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Interview with My Kitchen Rules judge Grace Ramirez

Grace Ramirez has grown from an unconfident cook into an advocate for quality food and embracing challenges, finds Daisy Sillis.

From American MasterChef contestant to judge on TV One’s My Kitchen Rules NZ (MKR), Grace Ramirez has successfully climbed the food reality-show ladder – but not without her share of stumbles.
Sitting in an Auckland café post workout (coffee in one hand and bacon bap in the other), the 34-year-old chef talks openly about food, insecurities and her incredible new television role.
Q. Have you always been passionate about cooking?
A. I come from your typical large Latino family. When I lived at home in Venezuela, we would gather every Sunday at my grandparents’ house to eat. There would be more than 50 of us at the table. My family heritage stretches across South America, which was reflected in the food. It’s a fusion of Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. I never realised how lucky I was to have such a varied palate.
Latinos are very superstitious people and because my mother wasn’t a good cook, my grandmother would tell me I was cursed to be the same. Cooking never came naturally to me like it did for my grandmother and aunty, who are the star cooks in the family.
When I left home and moved to America, I missed Sundays at my grandmother’s house. I decided learning how to cook food from home would help to ease my loneliness.
Q. So who in your family taught you those special recipes?
A. In the days before Skype, I would call my grandmother for recipe instructions. Instead of quantities, she would say “a dash of this” and “a pinch of that”. I would show her photos of the food I created when I would visit home and she would tell me I got it all wrong.
It wasn’t until my stepfather taught me how to make ceviche that my passion for cooking really kicked in. I gained a lot more confidence after mastering that first dish. At the time I was working at MTV, which meant long hours and a lot of eating out. Cooking at home was a real treat.
Q. How did you make the transition from behind the scenes to being in front of the camera?
A. My passion for cooking prompted me to leave my production role at MTV and move to The Food Network. It was there that I realised I wanted to work in front of the camera instead of behind it. I had dabbled in on-screen television work as a child but because I didn’t fit the confident, stunning Ms Venezuela stereotype, I didn’t think it was a realistic career dream.
I’m confident now but it took a lot of work to get here. People think that being from Venezuela means you’re born with confidence, but the reality was I was my harshest critic. It took a lot of working out and therapy to get me where I am today.
Q. What encouraged you to enter American MasterChef?
A. I thought MasterChef would be a great opportunity to move into on-screen television work. It was the first MasterChef in the US and I had no idea it would become the American Idol of cooking. I wanted to become the face of South American food. I consider myself a Latina because of growing up with such a varied group of cultures, and I wanted to accurately portray the food and honour the cultural dishes.
I stood in a line for hours to audition and cooked my signature ceviche dish. I made it onto the show, but once we started filming I was eventually eliminated. In hindsight I could have done better. Gordon Ramsay told me to get some training and come back.
I was heartbroken and devastated but I took his advice. I ended up attending the French Culinary School in a nine-month night-school programme. I worked a paid internship at a restaurant during the day that was owned by Joe Bastianich, the chef who kicked me off MasterChef.
I had come full circle! He never knew who I was but it didn’t matter because I learned so much in his kitchen. I was working all day, then heading to culinary school at night. It was hard work and I shed a lot of tears, but it was worth every moment.
Q. What was it like cooking for Gordon Ramsay on MasterChef?
A. I felt very intimidated and nervous. The day I got eliminated I was truly heartbroken. But now I use that experience to help contestants on MKR.
I tell them that no matter what the result, this show will change their life; I know this first-hand. I was eliminated and look where I am now. I became a different person without even realising.
Being on a show like MKR, you learn about cooking and teamwork, and get the chance to jump into the unknown. It turns you into a different person. How often do you get the opportunity to take such a huge risk? That’s what I call living!
Grace Wears Cooper Jacket. Cotton On Singlet And Shorts.
Q. What encouraged you to move to New Zealand?
A. Just after I finished culinary school, my partner was offered a great job in New Zealand. I had never been here but heard there was amazing food and wine.
I was excited to experience things that weren’t available to me in New York, like fishing, hunting and growing a vege garden. I knew they would add a new level of skill to my cooking. Three-and-a-half years later, I still love living here.
Q. Is there a difference between the food here and in America?
A. The quality of produce and meat in New Zealand is much better. Not to mention the coffee!
I was never a big coffee drinker at home but now I’m hooked. I’m taking a barista course because I need to know how Kiwis get their coffee so delicious. The lifestyle here is exceptional.
The fact that you can catch a fish and eat it for lunch that same day is really special. There’s nothing I love more than fresh fish, lemon, chilli, salt, pepper and coriander. I could eat it every day. That’s my style of cooking! Perfect and simple.
Whatever happens in the future, whether I’m living here or not, I will proudly be an ambassador for New Zealand food. It’s world class and I don’t believe it’s celebrated enough.
Q. What’s it like judging on MKR? Is it more difficult than being a contestant?
A. MKR is amazing; I’m working with people I really admire. Not only that but I get to eat really good food. How lucky am I! Being a contestant was unbelievably stressful and really different to judging. Having experienced being a contestant, I really feel for the teams who get eliminated.
I’ve been in that position and I can relate. There have been a lot of tears over the past few weeks. It’s hard when you can really tell all the teams have put their heart and soul into a dish. Those times are tough. But the reality is we have to have a winner.
Q. What kind of judging style have you developed?
A. I’m tough but fair. I’m not negative for the sake of it but I give constructive criticism. I’m not Mrs Nice but I’m no Gordon Ramsay.
I’m passionate and have high yet realistic expectations. Quite often the judges’ opinions are split. Recently we had a really cultural dish and half of us loved it and the other half didn’t.
All the judges are experts at different areas of food so there are always going to be conflicting opinions: that’s what makes it interesting. We’re a pretty obsessed and intense bunch of chefs.
Q. Do you have a favourite team on MKR?
A. Everyone is a favourite! They’ve all worked so hard and we’ve been on this journey together. But it really comes down to the food. People get really passionate about food reality TV because it’s so aspirational, entertaining and easy to digest; it has all the elements. It inspires people to get creative in the kitchen.
All the teams have done a fantastic job.
Q. What’s your workout routine?
A. I work out a lot and I train hard. I’m not the type of girl who can eat whatever she wants. I started CrossFit three months ago and it’s changed my body. I’ve really tightened up! I do it 3-4 times a week plus yoga and sometimes spinning.
I like to think I’m spiritual and yoga is a space that allows me to relax. I feel like it’s essential to balance out the CrossFit.
I’m conscious of what I eat but still like to have fun – balance is important. I love having pizza and a beer, but only once a week. I find that working out as much as I do, I need to eat a lot or I don’t have the energy.
I think a lot of people set themselves up to fail without realising it. They get so extreme on their food and exercise, but being healthy isn’t about that and I don’t agree with extreme food trends such as the paleo and raw diets. If you’re obsessed with eating the right food all the time, you’ll never lose weight. You need to meet your cravings in moderation.
Q. Is the filming schedule demanding?
A. Being on set can be long and tiring. It’s all in real time, so we’re tasting food for hours and hours. After more than 12 hours of filming, we’re exhausted. We have to hype up the team with coffee and sugar to keep everyone going, but we’re all so happy to be here that it’s worth it.
Q. Which chefs do you admire and why?
A. Well, to start with, all the chefs I work with on MKR! I think Al Brown showcases NZ food really well and I respect how he credits people who deserve it. His cooking style is simple but packed with flavour.
I admire how he joins in and helps out at his restaurants when it’s busy. He’s so involved in the process. René Redzepi is my favourite international chef. He makes inventive food and the waiting list to eat at his restaurant is a few years long for a reason!
Q. What do you do when you’re not working hard on the MKR set?
A. In the past I’ve worked as a consultant for Mexican restaurants and worked at a cooking school, but MKR has taken up all of my time for now. I write a lot in my down time. My goal is to have my own cookbook of Latin-style recipes.
I’m currently testing recipes and researching in my spare time. I want to be an ambassador of South American food and show people that you can cook that style of food at home. South American food isn’t just rice and beans! I get a thrill from showcasing cuisine people haven’t tried before. I believe that anyone can cook if you put the effort in.
Photos: Mike Rooke/ Bauer Studios
Makeup by: Claudia Rodrigues
Styling by: Keahi Frances

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