Don't call her a "rookie." After competing on and making it all the way to the final round on both Food Network's Chopped and Fox TV's Hell's Kitchen, Chef Mia Castro is proving that the food industry is no longer a boys' club. Here, the 28-year-old gushes about her Puerto Rican grandmother's pasteles de yuca dish, opens up about the challenges she's faced while being the only woman in a male-dominated kitchen, shares what Gordon Ramsay is really like, and more.
Rachael Ray Every Day: When you were a little girl growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, how did you develop a passion for food?
Mia Castro: Like so many chefs, my background with food and cooking roots back to being home with family. Being raised partly by my grandparents gave me a deep appreciation and love for food. My grandmother would pick me up every day after school when my parents were at work, and I’d help her cook delicious meals using ingredients my grandfather would gather from their backyard—some he brought from local markets. Without realizing it, they taught me the importance of cooking with fresh produce, appreciation for wholesome food, and collaborating as family unit.
What dish takes you back to your childhood?
Pasteles de yuca, a typical dish served around the holidays and often with pigeon pea rice. The preparation is similar to Mexican tamales, but our version swaps out corn husks for banana leaves and corn masa for plantain/root vegetable masa. Pasteles are boiled and unwrapped, revealing a rectangular-shaped dumpling. My grandmother, of course, makes the best ones. She’d always prepare and freeze a batch for me to take home in my suitcase when I left Puerto Rico after the holidays. Because of new TSA regulations, I was forced to leave them behind. I’m not ashamed to admit I cried a little. That’s how good they are, especially when Abuelita has made them for you.
Did you have female mentors to look up to when you first started out in food?
Early on in my career, I was one of the very few women working on the line. I always felt like I had to work harder than the male chefs in order to gain their respect and prove my talent and potential. In doing so, I ended up learning that I’m just as talented and that validation from them wasn’t necessary because the proof was always in the results of my work and effort. Thankfully, my work ethic and talent has always been noticed by the ones who matter, and I’ve had amazing male mentors along the way that have wanted to take me under their wing. But I think having the guidance, empathy, and encouragement from another female chef would have made my journey a lot easier.
What lessons did you take away from your time on Hell’s Kitchen?
I realized that I’m capable of doing a lot more than I used to give myself credit for. I will be eternally grateful to Chef [Gordon] Ramsay for the opportunity he gave me [on Hell's Kitchen] and for encouraging me to be limitless with my creativity. Working as a cook in restaurants and as a private chef rarely allows you to express yourself fully as an artist/creator because you’re often limited to the menu at the restaurant. While on Hell’s Kitchen, I decided to throw those limitations out the window. I went all out and I loved it!
What’s Chef Gordon Ramsay really like? And what advice did he give you?
He’s just as passionate in person as he appears on TV, and that’s one of the traits I admire about him. He constantly gave me positive feedback about my food and constructive criticism to improve it, which I valued and appreciated. After proving that my cooking abilities were irrefutable, he advised me that it was time to showcase my abilities as a leader, which is when his true mentoring began and pushed me all the way to the final episode.
You were constantly underestimated by the other contestants on the show. How did that feel?
Sadly, throughout my career, I’ve gotten used to being underestimated, overlooked, and called names like “bossy,” “arrogant,” and “munchkin.” But I’ve learned to use it to my advantage because, through my work, I’ve proved that what some call “bossy,” others call leaders and that what some call “arrogance,” others call confidence.
When’s the first time you truly felt like a boss?
Making it to the final episode of Hell’s Kitchen and standing behind one of the two doors. Getting there was true validation for myself. Although that door didn’t open for me on the final episode, I knew that moment would open many other doors that would help propel my career further than I had imagined before. That's a win in my books—and in my opinion, the only books that should matter is how you feel about yourself. That made me feel like a true boss.