How Actress Lela Loren Faked Her Way Into Cooking on an Alaskan Fishing Boat
The 'Power' star dishes about her favorite comfort food, the hilarious way she learned to cook, and eating grasshoppers.
On Power, actress Lela Loren plays no-nonsense Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela "Angie" Valdes, and offscreen, she has a low tolerance for B.S. too—especially when it comes to food. Even though the Sacramento native once wrote on Instagram, "Nothing sexier than a human who can cook," finding out that a date's idea of cooking is merely pouring themselves a bowl of cereal or making toast doesn't ruin a relationship for her. "What's more a deal breaker, for me, is someone that really picky eater," she admits. "Like people who only eat one thing. They won't eat like tomatoes or chicken or mushrooms. And this thing can't be touching this. I just have no patience for it."
Despite her busy schedule—Lela recently joined the cast of Netflix's Altered Carbon for season 2—she still finds time to explore her curious palate. "I have chapulines (grasshoppers), which are so delicious," she says. "I just tossed them right in some tacos and ate it up with no shame."
When we caught up with Lela over the phone, she gave us the rundown on how her Mexican-American heritage helped her find her way around the kitchen, not being squeamish, and what it's like having an older brother who's also an amazing chef.
Rachael Ray Every Day: On Power, you played a controversial prosecutor. What foods did you reach for after a filming a really intense scene?
Lela Loren: We [shot] Power in the winter and so my mom makes Caldo de Pollo, [a traditional Mexican dish], so I always love a really good homemade chicken soup with some hot corn tortillas and avocado. That's probably, for me, the most comforting thing. I'll make a huge pot of it, and it's one of those dishes that doesn't really come with a recipe—you just sort of wing it. You boil water with onions, garlic, and a whole chicken mixed with a bunch of other spices to get a good broth going. As that's cooking, you chop up all your vegetables. You can put anything you want to put in it. Growing up, my mom would use whatever was available like carrots, green beans, or any seasonal vegetable. You could throw in some potatoes, rice, or corn, too. My mom will sometimes garnish it with a little bit of mint, lime, and some salsa.
How did your Mexican-American heritage play a role in developing your passion for food?
Well, it played a role in that I totally lied so I could get a job on a fishing boat in Alaska when I had never cooked in my life. [Laughs] When I I really little, I was very contrarian and I didn't want to do anything that "girls were supposed to do." Somehow in my little kid brain, cooking was part of that. I was always stuck on prep, where my mom would make me peel the vegetables and chop them, but my bother Daniel Sharp, who is [executive] chef at The Meatball Shop [in NYC], started cooking when he was five and inventing recipes—I still get intimidated when I have him over for dinner because he's so good. But he and my mom would always cook, and I would just eat and try to get away with washing as little dishes as possible. It wasn't until I was 19 and trying to get a job, and the only way the fishing boat would hire me is if I could cook and so I lied. I was like "I'm Mexican. Of course I can cook!" [Laughs] Then, I would literally go to the telephone and grill my mom and my brother, and I'm like "Okay, and then you do what? And then you add what? So you do the oil and then the garlic and then the onions? Okay, but you can't let it burn? Alright." It was kind of baptism by fire. That's how I learned to cook.
You travel a lot. What's the most adventurous food you've ever ate?
Where my mother's from—the village that she's from in Mexico, these children are sent out with slingshots to find iguana, and they would make iguana soup. I didn't know that was weird until I got older, but probably for the American palate, that's pretty odd. I feel like the most adventurous thing I've ever tried and didn't succeed at was a fermented egg. Oh God. That stuff ... I couldn't. It was a little too slimy for me, but I was willing to try it.
Early on in your career when you were in between jobs, you said you learned a thing or two about entertaining. What tips do you have for wowing your guests?
If I can't get my brother to cook for me, who inherently wows everybody, and I'm doing it myself, I love great music, great wine or cocktails, great food, and the rest takes care of itself. I have a really hard time doing the potluck thing because I don't trust people. A bag of Cheetos is not gonna cut it! I usually start preparing the menu a couple of days in advance, but I don't like things very formal. I want people to feel like they're home, and I want it to be fun and intimate and relaxing and energizing all at the same time. I really try to have something for everyone. So I have a friend who's allergic to fish. Then I have other friends that are vegetarian and other friends who are sober. Whenever I throw a party, I really try to be thoughtful of everyone's needs and create an environment where they can partake in everything. So I'll have a really wonderful fish dish, and I'll make a wonderful chicken dish, a vegetarian dish, mocktails for people who are sober, and wine and cocktails for everyone else. I do a pretty descent rack of lamb and grilled artichoke, but I don't really get to brag around my brother because he's just kindly encouraging. He can just blow me out the water, ya know?
With Power back for its final season, do you have any go-to snacks that you like to eat while binge-watching your favorite shows?
I love, love, love popcorn. What I've been trying to recreate but haven't succeeded in yet is at the Ritz Carlton in Cancun, they have this popcorn that they mixed with fried jalapeño peppers, like sliced, in it. So it was like spicy and fried, buttery, and so delicious. And I love tacos. For me, a taco is anything you can put in a tortilla. Or honestly, if I have a sweet tooth, I love sour gummy bears. There's something really satisfying about watching a television show while eating sour gummy bears.
You starred on a show called Power for six seasons—what makes you feel most powerful?
Whenever I'm grounded and really accepting of wherever I'm at instead of trying to be something else, I feel really powerful.
How do you get to that place?
I think the culture that's around us is constantly pulling us away from our center and making us feel that we're not doing enough, we're not being enough, we're not this and that. Instead of trying to live up to that, start to really, really make friends with yourself—even the parts of you that are judgmental and petty and bullying and ugly for you. And it's not like you let those things drive the car, but you also understand that's part of the human condition, and your imperfections and the things you struggle with is part of life, not that there's something wrong with you. When you accept those pieces of yourself, I think it lets you start enjoying life for what it is and making decisions from a place of a deeper knowing, rather than just being reactionary. For me, I had to really divorce myself from society's idea of success. Because whenever you take the creative path, there's never any guarantees. And for such a long time, I struggled. If I would've measured my success by what society's standards are or my friends and where they were at a certain age, I would've felt like a total failure or maybe given up. But instead, for me, I had to count on the fact that I really loved the exploration of this craft. And if I'm a waitress for the rest of my life, so be it. When I really surrendered to that was when things started to move forward.