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Zarela Martinez

New York City, New York

I was born in Sonora, Mexico, and grew up on a cattle ranch. I was raised to triumph. When I was 8 years old my mother told me that she had named me Zarela because it would look good in lights and that I could achieve anything I set my mind to do. My father told me that the only sin in life is to waste your talents and that I was blessed with many and it was my responsibility to develop them and use the wisely. I believed them both and grew up to be a successful chef-restaurateur, author, entrepreneur, scholar and cultural interpreter between the US and Mexico.

I was educated in boarding schools in the US through high school, then sent to a sort of finishing school in Guadalajara, Jalisco, to prepare me to be the perfect wife and rediscover my culture. Fine cooking was the core of the curriculum and became my passion. But I needed to feed my mind and went on to study mass communications.

I moved to El Paso, Texas, in 1973, married a widower with 3 kids. When our twin boys were born, money became tight and I turned to baking cookies for cash. Soon I was cooking for my sister and friends and my cooking became a business. Mother decided to give me my inheritance in life by taking me to classes with cooks around the country. That was how I met Paul Prudhomme who took me under his wing and my life became a fairy tale when he invited me to cook for Les Maitres Cuisiniers at Tavern on the Green and I was “ discovered.” I cooked at the 1983 Williamsburg Summit for seven heads of state and I moved to New York with my boys.

I decided on a life plan: Open a catering business (it is still running); move to New York, open a restaurant (it lasted for 23 years); write a book (I’ve written three and the last one was a companion to my PBS series Zarela! La Cocina Veracruzana); have a line of products; and leave a legacy. My papers were just acquired by Harvard/Radcliffe for the Schlesinger Library.

My mission is to make my culture known and understood through everything I do. I’m on the board of the Mexican Cultural Institute and founded their program called Food is Arte. My website www.zarela.com is a great resource for lovers of Mexican food and culture and my how-to videos on YouTube are fun and informative.

My two sons, whom I raised as a single mother, are a source of pride. Rodrigo Sanchez is a lawyer and Aaron Sanchez is a celebrity chef and television star. I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2004 and have recently gone public. I’ve developed a show, part performance act, part cooking class, and part inspirational memoir, that I hope to take on the road to prove that nothing can stop you, except yourself.