La Chef Christina Ayala is from New Jersey and grew up with her brother an aeronautical engineer, speaking English and eating their father’s heritage foods of Puerto Rico. Ayala credits her mixed Filipino mother as an amazing cook from whom she learned and who inspired her to go into the business of cooking. She earned a Culinary Arts Degree from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and later obtained a business degree. Chef Christina is a proud mother.
Starting at 18 years of age she entered the highly acclaimed Culinary Institute of America (CIA) located on a 170-acre college campus in New York. As Chef Christina states, “I had an amazing experience and wouldn’t change it for anything.” She was enrolled in the bachelor program but luckily, she was able to get a job in the restaurant at the renowned Waldorf Astoria on Park Ave, in New York City after only two years of grueling work in the kitchens at the CIA. She was employed at the Waldorf Astoria for seven years. Learning so much, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “Many people start small and then go grand. I started at the top of the tier – top notch- it was such an eye-opening experience – amazing – huge cultural shock as far as how people (chefs) do things – working with a much, much, older generation of men. I was the only female in the kitchen, and young. It was very cool. It really shaped the type of cook I have become from that foundation. It was very cool.”
La Chef Christina explains, “it was a bit of a cultural shock going to a school that was predominately white, and a career changer for some of the older people, mainly men, who were there to learn something new. But all of us are there to follow a passion.”
Christina further explains that, “the Food Network started to become a thing, and I thought it was so cool to see other cultural cuisines being prepared on this channel – all I knew was Latino and American food. I never had Indian or Asian food and [there’s] Asian food from so many different parts of Asia, and [the] middle east.”
“I was really fascinated with Emeril Lagasse and Sara Moulton [who] were very popular at that time, so it was really exciting for me to watch. I [became] interested in wanting to learn – I was always eating, so food was my thing – I loved to eat. Always – still do. Before going to culinary school, I would watch the programs and take notes. We didn’t have the ease of the internet, so I had to write the notes down. Julia Child was one of the first personalities of cooks on TV when she came out with the French Chef, and in ordinary households showing us how we could cook French cuisine. When other personalities came along, they also showed us how we could cook other cuisines right there in your own house. I was there with a pad and writing, taking notes. I’d wait for the reruns to make sure I had all the ingredients right, waiting to correct my notes.”
“I started working very young – I was 14 years old. I started in an ice cream shop. Then always working in hospitality and food. It just happened to work that way. I then worked at a pizza shop. This is going back a while – but some mom-and-pop breakfast places [as well]. I really got a feel on how to run a restaurant. But my excitement was being motivated by the Food Network chef personalities showing me how to cook this food. You don’t have to be invited to someone’s home or a restaurant to experience new foods. Just try making it yourself.”
Chef Christina always enjoyed serving, feeding family and friends who would visit to try her dishes. She constantly received compliments and then realized her gift. “I’m pretty good at cooking and it just grew from there. In this business you cannot survive if you don’t have the passion. It’s a grueling job. Right now, being a chef, you are glorified – people will say –Oh wow you’re a chef, but when you’re in it you are a cook -that’s it – you cook. In the kitchen you’re respected as a chef but once you’re outside of the kitchen you are doing a tradesmen’s job. It wasn’t seen as how its seen today. It was something that I loved to do, and I wasn’t looking for the award for doing it [cooking]. I just loved everyone’s expression and how it made people feel through something that I made for them. I really love it, and still do love it today. That’s why I have my business because I love doing it so much,” states Chef Christina.
“Going to culinary school is one-hundred percent cooking. There aren’t any academics/liberal arts. It’s 100% trade school. You do earn an associate degree learning the trade. In school, you work a full shift like you would in any industry. It prepares you for what the industry is like.
It’s very fast paced. Classes are in a block system- depending on what [you must learn]. Three to six-week courses – you learn it quick – from basic knives skills to wines – how to taste them how to pair them – how to train your palate to recognize the flavors of foods – so it’s a lot of information crammed into two years or four years if you go for the bachelor degree. The dinnerware, aromas, and the ambiance, so you do get your foundation and I wouldn’t change a thing. It was an amazing experience.”
During the 2-year associate program you learn it all. Chef Christina says, “Cooking is trying it out [the recipe]– taste it – and adjust if you need to arrive at the desired flavor. The teacher/chefs are there to teach you every step of the way from recipes, to plating, to setting and seating, pairing wines and even the décor.”
Learning how to cook with students of diverse backgrounds and cultures made the experience more interesting and intense. She recalls when she was the young chef learning about people through the food they eat – being open to gain knowledge from each other.
When Chef Christina is asked if she is available to cater an event, there are many questions she must ask as a professional chef. Her questions cover the type of event, the venue, the audience and the budget. The answers to those questions, help her get a general idea of what food is best suited for the occasion. There is a lot of planning.
When asked about her favorite spices, Chef Christina delightfully explained, “Cardamon comes to mind. It comes from learning foods of different cultures and the Middle Eastern spices I fell in love with. I love all of their spices. Cardamon can be savory or sweet. You can’t use it in every dish because it has its distinct taste.” Cardamon can be found in Earl Grey tea, chai and curry dishes.
Another favorite of hers is saffron, used in rice dishes, but you can also find it in a spice mix that is used for chicken and lamb. In Latin cuisine, cumin is popular. Black beans won’t have that great Cuban flavor if you miss that dash of cumin. Chef Christina says, “if you don’t add the sofrito, it just doesn’t taste the same.” The same applies to cooking rice in most Hispanic households where the sazón (a mix of herbs with achiote – Annatto seeds from the Bixa Orellana tree) is the main ingredient, which gives rice the yellowish color.
There are plenty of physical stressors in the culinary profession – from being on your feet to getting burns. “There’re so many ways to get burns we chefs call free tattoos from the kitchen. I have 3-degree burns all over my arms. One was from scolding hot caramel while using the confectionery funnel. It could be from the oven, a pan, or somebody bumps you in a tight kitchen. It’s 8-hour shifts that can run into 12 hours, or it can be 14-16 hours, weekends, nights, and holidays. You usually don’t have any official holidays off. The chef and the staff are feeding guests in events from restaurants, to stadiums, or backyards. People have to eat and cooks have to prepare something delicious to complete the event. They work along with entertainers, decorating crews, photographers, lighting, and coat checks. Everyone’s working helping make everyone have a good time.”
Aside from cooking, Chef Christina is also using her business degree in running the day to day needs to keep her business in order. She shares her triple duty that includes becoming a mom. She launched her business in February of 2019, then 3 months later she found out she was pregnant. Her daughter was born in December then the pandemic hit in March of 2020. “It was wild how it all happened back-to-back, and still I was able to survive the whirlwind [as a businesswoman].” Chef Christina has a plan and advises “when you have setbacks you readjust and keep moving.”
“My goal and driving force behind my business was to evoke conversation through food. To encourage folks to try something new, meet people, make a new connection to move forward. It’s how I was able to move forward with many things and it’s how I want my business to grow.”
La Chef Christina Ayala can be reached at YesChefNJ.com
Social media: Instagram, Twitter and Facebook: @YesChefNJ
his copy was edited from a live interview in July, 2022.
Interview by Adela Dalto Moraux