Originally posted February 26, 2013. Revised May 2015.

What I love most about social media is the networking opportunities it has allowed me. Sites like Twitter and Facebook have enabled me to connect with some pretty amazing people–people I would’ve never had the chance to communicate or collaborate with otherwise. Just last month (via Twitter), I was introduced to someone I felt I had known for years. Within a few days, chef and restauranteur, Ronaldo Linares (@ronaldoscocina) and I exchanged Tweets and emails and bonded over our greatest loves in life: cooking, familia and teaching.

CEO of Ronaldo’s Cocina and executive chef of his family’s restaurant, Martino’s Cuban Restaurant in Somerville, New Jersey, Ronaldo grew up in a household of talented cooks. Both his Colombian mother and Cuban father have some serious skills in the kitchen that have undoubtedly remained strong in the Linares’ family! Ronaldo recently demonstrated his trademark “Cuban inspired, Latin infused” culinary skills on Food Network’s competitive cooking show Chopped and the BBC’s Chef’s Race: U.K. vs. U.S. You can find this charismatic chef and veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps cooking up some of his favorite dishes on his YouTube channel and in his community working with non-profits like Cooking Matters® and Hispanics Inspiring Students’ Performance and Achievement (HISPA). He took time out of his busy schedule to chat with us about cooking in his parents’ kitchen, his unique cooking style and how chefs are making a difference in the health of our nation’s communities.

For my first web interview on my blog, I’m honored to introduce my new amigo, Chef Ronaldo Linares.

CWNHola Ronaldo and thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day to be with us today! You come from a family of excellent cooks (an understatement!). Your mom loves to cook and your dad is a chef. What are some of your earliest memories in the kitchen?

RL: My pleasure. Anything for food! I was very lucky to have grown up around food, and that food being in Medellín,Colombia–making it all the better. Both my parents can throw-down in the kitchen–my mom more of that rustic, comfort-type food and my dad the more refined cuisine.  The earliest memory I have in the kitchen would have to be grinding (moliendo) the freshly boiled white corn to make the dough for arepas. Eating arepas anyway other than the way I had them as a kid, seems like a crime! I say my style (of cooking) falls somewhere between my parents': a rustic style while bringing refined flavors to the table and creating what I call “Cuban inspired cuisine.”

CWN: I think it’s so important to teach kids about the foods we eat and basic cooking skills. Unlike lots of kids today, you and I grew up in homes where we were welcomed into the kitchen and learned to cook from our parents. With a lack of nutrition and culinary education in public schools today, how do you think chefs can make a difference?  

RL:  There are few people who were lucky enough in their youth to be as involved in the kitchen as we were. Looking back, this helped me in my every day life and I think we need more of that especially seeing how not-so-health conscious the United States has become…but that tide is turning. It makes me so happy to see programs like Cooking Matters®, Chefs Move to SchoolsMicroGreens and Wellness in the Schools (to name a few) developed by people who care about our future and chefs are getting involved at a crazy pace. Chefs make a difference by sharing their expertise on food, ingredients and the health benefits that come with a proper eating regimen. If we (and I say “we” because it’s a mission of the people to get informed) bring all that knowledge from working long, hard hours in the kitchen into our schools, we can make those changes. Don’t just talk about it, be about it!

CWN: You spent the first part of your childhood in Colombia. What signature spices and seasonings from there make the flavor and style of your cooking unique from other Latin-inspired dishes?

RL: Loving the questions by the way…but let’s get back on track! Spending the first nine years of my life in Medellín, Colombia allowed me to experience the foods and culture that are imbedded in my DNA! Flavors of Colombia like el cumino (cumin), allspice and cinnamon are pretty much culture staples. Staples in Colombian cooking like one-pot dishes (sancochos) and desserts like the famous arros con leche, set the stage for what has become my style of cooking today. So what is Cuban inspired cuisine? The combination of my mother’s one-pot dishes that fuse a rustic approach to my dad’s refined style of cooking. I keep the “it’s all about flavor” approach in the forefront while presenting the food with an artist’s touch and adding worldly influences to it.

CWN: We’ve both worked with the (amazing!) Cooking Matters program, whose mission is to empower families with the knowledge and skills to prepare healthy, affordable meals. As a chef, what suggestions do have for people who are trying to prepare meals that are healthy, affordable and tasty?

RL: Cooking Matters® is a great program, for sure! Love working with the organization and the fulfillment that comes with it is priceless.  As a chef, I tell people it is simpler than they think to buy fresh, affordable food for the family. Be sure to:

  1. Shop in-season
  2. Avoid the name brand stuff
  3. Remember, fresh is always best
  4. Only buy what you need for the week
  5. Buy from your farmer’s market–it’s cheaper and better (quality)

Many people make the mistake of buying too much food then end up throwing most of it away which means wasted dollars. Great quote I once read, “If it has not gone bad seven days after you bought it, don’t buy it again.” (CWN note: most fresh, whole food would go bad in a week because real food rots!)

CWN: Ronaldo, where do you shop for groceries? Any favorite stores?

RL: While the harvest season is in full effect, I only buy from farmer’s markets in my area. Some are great for fruits, some for meats, others for vegetables, but the greatest benefit is supporting the (local) movement. As for the off-season, I love me some Wegmans

CWN: You have appeared on some of the most exciting competitive cooking shows including Food Network’s “Chopped” and BBC America’s “Chef’s Race U.K. vs. U.S.” What a thrill! What have you learned from these experiences?

RL: I was fortunate to be chosen for these shows. Amazing programming and life lessons definitely learned throughout this process. Wow! Being able to compete along side some amazing chefs gave me that extra pep-in-my-step. During this journey I was able to truly find my food voice…something so important to every chef–having that ability to “speak” through your food.

CWN: When my family gets together, we love to grill! When your family gets together, what’s cooking in the Linares’ kitchen?

RL: Love to grill–it’s so relaxing!!! What is it like? The only person cooking is me, from prep to plating. Picture this, 10 people in the kitchen watching me cook and picking my brain for food knowledge at every stir of the sancocho. Everyone is chatting away about life with a drink in hand and music in the background; I’m conducting the band, which in this case, is the food–la comida! To me, nothing is better than gathering family and friends in the cocina.

CWN: There’s nothing like a little family-friendly competition. So, I must ask, is there anything your mom or dad can cook that you haven’t quite yet mastered?

RL: Just to let you know, I’m smiling at this question! Let’s go to my mom on this one…I would have to say arepas have been my Achilles’ heel to this date. From the way Mami makes the dough to the way she shapes them is an art, and hopefully the day will come where I can master it!

CWN FYI:  Besides cheffing, Ronaldo is also a mixed martial artist and a great salsa dancer! Does this mean Dancing With The Stars is next on Ronaldo’s list? Who knows, but keep an eye out people because this Latino is on fire!

Ronaldo's Cocina

Images provided by Ronaldo Linares for Ronaldo’s Cocina LLC.