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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Pride and Pastelón

By Shelby Tuttle


“Women are hardcore,” Chef Monti Carlo says over FaceTime while finding time to chat with me between testing recipes and filming content for a new brand partnership.

“I’m staying busy, hustling — you know. I think that’s what happens when you’re a woman. You just gotta make it work and hustle.”

Hustle might be a bit of an understatement. Carlo is currently the editor-in-chief of Food World News and the chef-in-residence for ZENB pasta. She’s drafting her newest cookbook, Spanglish (due out in spring 2025), writing a memoir, and works as an advisor, host, judge, and presenter for the James Beard Foundation. She just wrapped filming a new series for the Roku Channel and regularly appears as a guest chef at some of the most prestigious food festivals around the country. 

You might recognize her as a top five finalist on Master Chef Season 3 or from her 2023 appearances on The Today Show that provided viewers with tips on how to maximize their food budgets as inflation gripped our nation. She’s served as a guest chef or judge on numerous Food Network programs, including The Kitchen, Chopped Junior, Cutthroat Kitchen, and The Cooking Channel’s Best Thing I Ever Ate. Her career in food writing has produced memorable essays in Bon Appetit, The Washington Post, and The Spruce Eats

Born and raised in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, Carlo is most passionate about the cuisine that represents her culture.

“We already have more Puerto Ricans outside the island than there are on the island. It’s in economic distress; it’s a disaster. When the pandemic hit, everyone in the restaurant industry in the States freaked out. Labor was a challenge, ingredients were skyrocketing in price, and there were supply chain issues,” she says. “Imagine all of that plus hurricanes and earthquakes, plus lights and water going in and out every day for 30 years. That’s what Puerto Rico’s chefs have been going through.” 

Not one for all talk and no action, Carlo has been a vocal advocate for various Puerto Rico relief efforts, working to raise awareness of conditions on the island following multiple natural disasters that struck the area from 2017 to 2020. 

“If we don’t do something about it, we’re going to lose our culture — and our cuisine — for real.”

She beams with pride as she shares her love for Puerto Rico by recounting her most recent experience at the 2023 James Beard Awards. There, she presented the award for Best Chef South to fellow Puerto Rican chef Natalia Vallejo — the first time in history that a chef from Puerto Rico has ever won the award.

“She won, and I lost it. The fact that I was able to share that and be part of that moment in history was ridiculous. I had mascara down my face.”

Carlo is most nostalgic about the time she spent with another female Puerto Rican chef, Giovanna Huyke, whom she took as her date to the 2020 James Beard ceremony. 

“With everything going on in the world at the time, the foundation experienced a huge shift in priorities, and they did an award show based on stories of resilience instead of the traditional awards. They asked me to present and talk about a mentorship program with young chefs that I was a part of.” She continues, “I was able to take a guest, and I took Giovanna Huyke— the Julia Child of Puerto Rican cooking — as my date. It was her dream, and she’d never been to a ceremony, even though she was the very first Puerto Rican to light a fire at the James Beard House.”

She goes on to recount Huyke’s storied life and the many times she’s overcome adversity, mostly due to her gender. She points out the “shelf life” that the aforementioned chef and many talented others face when they have babies, struggling to balance the grueling hours of professional kitchens with motherhood. From being one of the first women in Puerto Rico to work a restaurant line in the kitchen to being a head chef and owning her own restaurant, hosting her own TV show, and moving to the States to open two more award-winning restaurants, it’s clear that Huyke’s story serves as motivation for Carlo. 

“She’s teaching a whole new generation of Puerto Ricans about our history and our culinary arts. To me, she’s just an inspiration, you know? She’s reinvented herself like four times.”

Carlo knows a thing or two about reinvention. In 2010, she resigned from her lucrative position as a popular Seattle morning radio host to be more present in her family’s life and raise her then 2-year-old son, Danger. 

“I came home one day, and my son was calling the nanny ‘mommy,’” she recounts. “I left my job, where  I was signed to a half-a-million dollar contract, and became a stay-at-home mom.”

Shortly after her decision to resign, Carlo discovered an online dating profile that her husband had left open on her computer. When she filed for divorce shortly thereafter, she also found out that he had gambled away her savings. Attorney’s fees quickly added up, as did hospital bills over the next several months to treat her son for MRSA, a potentially deadly and antibiotic-resistant skin infection. Carlo sold nearly everything she owned to pay her bills, with the exception of a bed, chair, desk, and TV. Out of employment and out of options, Carlo and Danger relocated to a 400-square-foot apartment in Los Angeles to take the only opportunity she could find — selling ads for a podcast. 

“I moved, and the gig lasted all of two weeks. So I’m in L.A. with no job, no rent money, freaking out when my neighbor tells me that if I audition for a reality show and get on camera, they have to give me 50 dollars,” she says. “We did a search on a reality show website around midnight, and MasterChef came up. The audition was for that morning at 9 a.m.”

Carlo showed up to the audition with three small apple pies she had just recently baked — a recipe she had perfected over the previous several months. Chopping apples became somewhat of a therapeutic release for Carlo. 

“I called them angry little apple pies,” she says. 

She toted those pies — filled with anger, determination, and hope — to the audition in a diaper box with a dog leash strung through the perforated handles. She knew nothing of professional cooking and surmises that she made it through the first meeting with the casting team because they thought she might be good for a laugh. 

But on her second audition for Gordon Ramsay himself, she didn’t make a dish filled with anger. She brought him pastelón — a traditional Puerto Rican lasagna made with plantains. Carlo explains that she wanted to bring the Michelin-star chef a dish that exemplified her very being — for him to taste the flavors of her culture that made her who she is. 

That year, 15,000 people auditioned for MasterChef, and just 18 made it through to compete on the show — Carlo becoming the first Puerto Rican woman to compete in the MasterChef kitchen. A $250,000 grand prize awaited the winner, and she had her work cut out for her. The underdog from the start, she studied cookbooks during breaks in her shooting schedule and late into the night while other contestants partied or slept. She continually surprised judges with her combination of hard work and natural talent and won over audiences with her vulnerability and ability to overcome challenges.

“I set fire to the MasterChef kitchen three times!” she exclaimed. 

Carlo was the fourteenth contestant to be eliminated from the kitchen that season, placing her among the top five finishers. When she left the show, she had a job offer waiting for her in Phoenix as the star of her own morning show on My 103.9. She kept the gig for about a year, all the while feeling as though she was missing her calling. She relocated back to Los Angeles and hustled to hold down multiple part-time jobs working in some of the city’s best kitchens. She filled in the gaps by waiting tables to keep enough money in her account to provide for her and five-year-old Danger. 

She secured a talent manager and auditioned between work shifts, eventually landing her own show on FYI network called Make My Food Famous. She worked with Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company to host a web series about baby food and created the recipes for the series, as well. Five years after appearing on MasterChef, Carlo appeared alongside super chefs Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis, and Robert Irvine as a guest judge on Food Network Star. Slowly but surely, additional opportunities began rolling in.

Getting back to what she’s working on now, Carlo touches on the prejudices that women still face within the restaurant and hospitality industries. She notes that although women have made some headway, the tradition of women running kitchens at home and men running kitchens professionally hasn’t gone away. 

“We’re still in transition and fighting for equal rights, especially in male-dominated fields. A lot of male chefs talk about cooking with their grandmothers and mothers and what a big influence that was for them but often don’t hire women to work in their kitchens,” she says. “I’m hoping to help create a world where the young ladies coming up now will not have to deal with some of the things that we’ve dealt with, you know?”

Unfortunately, this type of gender bias isn’t limited to kitchens run by other chefs. 

“Even though I’ve done all these things in my life, people sometimes still don’t treat me like I deserve to be in a kitchen. I run my own line when I appear at food festivals and cook dishes for hundreds of people at a time, yet people often assume that the guy helping me prep the dish is the chef — and I have to tell them that it’s my food he’s making.”

Although she’s got a jam-packed schedule, Carlo also finds time to create social media content that teaches her followers how to avoid food waste by making the most of the ingredients in their kitchens.

“I think about how I can use my skill set to create a better world for Danger. I know I’m not gonna cure cancer, but I can show people how to run a greener kitchen, you know? Food waste is a really big problem when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.”

Her videos to #savethefood have racked up millions of views across multiple platforms and are occasionally peppered with laughter, love, and silly banter between her and Danger, who often serves as her cameraman. 

“People throw out that last little bit of ice cream because it’s got freezer burn, but you can make a beautiful cake out of it,” she notes.

Carlo believes that her goal for a greener future not only relies on reducing food waste but often starts with people getting back into the kitchen. 

“I’m showing people how to do simple, delicious meals with one minute of cooking time where you don’t have to labor over a stove and you don’t have to rely on food delivery. The packaging alone for all of these delivery services is terrible for the planet,” she says. “I get it, sometimes we’re all busy, and we just don’t have the energy — but with super simple recipes, we all have one minute. You know what I mean?”

The videos are gaining traction with Carlo’s majority following of busy moms who frequently leave comments on her feed, which she appreciates and finds satisfaction in.

“You know what I love about women? We are hardcore. I think about all that most women do in a day, you know? We’re resilient.” She continues, “I’m very proud of the fact that I’m a woman. Some of it has sucked, and the battle has been uphill — but I wouldn’t trade it.” 

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