Jen Nathan Orris [00:00:05] This is Skillet, the podcast where we cook together and listen to each other. I’m Jen Nathan Orris. Here on Skillet, we hear from all kinds of cooks — grandmas, pie makers, parents and kids. And a few times a season we feature chefs that stand out. I go over to their homes and we cook a dish that brings back memories. Then we talk about what comes up. I like to cook and talk with chefs who are at different stages of their careers, whether they own and run a restaurant or are just starting out in the kitchen.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:00:39] Today’s storyteller is a chef on the rise, a self starter who is hustling her way into the fine dining world. Reina Gascon-Lopez is a line cook at Peninsula Grill, a high end restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina that serves upscale Southern cuisine. When she’s not wearing her chef whites, she’s writing recipes and photographing them for the Sofrito Project. Her blog and social media feeds celebrate her Puerto Rican heritage and are places where people find recipes and share photos of the meals they make. In addition to nurturing this community, Reina is incredibly prolific. She takes on private chef gigs like this past holiday season when she spent five days cooking multi course meals for 10 guests. Each course was elegantly plated dishes like togarashi spiced breast with chili threads and poached lobster claw with white truffle butter and caviar. But on the last night, after dessert was served, Reina went home to cook some Puerto Rican comfort food for herself. Then she was right back at the restaurant and using her time off for The Sofrito Project. I wanted to know how she does it all, so I went to Charleston to spend an afternoon in the kitchen with Reina.
[00:01:58] [door opening].
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:01:58] Hi. Hi, Jen. How are you?
Jen Nathan Orris [00:01:58] I’m good. How are you? [fade]
Jen Nathan Orris [00:01:58] Reina offered me a glass of water.
[00:02:00] [ice cubes in glass].
Jen Nathan Orris [00:02:00] And a snack.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:02:01] A quick little salsa that we could snack on because the chicken takes a little bit.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:02:05] That sounds great.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:02:08] My name is Reina Gascon-Lopez of The Sofrito Project and I am making sofrito roasted chicken, arroz con gandules, which is rice and pigeon peas, and tostones, fried plantains.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:02:22] And why did you pick this meal to make today?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:02:25] I think it’s an embodiment of what I like to cook for people. I feel like roast chicken is something very comforting and very homey and I like to put my twist on it. And rice and pigeon peas is very Puerto Rican, so I like making it for people.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:02:39] And the plantains?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:02:41] I love plantains. Plantains are life. I will literally eat a plantain every day if I could for the rest of my life. They’re just fantastic. I got some sweet ones and I also got some green ones. So you could try each of them. They’re pretty great.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:02:55] Yeah, let’s do a taste test.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:02:57] That would be great.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:02:58] Where do you buy your plantains here in Charleston?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:03:01] It’s kind of hit or miss. Honestly, I like any time I go grocery shopping, I’ll go hunting for them. They usually aren’t that great, but I find them at the Asian market.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:03:10] Yeah. Do you want to tell me what you did with the chicken here before we came over?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:03:14] Yeah, I have it brining with kosher salt and some homemade sofrito. So sofrito is a Puerto Rican seasoning blend, pretty much like a foundation of our food. It’s cilantro, peppers, garlic, onion, lots of herbs, lots of aromatics. And it’s super flavorful and pungent, but it goes with everything. So this is softito. Smells like home. That’s the only way I can describe it. It’s like, it’s what my house smells like. I always see memes like you know you’re Puerto Rican when you can smell the sofrito hitting the pan and it’s just, it just brings you back all these memories. And it’s, ooh, it’s great.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:04:02] Yeah. So we’re gonna have it with chicken today. What else could you do with sofrito?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:04:07] You could use it to season curries, soups, stews. I’m also gonna put it in the rice. It’s pretty much kind of like a Puerto Rican mirepoix.
[00:04:21] [peeling and chopping onionl].
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:04:22] Right now I am cutting up an onion to put on the bottom of my cast iron skillet and I’m going to put the chicken on top of the onion so all the juices could get nice and happy while it’s roasting.
[00:04:41] [chopping onion].
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:04:41] I was born in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, at the naval base, which is now no longer there. And we moved around a lot because my dad was in the Navy. So we lived in California for a little bit and then Maryland and then here Charleston.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:04:56] What’s your family like?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:04:59] Diverse, my guess would be a good word, kind of spread all over. Most of them still live in Puerto Rico. My dad lives in Puerto Rico and he and my mom split. My mom lives here in Charleston, along with my brother, and we’re super close. And then I’ve got a couple uncles spread out, but we kind of do our own thing and come together for holidays.
[00:05:20] [sizzle of onions].
Jen Nathan Orris [00:05:20] So these are pigeon peas. Can you talk a little bit about how they’re different from like other peas? What makes them special?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:05:26] These are native to the Caribbean. So you see them in a lot of Puerto Rican and Dominican and Cuban dishes, mostly Puerto Rican. They grow all over the islands. And it’s actually our national dish is rice with pigeon peas, which is what I’m making. The flavor, honestly, I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s like if you’ve never had a pigeon pea, it just tastes like a pigeon pea. Like it doesn’t taste like anything else. They’re very nutty. They kind of remind me of black-eyed peas.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:06:06] Yeah, that’s what I was going to guess. Just looking at them, having not tasted them yet, they look a little like black-eyed peas.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:06:13] They grow in pods and when you pick them, they’re either brown or green. Do you want to try some?
Jen Nathan Orris [00:06:22] Yeah, I do. Mmm!
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:06:22] Right?
Jen Nathan Orris [00:06:27] Yeah, it’s nuttier. It almost tastes a tiny bit citrusy. Do you taste that too or did I just make that up?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:06:32] No. They have a very distinct flavor.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:06:35] Yeah. But very different from black-eyed peas. They look similar but they don’t taste really the same right at all. Although I do love black-eyed peas too, though, it was one of my favorites growing up.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:06:46] Was food a part of your life as a kid?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:06:48] Yes, very much so. I used to cook often when my mom was at work. She taught me how to cook for my brother while she was gone. My dad worked all the time too, so we ended up just kind of fending for ourselves a bit. Latchkey kids. But yeah. Cooking has always been a big part of my life, especially with my mom and my abuelas and my abuelos. We did a lot of cooking together as a family, especially during the holidays.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:07:17] Do you have any memories, if you kind of think about those times?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:07:23] Honestly, like one of my favorite memories involves pigeon peas. I vividly remember picking them with my grandfather in his backyard. He had had like a little farm, I guess in the backyard and they had a plantain trees and we had a lot of gandules growing and we would pick them and shell them in the kitchen together. That was nice.
[00:07:50] [peeling garlic].
Jen Nathan Orris [00:07:50] These experiences in Puerto Rico made moving to Charleston feel like a culture shock for Reina.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:07:56] I pretty much was going into first grade, I remember, and it was a big, it was a big change from the naval base where we used to live. And coming to South Carolina was black and white, literally. Like it was just kind of hard to navigate in school and figure out my place and where I’d hang out with the kids, but it worked out.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:08:20] How do you figure out your place here?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:08:24] I ended up just kind of, ‘ve always been myself, like I never tried to be someone that I wasn’t. So I think it was one of those things where, like, I’ve always been comfortable in my own skin. So anybody who was accepting of that, I was cool with. Like, if you accept me for who I am, we can be cool. We can rock. But if you don’t, then I usually stay away from those people.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:08:50] I’ve got some vegetable oil in a little caldero, which is a pretty much like an aluminum Dutch oven. The reason why I’m using this for the rice is because the bottom layer of the rice at the bottom turns into pegao, pegao means stuck. So the rice gets like stuck on the bottom in the pan and gets like, really crunchy and crispy and it’s really delicious.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:09:12] Oh, my gosh, that sounds great.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:09:14] You get a little crunchy pieces and there’s like a lot of textures, so it’s really nice.
[00:09:23] [sizzle of ham].
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:09:23] I’m adding in some cubed ham. So usually in this place, I would use either bacon or ham. I prefer ham with the rice. This is how my mom made it growing up. I’ve got the ham starting to get crisp. I’m going to add in the sofrito.
[00:09:53] [loud sizzle of sofrito in pan].
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:09:54] I’m going to go ahead and add the rice. So you don’t want to cook the pigeon peas too long because they’re also gonna cook with the rice once you get it going. And this is something else I was able to find at the Asian market. It’s Puerto Rican rice, which I’m super pumped about. I can barely find it. So when I saw it I was like, oh, I’m going to get it for y’all. So it looks like auborio rice because the grains are really, really small.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:10:30] They’re very small!
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:10:31] Yeah, teeny tiny. But they pump up really nice when you cook with them.
[00:10:42] [sizzle fade].
Jen Nathan Orris [00:10:42] Reina says she always wanted to be a chef and work in a kitchen. But she took a circuitous route to get there. First, she went to college and majored in international business.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:10:51] Yuck. And then that was boring. I didn’t like it.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:10:56] Then she transferred schools and graduated with a degree in media studies.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:11:00] But it was the middle of the recession, so I couldn’t get a traditional, you know, print media job anywhere because they had pretty much died out. And so I did tech support and I fixed phones and computers, because I’ve always been pretty tech savvy. So I worked a couple call centers and climbed up the latter bit.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:11:22] She got a job with Apple, which seemed great at first.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:11:25] But I just wasn’t happy. I didn’t really have a sense of purpose. I kind of like went to work and went through the motions. I was like, miserable. I’d get up, get fussed at by customers all day over things that I didn’t do. I was like, I don’t want to get yelled at anymore over iPhones and Mac books, cell phone service. I was like, if I’m going to get yelled at, I’d rather get yelled out over something that I created or that I can make. So that’s what I did. I’d rather be stressed over something that I love. And I just I just decided to go to culinary school. I remember when one day I was like, I don’t wanna do this anymore. And my friends were like, what do you want to do? I was like, I want to cook. I squirreled up all this money and I went to school.
[00:12:15] [chopping plantains]
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:12:15] So I’m cutting up plantains now.
[00:12:20] [plantains falling on cutting board].
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:12:20] So these guys look like bananas, but they’re not sweet yet. They’re green, when they’re green like this, they’re more starchy than anything else. It kind of tastes like potatoes when you fry them.
[00:12:41] [peeling skins off plantains].
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:12:41] I know they’re almost sweet because they’re easy to peel off. The greener they are, the harder they are to peel.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:12:46] And the peel is coming up pretty quickly, pretty easily.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:12:50] So these guys are kind of in between savory and sweet.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:12:57] You can see that you went to culinary school because you’re so confident with your knife.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:13:02] I wasn’t at first. And one of my classes was a nutritional cooking class and I vividly remember going into class the first day and, you know, fresh whites on and my knife roll. I was like, yeah, I’m going to do this. And Chef had a big projector screen and he had us do knife cuts every day. And he had a timer set up like Chopped. And I’m talking like classical knife cuts. We’re like the teeny tiny brunoise, like an eighth of an inch thick. You know, precise cuts. And he would give you a grade on every single piece of vegetable that you cut. So if I had to julienne carrots. He would grade every single slice of carrot.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:13:43] What? Every single slice?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:13:45] Every single slice So I would pick like my five best, you know, julienne carrots and I’d bring it up to him and that would be like our daily grade. And I hated it. And looking back, I’m like, well, I’m glad he did it that way because he made us, you know, be super perfectionist about it.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:14:00] So, yeah, You’re putting a little water in the plantains.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:14:05] That way they don’t turn brown. It helps remove, like there’s like some kind of enzyme. I don’t know what it’s called, but it actually stains your fingers black.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:14:13] What?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:14:13] Yeah. Like if they’re super, super green and you peel them, it happens a lot when I go back home and helping everybody in the kitchen, my fingers will be black from peeling plantains.
[00:14:27] [plaintains sizzling in oil].
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:14:27] It’s all that water popping off. It’s scary, but fun.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:14:34] Yeah. Oh, yeah. The plantains in the oil are just like bubbling right away.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:14:42] So my abuela would make tostones, she would just use her hands and just pop them in the oil like I’m not there yet.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:14:51] Really?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:14:52] Yeah. [laugh] I think it’s one of those things like after a while, you know, you kind of lose feeling in your fingers and your hands. But like whenever I work grill or if I’m doing sandwiches, like I can grab stuff off the stove without it burning me. So I think that’s probably what it was for her.
[00:15:09] [chopping garlic].
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:15:11] I’m mincing up the garlic, to flavor the water. So the cool thing about it, it doesn’t have to be like superfine or anything. Like I’m just giving it a rough chop because it’s going to go in the water that I’m going to put the plantain back in when it comes out of the oil.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:15:29] Ah.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:15:29] Yeah. So kind of like seasons and a little bit and then you fry it again to get it nice and crunchy. You seasoned it pretty much every step of the way. So these guys are pretty much ready because they’re all floating now. So I’m going to take them out so I can smash them up.
[00:15:53] [sizzling of plantains].
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:15:53] In my house, I have a tostonera, which is pretty much two planks of wood that are I guess you could say bound together. And then it almost looks like a book and you smash your plantains with that. But you could use anything that has a flat bottom to smash it.
[00:16:11] So you get them out once they’re fried and then you smash then like this.
[00:16:23] [plantains smushing].
[00:16:23] [oil sizzling].
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:16:23] And the second round of frying doesn’t take long at all. Is a pretty much already cooked. I’m just getting some extra crunch on them and cooking the inside through.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:16:33] Yeah, I can see the plantains are getting like all golden brown and crispy looking.
[00:16:48] [plantains being tossed in plastic bowl].
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:16:48] Just give them a little toss.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:16:49] You want to try?
Jen Nathan Orris [00:16:51] Mmm!
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:16:51] Right?
Jen Nathan Orris [00:16:51] Whoa. Oh, my gosh. OK. Let me tell you why I love this. The texture on the outside is just like unlike anything. And then I love that it’s not sweet – that it’s really savory and salty, but like complex in a way more than like potato plus salt.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:17:11] Right.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:17:13] They’re like French fries on steroids.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:17:15] Yes!
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:17:15] That’s like the only way I could describe it to people.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:17:17] Yeah, with more flavor. Can I just like to snag another one?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:17:20] Yeah, of course.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:17:35] Just going to chomp on this.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:17:35] They’re so good. So snacky.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:17:35] Let’s see how the chicken is doing.
[00:17:35] [cast iron pan turning around in oven].
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:17:35] Yes!
Jen Nathan Orris [00:17:35] The wings are all like golden brown.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:17:37] My favorite part. The crispy, crunchy wingtips.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:17:43] [laugh].
Jen Nathan Orris [00:17:43] The feast is ready. Reina fills up big plates of sofrito chicken, rice with pigeon peas, savory and sweet tostones and the pico de gallo she made earlier. The whole meal is in harmony. The crispy, starchy toastones complement the creamy rice and peas, and the chicken is infused with herby goodness from the sofrito. Now that our bellies are full, Reina and I have a chance to sit down and talk.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:18:08] After the break, she tells me more about The Sofrito Project, explains why the order and precision of fine dining suits her perfectly, and talks about how she uses cooking to stay connected with her family in Puerto Rico. Stay with us. We’ll be right back.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:18:27] Skillet is brought to you by you. Skillet is a listener powered podcast and we rely on you to make the show possible. That’s why we have listener food sponsors who pay for the ingredients we cook with on the show. Today’s listener sponsor is someone close to me, someone who gave me many of the food memories that inspired this podcasts.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:18:47] Shout out to my mom, Myra Nathan, for supporting Skillet this week and for nurturing me from the very beginning. Passion projects like Skillet survive on the support of family and friends and listeners like you. So here’s something you can do right now to help the show. Hit pause and rate Skillet in your podcast app. Write a review if you’re feeling inspired. It all helps people discover the show. And if you’d like to be next week’s food sponsor, you don’t have to be my mom. Just donate at the 20 dollar level on our website www.skilletpodcast.com. Thanks, friends. On with the show.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:19:23] Welcome back to Skillet, a podcast about food and memory. I just finished an incredible meal with Reina Gascon-Lopez – a fine dining chef and driving force behind The Sofrito Project. After a whirlwind afternoon of cooking and eating, I wanted to ask her more about The Sofrito Project.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:19:41] It is my personal blog where I share recipes. Mostly Puerto Rican food, mostly stuff that I just like to make at home. It’s a big change from what I do professionally, so it’s nice to make homey comfort food and share that with people. That’s what I like to do. I think it’s one of those things that like Puerto Rican food is very it’s not as common, I guess is as bigger Latin countries would be like like Mexican food, for example. It’s all over the world, all over the place. A lot of people don’t necessarily know about Puerto Rican cuisine or Caribbean food in general. They kind of have this like blanketed idea of what that food is. So I like introducing it to other people. That’s usually my thing. Like I want to I want to, like, teach people about my culture through food, like, hey, this is what we eat. This is how we do it. This is why we do it. Enjoy. Food is such a gateway like method of getting in touch with people and communicating with others and showing your culture through food. I think it’s the easiest way to relate to other people is just by sharing food, memories and then necessarily special about it. And I kind of wanted a place to document everything that I was doing in school. That’s how it started out. Actually, I started taking pictures of like all the plates I was making in class and things that we did in school or things that I learned in school, especially when I got some more my like my advanced classes. And one of my chefs actually he suggested to have a separate Instagram for your food as opposed to, you know, your personal page. That way, if you’re looking for a job or if you’re looking for anything in the field, it’s one of those things where you well, look what I can make. This is what I can do as opposed to having like a resume. You can just feel, hey, look at my Instagram. This is what I can make.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:21:43] So why did you decide to have your blog be about Puerto Rican food instead of like the fanciest French technique that you could put on the page to impress potential employees, employers?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:21:56] I think it’s just it’s what I like to cook. It’s what I like to eat. I mean, it’s one of those things where, like, I could make you know, I know how to make tarts and I know how to make cakes and coq au vin and like super fancy, you know, classical French food. But at the end of the day, it’s not want to make an at home. So I’d rather share what I what I love to eat. Like this is what I eat as a chef. Like I would eat rice every day if I could. Like, I’m not out here making pom frites and, you know, like super fancy things at home. It’s just I like comfort and I think that’s what most people enjoy, too. Some people don’t want to be you know, they don’t want to make something very complicated at home or they don’t want to make anything that has like 20 steps and reduce this sauce for five hours. Like they just want to make something that’s delicious and easy. So that’s what I like to make.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:22:58] Do you get responses from readers?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:23:00] Actually, the last response I got was. I got a lot of response from my coquito recipe, which is a [laugh] it’s a very boozy rum drink that we make during the holidays and it’s like a coconut, kind of like a eggnog. But without the egg, at least my version doesn’t have egg in it. And it was very, um, I got a lot of responses from that. And the last one I got was from a woman whose husband made her arroz con pollo – like chicken and rice. And it was like the first thing he learned how to make on his own that she didn’t have to make dinner. And I was like, oh, that’s. It’s like, I’m glad you’re getting a break from the kitchen and that your husband’s making dinner. [laugh] It’s really sweet.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:23:43] Using your recipe?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:23:45] Yeah, it was really funny. She sent me a picture that was really sweet.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:23:48] You know each other in real life or just an online connection?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:23:51] Just online. Yeah, a lot of it. Like a lot of the pictures that I get tagged and it’s kind of cool is like, wow, you guys are making my food. That’s awesome.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:23:59] Yeah. How does that feel for you?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:24:01] It’s kind of surreal. I’m just like, it’s kind of weird knowing that there are people like like across like the nation feeding their family like my food, because, like, I have a way to check on on the blog, you know, like analytics and stuff to see like where people live and like what part of the country like the readers are from. And I had somebody I think the furthest I’ve seen was like like Japan or something like super insane. And I was like, oh, that’s crazy. Like people are eating my food in Japan. It’s awesome. It’s wild.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:24:34] Reina found success with The Sofrito Project and fine dining. But there were some unexpected obstacles along the way.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:24:41] When I started school, I had just enough money saved up to pay tuition. Because I was paying out of pocket the first year. And I was like, I don’t want any more student loans. It’s like I’m going to pay out of pocket. So I pretty much budgeted like, you know, if I made a payment towards tuition every week, I’d be able to swing it. So I was like, alright, I set my budget. I was good. When I got to school, I thought the knife kit was gonna be like, you know, three or four hundred bucks. Like, okay, cool. I could do it. I could swing it. No. It was like close to a thousand dollars for knives. For knives. And I was like, yeah, no, I don’t I don’t have this much money. So I told the chef and he was like, oh, well, you know, you could pretty much build your own kit. You don’t have to get the one from school. You’ll just need, you know, X, Y, Z knives and, you know, get a little roll. He’s like, you can get them online on Amazon and just kind of slowly build your kit. You know, I was like, cool. All right. That was still going to be expensive. He put me in contact with the dean at school and pretty much apparently, I guess they just have money to give if you ask. I didn’t know that, I was like, okay, cool. So the dean gave me an knife kit because I told him I was like, hey, I don’t have the money to pay for this and I need knives. So can you work that out? And they did. I got the knife kit. I didn’t have pay for anything. The only deal was like make good grades and do well in school and the knife kit is yours. I said “Heard” so I made all A’s.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:26:11] Do you still use that knife kit?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:26:14] That’s actually what I used today.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:26:16] Really?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:26:16] Yeah. I have it somewhere around here, but I’ve been adding more stuff to it. I got some really nice spoons the other week. I was like super excited about and I add them to the kit, but just like slowly add things to it. It’s fun.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:26:29] How does it feel when you open that knife kit?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:26:32] Powerful. I feel like a magician. Like I have all my tools and I’m ready to go. And I’m like, sharpening them and taking care of my babies. I don’t let people use my knives either. No. No.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:26:50] Well, they work great. The food was amazing. Thank you.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:26:53] So did it feel like you were kind of starting your career over from scratch when you decided to go to culinary school?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:27:01] Oh, absolutely. I. I’m like at the bottom of the totem pole now. Which kind of sucks anyway. But like, I knew that was gonna happen because I was like, well, that’s the choice I made. So it’s cool because like, you know, when I was doing my tech jobs, I had pretty much worked my way up. I was making good money, but, uh, I wasn’t happy. I was like, I’ll just start over. So I’m doing it now.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:27:28] You graduated culinary school. Then what happened?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:27:32] I am now working in a fine dining restaurant here in Charleston, and it’s amazing. Yeah.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:27:38] What is it? What’s it like to be in the kitchen with all these other chefs, like do you where your chef whites. What’s it like?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:27:43] Yeah. It’s actually pretty funny because my previous job, you know, it was kind of like a t shirt, jeans kind of place. And now I get to wear like my white coat again and my apron and my towels and everything is very structured and very, you know, intense. I guess you could say, but I enjoy it. I learned a lot. And everyone’s super nice. And everyone is everyone’s always helping somebody else. So I think that’s one thing I like about kitchen work. It’s like everybody is a team. Nobody works for themselves.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:28:14] Did that hierarchy of the kitchen, some people compare it to like military hierarchies. Did that, like, resonate with you, with your your family background in the military?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:28:25] It actually it does. I think that’s why I like the structure so much, because, you know, my my dad was in the Navy, so it was very, very Type A you know, very structured upbringing just in general. And then doing kitchen work is also very structured, like everything has a place. Everything is there’s a timeline. Everything has to get done in a certain order, in a certain way. And if you vary from that, it doesn’t work. But I think that’s how I live my life. I’m a planner, so I don’t mind it like I plan everything. So, like, if it doesn’t have a plan, then it doesn’t work for me. And I don’t like it. I like structure.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:29:07] So do you still have family in Puerto Rico?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:29:09] I do, actually. My dad lives in Puerto Rico currently. My grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins, pretty much like my whole family’s down there except for my mom and my brother here in the States. And I typically go every single year to visit them and hang out with them during the holidays. So a lot of fun. Nice vacation.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:29:31] Yeah. Are there things that kind of like spark memories for you when you walk into your family’s home or when you when you get back to Puerto Rico? Is there anything the kind of like hits you?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:29:44] Yeah, it’s the plane, like the plane ride. When you get near the island, all the humidity starts to build up on the plane. You could see, like the window starting to like condense with the air and you can smell it. You could smell the ocean. You could smell it as soon as a plane door opened. It’s amazing. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like that. And the sound of coqui, which are like the little tree frogs that are native to the island and they only live there. It’s like the only place that they could actually live. And the noise that they make is actually like coo-kee, like their name. So you hear them at like dusk and at night and you hear them. And I’m like, oh, my God, I’m home.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:30:25] Are there foods that you ask your family to make when you’re coming or is there something you always love to cook with them?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:30:31] Yes, I always make my mofungo when I’m down there, which is a plantain dish. But the plantains are deep fried and smashed together with garlic and pork cracklings. And they’re formed into like a ball, essentially. And then they’re either eaten with broth or some kind of like sausage meat. I always have to have mofungo when I go. And we always have to go to Luquillo, which is where all of the like food standards are like right on the beach. And we get a lot bacalaitos and alcapurrias, which are like fritters, but they’re made with codfish and jueyes, which is a land crab, which is native to the island. So the only place I could have jueyes is in Puerto Rico. So that’s like the first thing I go for when I go. And it’s delicious.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:31:23] So was your family affected by the hurricane?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:31:25] Yes, they were, actually. My grandfather actually came to live with us after the storm hit. He’s in his 80s and he didn’t have running water or electricity pretty much like anything. So, you know, he had he stayed with us for almost a year. He was with us for 10 months until he got his power back, which is insane to me. So, yeah, he came to live with us, my aunt and uncle, we actually sent supplies down is really nice. On my personal page. I set up a Go Fund Me and people donated money and I was able to ship supplies back home, which was awesome.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:32:06] So you spend much of your time here in Charleston. Cooking your food, does that make you feel closer to like family in Puerto Rico or more connected to those roots?
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:32:16] Yeah, for sure. Especially when I’m able to find ingredients that I have trouble finding. Like I was able to find a couple of root vegetables at our flea market here in town and I haven’t been able to find them in years. And I was like I was like geeking out. I was so excited. About it, really. I find like an ingredient of the Asian market that, you know, I don’t get to eat often. I’m just like, yes. So it’s a way for me to to stay connected with them for sure. I think that’s that’s why I do it.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:32:45] Well, Reina, thank you so much for talking with me today and for cooking. It was just a really wonderful experience. Thank you.
Reina Gascon-Lopez [00:32:51] Thank you so much. I really enjoyed cooking for you and I love chatting and hanging out. It’s been so much fun.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:33:04] Thanks so much to Reina Gascon Lopez from The Sofrito Project. You can find a link to her blog in our show notes and a link to her Instagram feed where she shares incredible Puerto Rican recipes. It’s really fun to see people around the world making her dishes and to watch her rise up the ranks in the culinary world.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:33:23] Our Instagram feed is full of photos from our afternoon with Reina, and there are plenty more on our website: www.skilletpodcast.com You’ll also find a transcript and a link to donate to Skillet. We’re looking for next week’s food sponsor and we’d love for it to be you.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:33:39] Special thanks to story editor C.A. Carlson and digital producer Rich Orris.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:33:45] If you liked today’s episode, let us know. Post about it on social media or write a review and rate us in your podcast app. It all helps more people find the show.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:33:55] Coming up next time on Skillet, we glide through the kitchen with Joe Bowie, a world renowned dancer turned baker.
Joe Bowie [00:34:02] If someone had asked me 30 years ago, where would be right now, I wouldn’t necessarily said married because I knew I was gay, whether I’d come out then or not. But I probably would have thought I was going to be a pediatric oncologist or something. And then it just didn’t happen. It’s actually been a true adventure, you know, traveling the world on someone else’s dime, dancing your whole way and your whole way through. Wow, gosh, the stories.
Jen Nathan Orris [00:34:30] Hit subscribe in your podcast app so you don’t miss it. See you in two weeks for the next episode of Skillet.