of the wine service. I love the dynamics, especially in the kitchen. And in restaurants. I really enjoyed seeing how people would come to these fine dining restaurants to really have an experience. And we would orchestrate all of that from the kitchen and the floor. And I loved it. I loved the rhythm. I love the discipline. 

Yeah, and kind of it was also in line.

Alicia: And in that kitchen that you write about working in when you were 18, you had a moment where you're cooking potatoes and eggs in the same pot like your grandmother did. And you were nervous that it wouldn't be okay, that the chef would see it and be like, ‘This isn't how you do this.’ But the chef was accepting of it. 

That anecdote that you tell brings up that difference that we think about between chefs and cooks, whether that's really real. And so how, from your experience, both working in home cooking and focusing on dinner parties and that sort of thing versus working in a restaurant kitchen, how do you see the difference, if there is one, between the chef and the cook?

Mariana: I mean, the chef has a lot of structure, and lots of rules. And there's thermometers and timers going off. And things have to be this way, because you need to have the repetition and the consistency.

And I feel that it also comes from a sense of pride in doing your craft in a very precise way. Of course, I cannot speak for all chefs, but in most professional kitchens, it's really about that structure. And a cook, which I consider myself much more a cook than a chef, especially because I don't run a kitchen. There's instinct that goes into play. 

And the other day, on my last trip to Colombia, I went on a road trip going from Cartagena to Barranca, a city that’s on the coast. And we stopped for breakfast to have these deep-fried arepa with egg. And this woman on a side, on the side of the road in her little stand, was frying oil in this big vat over hot coals. The oil was at the exact temperatures you needed for the arepa to be perfectly crispy. There's no temperature gauge; there's no thermometer. It's just she knows, as soon as she drops that tiny piece of dough to test the oil, that the bubbles are right. And so, I feel that that's the difference. 

Alicia: Well, what made you make that leap from working in professional kitchens toward food styling?

Mariana: After working at Prune in New York, and beginning to explore the magazine world, I worked at the recipe testing kitchen of Saveur Magazine. Later, I worked at Eating Well. And I found it really good, just a position of cooking research, culinary history, photography, art, that really fascinated me, was all the things I loved into one profession that I didn't even know existed. I sort of found out about food styling being a full-time job from someone who mentioned it. And it was a perfect combination of all the things I love.

Alicia: And how did you develop your style as a food stylist?

Mariana: So how did I develop myself as a food stylist there? It was a little broken there.

Alicia: How did you develop your style and your approach, and where do your influences in that realm come from?

Mariana: So I mean, I first assisted for at least three and a half years. I assisted different stylists in New York who taught me so much. And I learned the craft, and I learned how to find the great ingredients. I learned the—that set etiquette that you need to understand to be able to perform on set and know who's who and what's what, and what things are appropriate. And that research of amazing ingredients and make a photo, what do you want it to be.

And so over the years, I started to develop my personal style that I think sort of grew organically. I really have an obsession with botanicals, with things that are very organic and imperfect but have this beauty, this innate beauty to them. And it's all about the details. So I mean, all of the textures of fruits and vegetables, the veins, the colors, and really taking that and potentializing it for the images.

Alicia: And you've worked on so many other cookbooks. What was the process like for creating your own versus working on other people's books?

Mariana: I mean, usually, when I've done work as a stylist for other people's books, the process where I take it from is really the recipes are ready, they're developed, they're tested, and they give me the manuscript and then we do the photoshoot. I come into the process when it's pretty far along, right? 

And so, for me, that part is about really communicating with the author and understanding where those recipes come from, and what they mean to them and how to really present them faithfully to what they envision. And then for my own book, I had to sit down and start to develop it from the start. What are the chapters going to be? What is this book going to tell? What's going to be the story, and how am I going to choose those recipes? And so it was a pretty personal exploration of going back in time and looking at those recipes that I grew up with, or foods that through my years of culinary research have left a mark.

Alicia: And it's a very organic and social approach in which you kind of feel that there are people at the table in all of the images. There's not this sense of, it's happening divorced from the actual act of eating. The act of eating is present in the book. And, even the way you describe making breakfast, it's kind of an event to put on your kimono, I remember reading.

And so, what inspired you to make the book so social, to bring in the playlists and the menus and that sort of thing? Just focus on the actual experience of being at a table?

Mariana: Well, because for me, it's all about the ritual. If it was just for nourishment, we could eat granola bars and call it a day, right? We don't really, really need to serve a table and gather. So, our needs are really all about that. 

And for the book and in Colombia, food, it happens with many people. And recipes usually make large batches and there's family lunches and people get together to eat for lunch, for dinner. There's all these events where we come together as a community. So I wanted the book to feel that way, and to really represent that ritual, that ceremony. 

Alicia: And where did you actually test the book, because you're using so many ingredients that are so specific to Latin America? Were you testing it in Brooklyn? 

Mariana: Yeah, so I was developing all the recipes in Brooklyn, tested all the recipes here, had different collaborators help me with the testing to make sure that in different cities in the U.S., you were able to find these ingredients. I had to make some substitutions. There were recipes that I was like, ‘Instead of a substitution, I'm just going to replace the recipe because it just won't be the real thing.’ 

But I want this book to be approachable and the recipes to be familiar. And Colombian cooking is pretty humble. Nothing is out of the ordinary. It's fresh cheeses, it’s plantains, it's mangoes, it's lots of onions and garlic and scallions and hot chilies. And so, I also selected the recipes that I felt could be prepared, far from the tropics, essentially.

Alicia: Right. [Laughs.] 

And in such a diverse cuisine as Colombia, you really showed regionality. What was the inspiration behind doing that? And also, how did you choose the—which regions, which recipes, that sort of thing.

Mariana: So I chose recipes that really have a story for me, either recipes from growing up and foods I ate at my grandparent’s homes, or recipes that I discovered on my trips of research and that have a little anecdote behind them. I want every recipe to have a meaning and to have a backstory. 

And so the way I organized it, I sort of thought about the book through times of days. So in the morning, the midday feast, which is when most of Colombian traditional recipes happen, like the big lunches are usually red bean soup, they are ajiaco, which are served midday. 

And then the different moments like the bits and bites of el algo, that afternoon little thing that you eat, and then kind of weeknight meals, which I use as a chapter called Columbian-ish, which I—Colombian ingredients with my own interpretation and that kind of New York influence, which I've been here for 23 years and some of my cooking definitely reflects the food and the style that I've learned here. 

Alicia: Right, right. 

[Laughs.] I had a noise.

Mariana: I'm sorry.

Alicia: No, it's ok. 

Colombia is very close to where I'm living in Puerto Rico. But people think about very specific ingredients from this region and not—don't really understand the diversity that's available in all these very different climates. I think in Puerto Rico, there are like seven microclimates where different things are—can grow. And I know Colombia has a similar environment.

Was it important for you to represent the diversity of what Colombian cuisine is versus what someone from the States might have in their head, which might be just arepa, which might—that might be the only idea? What was your approach to the diversity of Colombian cuisine and making it translatable to a book for everybody?

Mariana: So the way I did that was through the menus of the chapter called “A La Mesa,” in which I took five different regions of Colombia and described everything about them. So for instance, there's this one menu called “Medellín’s Only Season,” which really celebrates that coffee region, the Andes, the beautiful anthuriums, the way people set the table, the furniture, the music. 

And so with these menus, my intent was to transport the reader to the scene so that they could re-create those Colombian moments. And in each one of those moments, I highlight the regions by—I left some regions out, only because I didn't have a personal experience in those places. So I included the ones that really felt like home to me. And hopefully in a future book, I can explore other moments and other regions, but these were the ones that were closest to my heart.

Alicia: Women are present in such a significant way. You decided to give the book an explicitly feminine title. And so I wanted to ask about the role of women and the role of the feminine in your experience of food, and why you decided to express it so—in such an explicit way, with your first book.

Mariana: So I wanted to really celebrate Colombian women who are the backbone of our cuisine. They're the carriers of our traditions. In a country that has been through so much conflict, the fact that we're still making sancocho and we're still maintaining some of those essential recipes, I feel that it's thanks to these women who run the households and maintain those flavors alive. 

And then here in the U.S., as a Colombian immigrant, seeing other women who in New York work in food and carry those flavors even away from home was really—it was essential to me. My mentors growing up, in Colombia and here in the U.S., were mostly women. And so, yeah, I wanted to pay tribute to them.

Alicia: Of course.

Well, for you is cooking a political act? 

Mariana: Absolutely. I feel that with cooking, you make community. You bring people together to share each other's values, to share the table. It’s also the way you choose ingredients and where you buy them and who you support in that app. It depends on when you're—wherever your ingredients come from really, for sustainment. 

Alicia: Well, thank you so much again for taking the time. 

Mariana: Of course. Thank you for having me, Alicia.