Seeing Red: Some Like It Hot

By: Cyndi Amaya

There are certainly many talented individuals in the kitchen at Red Rooster Harlem, but one of them stands out not only for her spunk but for her spicy dishes as well! Chef Maria Gutierrez has been gracing the Red Rooster kitchen since its opening and has certainly staked her claim and position as one of the spiciest chicks on the line.

From her signature Mole to her Salsa Verde, Maria has proven herself a worthy contender in the kitchen ring. With her around, only one saying comes to mind, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!" Check out our interview with Chef Maria at Red Rooster.

So, tell me a little bit about yourself.  

I'm from Michoacan, Mexico.  I was born and pretty much raised there.  I've been in the US for about seven years to finishing high school, since my dad wanted us to get a high school diploma here.  I went to culinary school here in New York at the French Culinary Institute and I started working here at Red Rooster as soon as they opened. I work saute.

What made you want to become a chef?

I'm from a big family, so my mom would always be like, "Ok, who's going to help me in the kitchen?"  I was the only one that could reach over the stove, so it was pretty much pre-destined for me.  I was like five when my mom would say, "Ok, you're going to help me do this."  In Spanish families, you're never too young to do anything.  My mom, my dad, they both love to cook; so just right off the bat, I've always loved it.

How many brothers and sisters do you have?

We're seven.  Three girls, four boys.

Nice.  And you're the oldest?

I'm the middle one.  Dead center.

Dead center?

Middle child syndrome, absolutely.


Yeah; completely forgotten.  "When's your birthday again?"  That's every year.

So tell me a little bit of your life outside of the kitchen.  What you like to do, hobbies, or interests?

Actually, when I was younger, I used to box with my father, my brothers.  They are all very much into that.

So you're very Mexican!

Very, very Mexican. Cook, drink, box- that's all you do.  Well for me, it was like, "You're obviously going to be the biggest, the tallest girl-you've got to take care of your sisters."  So he would take me to the boxing gym when he would take my brothers, but he would never let me do tournaments or join a league, because he didn't like that atmosphere for girls.  Now I'm going to start up again.  But I think I might just do kickboxing; looks like it's more fun.

I like soccer obviously and I love going out to eat here in the city, trying different restaurants. Growing up, I wasn't really exposed to a lot of different cultures.  It was Mexican and that's it.  And if you eat at a restaurant that's not from there, it's not as authentic. For me, when I want to try something new, I want to go to the place where it's like, "This is the correct form."  I don't want to try anything dumbed down.

Give me an example?

Like sushi.  I wouldn't...

You'd only eat sushi in Japan?

[Laughs] No no no...I lived in Michigan, and there's no way there's going to be a good sushi place around there.  Everyone's like, "It's so good, it's so good," so I'm like, "Ok?"  So I knew I was going to move to New York, I was like, "I'll wait until I go to New York, because for sure, over there, I have to find something there."  And sure enough, I went to this one, and I loved it.  I'm always too scared to try something, and it's a dumbed down version, and then you don't like it, and you never give it a chance again.

What are some dumbed down Mexican dishes that bother you?

A lot of people here get burritos and all that stuff.  It's like a lot of the food, it's not that...there's so much stuff, it's like completely different, like Tex-Mex.  They think, ground beef and stuff like that.  But really, you go to Mexico, they don't really have ground beef in their diet.  That's not something they cook.  Now, it's more Americanized, like for burgers and all that stuff.  But growing up, I think I had ground beef once.  And we were like, "Mom, don't do that again. We don't like it."

I don't, chalupas.  What are those?  I've never heard of that.  Chimichangas, what is that?  I've never heard of it.  Never.  What else?  Some start off good, with good bases, and they just go and add all this mess to it, and it's like, "OK, you've ruined it!"

So what is traditional Mexican food about?

It's very simple.  The things that are complicated and complex are dishes like mole.  That's something you don't cook everyday.  That's something only on holidays, because it's a lot of work.  It's like a hundred ingredients and everyone has a different recipe.

But all in all, cooking just at home...I tend to remain towards the simpler dishes.  I like to taste everything.  I don't want a hundred things and they're all fighting with each other.  Growing up, my father, every Friday, he used to make us fajitas.  It's onions, peppers, garlic, tomatoes, good steak, and that was it!  Very simple, a little bit of cumin.  Very, very simple food.  That's all we eat.  That's why it's just different for me.  Cooking, there are like a hundred things to marinate, dry rub this, it's like wow.  At the end, I feel like you don't even taste the quality of the meat, you don't taste what you're really eating.  You're really tasting all these other things.  It's all fighting with each other.

What's your favorite Mexican dish?

Possibly, pozole. It's like a pork soup with hominy.  The base of the broth is made with dried peppers, they are pasilla peppers.  It's so good.  In Mexico, you're either a mole fan or a pozole fan. They're fighting with each other because they're the big dishes for the holidays.

You eat it with fresh shredded cabbage, or lettuce, sliced radishes, onions, oregano...there's this oil sauce we make out of dried chili peppers-the spicy ones-we make a paste out of that and put it in there.  It's so good.

Tell me some similarities, since you're into boxing, between cooking in a kitchen and when you practice boxing.  Are there any?

You have to control yourself.  It's hard working in a kitchen because you have to make sure you keep your cool.  And a lot of people can make that very difficult. You have to learn to talk to everyone.

Tell me about your experience about being a woman in the kitchen.  Because even though we think about cooking as a feminine art, it's been dominated by men...

And they think so.  And I've had a lot of guys tell me at the end of the line, "You're a girl, you should be out there waiting on tables.  You shouldn't be here cooking, this is a man's job."  Mind you, this guy will never keep up with the other girls and myself on the line.

One last question, just because this interested me so much when I tried your spicy sauce last week, because it was such a mix of Mexico and Sweden with the pickled onions.  So what other influences have you gotten from working in this kitchen, in particular, at the Red Rooster?

I used to never pickle too many things, so pickling, definitely.  What else?

I've always been a fan of just all the herbs that I would use but now, I've been exposed to all these Ethiopian spices, and I'm like, wow!  That's major here because we use so many different things.  There are a lot of foods that I've never gotten into, like fried chicken.  Me growing up, I would eat what I liked, that's it.  I didn't really go far and beyond.  When I go try something new, yes.  But I know what I like, and that's it.  So being here has definitely pushed me.  Gravlax?  I've never had that.  Also, sweet desserts; back home, at my house, desserts were cantaloupe, cut-up fruit, watermelon-that was our dessert.

With chili on top?

Obviously! Who doesn't put chili on dessert?  Lime and salt, too!

Anything else you want to say?

I love you, Mom!

Photos: Cyndi Amaya

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