JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION FELLOW: SOFIA MENDOZA

By Georgette Farkas

Sofia set her sights as high as one could in New York City’s restaurant landscape, all the while remaining focused on serving her community and building a nurturing culture in the workplace. After earning a culinary degree at Monroe college, Sofia worked at restaurants including The Modern, Daniel and Eleven Madison Park, in areas including human resources and guest relations. The pandemic’s impact heightened Sofia’s awareness of the Latino community’s invaluable role in hospitality, just as the JBF fellowship training will fuel her goal of creating a Mexican café with a taste of home.

What convinced you to apply for the fellowship?
My dream of opening a café in the future. I was putting it off to focus on my career right now, but when I learned about the program I thought “this is the push I need”. My vision for my café revolves around refined Mexican food. At the same time, my business will work to reduce food insecurity. We may partner with food banks such as City Harvest and collaborate with other restaurants to build support for community needs and make food accessible, especially in emergencies.

What were the most valuable aspect of the program?
In the finance section, I learned how to align my vison for my café with realistic business goals, setting expectations for profitability and the time it could take to become profitable.

With program mentor Valerie Wilson, a Public Relations pro, I learned how to identify my target market and how to incorporate marketing metrics to assure my business is successful. Valerie taught me to build stories that are purposeful and that reflect my business’ unique character.

What did you learn that most surprised you?
How different meal kits are from regular restaurant production. Every aspect of my Beard Box meal kit had to be thought out, from the components of my dishes to the size of the jars, to production and packaging. While working at Great Performances, I learned that just because it comes from a box doesn’t mean you cut corners, you have to be very thoughtful and intentional when it comes to building a meal kit. My menu included handmade tetelas, which are a type of folded and stuffed tortilla. We made two versions, one filled with wild mushrooms and the other filled with Oaxaca cheese and zucchini. They needed to be carefully assembled by hand and in a way that made them easy for customers to heat and eat at home, with all the flavor and texture intact.

How did the program influence the direction of your culinary career and the possibilities you see ahead?
The fellowship allowed me to explore and envision what my café would look like and what recipes I would create for it. It encouraged me to take a deep dive into where I come from, the stories behind my favorite dishes and where I see them in my dream café. I’ll be using flavors from my childhood, such as my guajillo salsa. There will be the colors and spices that I grew up with, using food to bring a piece of my home in Mexico here to my café.

Tell us about the next steps in your career?
My plan is to open my café in seven years. Now I am actively building my business plan, researching concepts, restaurant architecture and locations.

What was your favorite aspect of the fellowship?
Meeting other fellows and learning from them! I loved learning about their journeys and about their experience in the industry. I especially loved when we all got together to cook at Great Performances for the JBF awards box back in August.

What was the most challenging aspect of the fellowship?
On the very same day that I started the fellowship, I also started a new job as a Human Resources Manager at Union Square Hospitality. It was hard to balance both. I had to ask for help and lean on my support system to 1. Get the most out of the program 2. Learn the ropes of my new position 3. And remember to have fun while achieving 1 and 2.

What is the most valuable skill or lesson learned that you will take away from your fellowship?
The most valuable lesson I learned from my fellowship was always hire a real estate attorney before signing a lease. With things constantly changing, you need to make sure you protect your business in ALL aspects.

Recipe: Mexican Hot Chocolate Bavarois with Churro and Piloncillo Crumble

By Sofia Mendoza

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

Bavarois

  • 1¼ cups milk
  • 175 gr bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • ¼ tsp ground chili pepper
  • ¼ tsp ground clove
  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 4 egg yolks
  • ⅓ cup sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 gelatin sheet
  • 1 cup heavy cream

Churro Crumble

  • 1 whole churro
  • 2 Tbs pilloncilo sugar*

*unprocessed pure cane sugar found mostly in Mexicog

Procedure

In the top of a double boiler over medium heat, combine milk, bittersweet chocolate, chili pepper, clove and cinnamon. Whisk together until chocolate is completely melted.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar and vanilla. Whisk in about a quarter of the chocolate mixture to temper. Whisk egg mixture back into the chocolate mixture. Cook stirring over the double boiler until the mixture thickens just enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon.  Remove from heat and let cool.

Place gelatin sheet in a small mixing bowl with just enough cold water to dissolve. Whisk into chocolate mixture and refrigerate, just long enough to cool, but not long enough to set.

In the meantime, in a mixing bowl, whip heavy cream. Fold whipped cream into chilled chocolate mixture. Transfer to six individual small ramekins or serving bowls and refrigerate to set.

Preheat oven to 350°. Coarsely chop the churro in to pieces small enough to form a crumble mixture. Coarsely chop the piloncillo sugar. Toss the two together on a parchment paper lined baking sheet and toast approximately 20 minutes or until churro pieces are crisp. Remove from oven and let cool. Just before serving, spoon the churro mixture over the set chocolate bavarois to garnish.

We would like to acknowledge CAPITAL ONE as the presenting Sponsor of the James Beard House Fellows Program.

JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION FELLOW: MIMI CHEN

By Georgette Farkas

Mimi’s love of TV cooking shows led her to enter the C-CAP (Careers through Culinary Arts Program) Competition. Her 2015 win resulted in a full scholarship to the International Culinary Center and then a paid internship at Café Boulud. With Chef Daniel Boulud as a mentor, Mimi went on to cook at New York City’s renowned Restaurant DANIEL. Always striving to work with and learn from the best, Mimi moved to San Francisco to join the team at Matthew Kirkley’s three Michelin starred restaurant Coi. All the while, she continued to participate in prestigious competitions, including the famed Bocuse d’Or World Competition in 2017 and 2019. Mimi’s creative talent, precision and competitive spirit will serve her well when it comes to starting her own culinary business.

How did you first learn about the program?
A professor whom I studied with at CityTech College encouraged me to apply. She has always looked out for me and my career and knew I would really benefit from the fellowship.

What was the most valuable training you received?
I learned a lot about myself personally and professionally. Program mentor Rosey Singh helped me understand my personality type and taught me to communicate with confidence. Another mentor, Valerie Wilson, taught me to pitch my story concisely. Previously, I had written a very long bio. Thanks to Valerie, I learned to focus on compelling details that illustrate the key points in my narrative.

What aspect of the program did you enjoy most?
I loved creating my Beard Box menu, translating my ideas into a meal kit for people to prepare at home. Everyone loves a good burger, but I wanted mine to be different. My family BBQ experiences inspired my five-spice burger. The charcoal bun was a technique I picked up in my cooking competition experiences. The resulting dish was familiar yet out of the ordinary.

How did the program influence the direction of your culinary career and the possibilities you see ahead?
It helped me build my business plan on the foundation of my culinary and pastry experiences. Prior to the program, I had been testing recipes, which the fellowship then helped me to refine.

What will your next career step be, following your fellowship completion?
I’m launching my own line of dessert mixes. They’re called “Mish”, short for mission. My products will be similar to what you find in the grocery store baking aisle, but with unique flavors inspired by my cultural heritage and French culinary training. My cake mixes will include matcha, earl grey and yuzu – flavors you just don’t find in stores. I’m also creating unique dessert mix flavor profiles for rice crispy treats, cookies, cupcakes and mochi. I plan to offer them with the convenience of online shopping, and eventually in stores.

What was the most challenging aspect of the fellowship?
For an introvert like me doing the live zoom recipe event was a great challenge. For my Beard Box video presentation, being prepared with a well outlined script was a very effective strategy. Despite a few hiccups, it went smoothly. I felt great about it.

Recipe: Soy Ginger Slaw

Ingredients

Slaw Mix

  • 1⅓ cup napa cabbage, finely shredded
  • 1⅓ cup purple cabbage, finely shredded
  • ⅔ cup carrots, finely shredded

Soy Ginger Sauce

  • 3½ Tbsp tamari soy sauce
  • 1.5 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1½ Tbsp honey
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • ¼ cup ginger, grated
  • 1 tsp garlic, grated
  • 1 scallion, thinly sliced
  • 1 sprig cilantro, chopped
  • ¼ tsp white sesame seed

Procedure

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together soy ginger sauce ingredients and adjust seasoning to taste. Combine shredded napa and purple cabbage and shredded carrot. Toss in soy ginger sauce to coat evenly. Serve immediately.

We would like to acknowledge CAPITAL ONE as the presenting Sponsor of the James Beard House Fellows Program.