The chef and food writer shared how as a child she "always looked for the tiniest hints of familiarity" growing up and how she's changing the game now.
Alejandra Ramos, PBS' "The Great American Recipe"
Credit: Alejandra Ramos

From the mountains of the Appalachian trail to the crystaline waters of Hawaii, the United States has always carried a diverse landscape. Whatsmore, the folks and the food they make is just as culturally and regionally distinct.

On PBS' The Great American Recipe, host Alejandra Ramos makes it a point to highlight just how beautiful (and delicious) those differences are.

Ramos, a chef and food writer of Puerto Rican descent, tells People Chica, "The Great American Recipe is a show that celebrates diversity through the lens of food and story, and it's really fun and joyful, but what I love most about it is that we hand this platform over to the cooks so that they can share their stories in their own words."

In an exclusive interview with People Chica, Ramos reveals why shows like The Great American Recipe are necessary and how her heritage has influenced her life and career.

PBS is known for its diverse and inclusive programming. As a Latina, what was it like for you to participate in a show like The Great American Recipe?

I believe the truest form of representation occurs when people are given the space to tell their own stories, and I'm so proud to host a show where we do exactly that. As a Puerto Rican Latina growing up in this country, I'm very familiar with that desire and longing to see myself represented in media. Since I was a little girl, I've always looked for even the tiniest hints of familiarity in the shows and movies that I watch.

Those little signs that confirm that yes, I belong here just as much as anyone else. But I'm also, unfortunately, really familiar with the frustration and disappointment of realizing how rare it is to see authentic and respectful portrayals that celebrate our cultures without reducing us to stereotypes.

The Great American Recipe is a show that celebrates diversity through the lens of food and story, and it's really fun and joyful, but what I love most about it is that we hand this platform over to the cooks so that they can share their stories in their own words. Because that's how you learn who people are—by listening.

Hosting this show is for me a very moving experience, and it's my hope that people of all ages and backgrounds will watch our show and see moments and flavors and elements of their own stories, while also learning about other cultures and traditions that make up part of the American fabric.

Much like in Latin America, the United States has a varied cuisine that can change from state to state and city to city. What was it like showing Americans a little piece of other parts of their country?

It is so important for me to share the fact that American cuisine is not just one thing. This country is HUGE and our food is as diverse as we are. Sometimes folks see some of the recipes we share on the show and say, "Well this isn't 'really' American—it's Vietnamese or Mexican or Italian," and then I challenge them to tell me what they think is "real" American food.

I think for too long, American food has been defined as being something really limited. It's steak, fries, burgers, apple pie, etc., and anything that falls outside of that narrow definition is seen as "other." But American food is so much more complex than that!

Apart from indigenous food and traditions, nearly everything we eat and enjoy in this country has roots elsewhere in the world. Even something like apple pie—apples aren't native to the U.S.! They're originally from Asia and were brought by Jamestown colonists. Pie is English. Cows were brought here by the Spanish. Potatoes were cultivated by the Incas. Chocolate, vanilla, coffee…all those staples are imported. I love that our show has found such a joyful and beautiful way to question the notion of what, and by extension WHO gets to be American.

In addition to hosting The Great American Recipe, you're a trained chef and a food writer with articles in places like TODAY Food and O the Oprah Magazine. How do you continue to bring awareness to your Latin culture through your work?

I love any opportunity I get to share recipes and flavors that I grew up with, or to share the experiences that shaped me into the woman I am! I also understand that I am Latina, therefore anything that I do is, by definition, what a Latina does. My heritage and culture informs every aspect of what I do, even when it isn't overtly related to it.

I exist as an example of a Latina woman and when I'm on television or in magazines, that becomes a moment of representation. I also am mindful of sharing my privilege and platform and finding ways to help other Latinas and people of color succeed in this industry.

Whether that's sharing incredible Latinx-owned small businesses on [the] TODAY Show or making connections and recommending talented people in my circle for opportunities, I take every chance I get to make sure that I'm not the only one benefitting. I have no interest in being the only Latina in the room. It's way more fun when there's a lot of us!

You're of Puerto Rican descent. What's the one dish you feel that someone whose never tried Puerto Rican food needs to have and why?

Ay, this is almost impossible to answer! Mofongo is probably one of our most famous staples—garlicky fried plantains mashed with pork and served topped with meat or seafood. But I'm also a big fan of the sweets—like a wiggly coconut tembleque or a parcha piragua (passion fruit snow cone) on a hot sunny day. And I love seafood in Puerto Rico—tangy octopus salads, crab empanadas, bacalaitos and beautiful whole fried fish.

Ultimately, I think what I love most about Puerto Rican food is the seasoning—the richness and layers of flavors of garlic, citrus, sofrito [and] adobo. The way meat and seafood is always seasoned and marinated before it is cooked and then still also served with sauces, dips and pickled garnishes. It's exciting food!

You've noted that New Orleans and Miami are your favorite food cities. What's the one thing you must have when you visit each city?

Ay Dios, I really can never pick just one thing! OK, I'm going to go with oysters in New Orleans. Really all the seafood in New Orleans is unreal. And I'll pick croquetas in Miami because the ones here in NYC are never as good (sorry!).

It's more that I love the vibe in both cities. New Orleans has this feeling of indulgence and decadence, while Miami is very sexy and Latin and so extra. I feel very at home in both places!

You've worn many hats throughout your career. What is something that you would tell a younger version of youself about the road that lay ahead?

I'd say that the moments when you feel the most frustrated or defeated are always followed by the biggest wins, so just hang on…even when it feels impossible. Oh, and that the adage about "rejection being protection" is SO true. There have been things I wanted and didn't get that felt awful at the time but ultimately led to much bigger and better things.

What is one piece of advice that you'd give someone who wants to pursue a career as a chef or a food writer? Trust your palate! Trust your own taste. And I mean this both literally and figuratively. Success is always most satisfying when it's achieved on your own terms. Know that getting to know yourself is just as important a skill as anything else.