It was a rainy night just after a cold front rolled into our typically swampy hot part of the country, when I asked Reina to pop by for an interview. A few hours prior we had debated about cooking dinner before hand, and ultimately agreed on a menu that fit the evening. I was sent a list of ingredients to go pick up before she arrived. Now, being the type of person I am, I didn’t want to screw that order up. Everything she had requested on the list was sent back to her with a photograph making sure every brand, cut of meat, and quantity was to her liking. Luckily I was successful in my decision making, and couldn’t wait to see what she would create.
Confirming the correct seasoning // Black Cocoa Brownies with Kinder Bueno Bars and Sea Salt
I’ve known Reina for a little over 5 years now, and food has always been her number one passion. We would discuss dishes and recipes constantly, but a few years back she decided to take cooking to the next level. She started The Sofrito Project, a blog for her to celebrate her culture, share recipes, her thoughts on food, and other aspects of her life in the kitchen. After her site was established, she pushed herself even further, attending Culinary School and coming out a certified chef, though she doesn’t prefer that termonology as she’s now a private chef and not running a kitchen. Reina’s determination has always inspired us, and not just with pushing ourselves within The Midnight Society, but our every day lives.
Reina wearing our Midnight Rainbow T-Shirt in Maize Yellow
Having just finished devouring the butter sauce grilled porkchops with homemade yukon gold potatoes mashed with bacon, fresh cut green beans, and Sazon Goya seasoning in what can only be described as the most “welcome home” meal ever crafted in under an hour, we sat down with Reina to learn more about the drive to fulfill her passion, while of course consuming the Black Cocoa Brownies with Kinder Bueno Bars and Sea Salt she adapted earlier that day, while 2000s R&B plays in the background…
NATALIE: When did you start cooking?
Reina: Um, I started cooking when I was about 9-years-old. Mom and Dad were working and I had to feed my brother when we were home alone. First thing I learned how to make was scrambled eggs. Next up was rice; which is why I’m so good at making rice now. I’ve been making it all my life!
Now that you’re a private chef, what’s your favorite dish to cook?
I really enjoy making classic French food now that I’ve learned how to make it in school. But I try to stick with things I grew up eating and elevating those dishes.
Speaking of which, where did you grow up?
James Island, South Carolina. Born in Puerto Rico in Ceiba on a now defunct naval base. We actually moved around quite a bit. I lived in Rockville, Maryland until I was 6, and then we moved down to Charleston since my Dad got stationed here. When he got out of the Navy, it was either go back to Puerto Rico or stay in the states, so we stayed.
Did your parents ever cook for you when you grew up?
My mom did most of the cooking at home. Dad usually cooked when she was working but he did mostly grilling, I guess you could say, traditional “manly” meals. My mom taught me how to cook everything else though.
What was one of her signature dishes she used to always cook?
She loves making Bistec Encebollado, which is essentially Puerto Rican steak & onions. She would make it with rice, beans, and sweet plantains. It’s so good! I still can’t make it like she makes it. I’ve tried to make it all fancy, but her’s is always better. In fact she made it recently, and I literally stood over the stove and ate it with my hands after work one night. Haha! I didn’t even get a plate.
It’s so weird because it’s always stuff that’s so simple too. She makes these breakfast sandwiches that are absolutely amazing. I don’t even like to eat breakfast often, except for dinner, because I’m not much of a morning person. But I do when she makes them. And dunking them in coffee? The best. There are also certain things I’ll make that she likes better when I make them, like all of my pasta dishes. It’s always the Puerto Rican food she makes that’s better than mine.
Creamy Tomato and Sausage Pasta // Pasta Pomodoro
You put a lot of Puerto Rican influence in your dishes though.
I do. I try to make it to where I want people to learn about my cuisine and learn about my culture, but I don’t want them to feel alienated at the same time. I want them to feel like they could make food that they’re not familiar with and make them want to eat it. I don’t want people to be scared of cooking something that’s different and that they’re not comfortable making on their own at home. At the end of the day, cooking should be fun!
I think you do a good job of fusing the two together.
I would say it’s fusion. I figure something is gonna be Puerto Rican simply because I made it. Because I am Puerto Rican, you know, haha! The other day, I was asking my followers what are some new things they’d like to see me make, and a few suggested something along the lines of seeing more Puerto Rican food, and in my head, I was like, “that’s literally everything I make!” But you know, I try to be nice and approachable with them. The whole “you must be new here” line ran across my mind; which is why I re-shared a lot of my Puerto Rican recipes recently. I mean, I make rice and beans practically everyday, but I’m not going to share the same picture on each post.
Asian Beef Bowl, a play on a Korean dish called BulgogiHow do you deal with followers that say stuff like that to you? Because you as a person to me, are not going to back off or take any shit. I feel there’s so many people on the internet that you have to say “I just put that in the caption”. How do you deal with that mentally for yourself, but also for other people.
I honestly type out my response how I would say it in my Notes app, and then delete it. Because otherwise I don’t want to come off as rude to someone who is kind enough to follow me and support me in my work. I definitely don’t mind answering questions or helping someone who’s putting in the work though. But if you’re too lazy to read my caption, too lazy to go to my blog and follow a recipe, or simply too lazy to Google something, then you just don’t need to be following me. It’s that simple. Especially if it’s someone who’s being rude or nasty about it, or think that they’re entitled to my time? I block them. It’s hard enough being attached to my phone all the time, constantly consuming social media and balancing cooking, blogging, my job, my family, and my friends. I just don’t need that energy around me.
I know that you are also, and who isn’t into self-love and self-care these days, but I feel like you take it to a new level. Where you manifest these goals and these dreams for yourself, and I think that’s awesome. How does that incorporate into what you do with cooking and blogging.
Um, I think it plays a huge role in what I do in the kitchen. I feel like so much of what’s happened this past year, is because of what I’ve manifested. I try to honor that, my ancestors, and my culture by staying true to what I set out to do.
What would be an example of that?
Going to culinary school, for example. I was so miserable at my old job. I was a tech support specialist for a very large company, which was the complete opposite of what I do now. Customer facing, very intense, very stressful, and honestly? If I’m going to be stressed over what I do for a living, I would rather love it than not. I’ll be stressed in the kitchen all day before I’m stressed behind a desk. So, I decided to go to school and blog my journey along the way. I put all my energy into it and I did it.
That’s awesome, what was your favorite class?
I would say my cake decorating class was my favorite because I was so challenged by it. It was so difficult! I had to bake cakes from scratch, make all the icing and fillings from scratch, all of the writing, decorating, all the flowers, just everything. I don’t bake and it terrified me. I enjoyed it though because it terrified me and it pushed me to be a better cook. Because with baking, you don’t know if it’s going to be any good until it’s done. It’s very scientific and precise, you can’t just be like “OH! I’m just gonna throw some salt in here and see what happens.” No. You have to wait and if it doesn’t turn out any good you just have to start over.
Did you take a photo of your favorite cake?
Oh yea! I had to pipe all the flowers by hand and write out “Happy Birthday” on my final project. Decorating a square cake is much harder than you would think. Because getting those corners and using frosting, which is not a straight substance, you have to perfectly scrape it along all the edges. It was dope. I was so proud of how my flowers turned out. I saved the photos of all my cake work from class my Instagram story highlights.
Banana Cake with Walnut Mousse and Brown Sugar Swiss Meringue Buttercream // Strawberry Whipped Cream Torte
Did you eat it or give it to anyone?
Oh, I ate it. Haha! I took half of it to my job and everyone devoured it, and I kept the other half for myself.
Okay, so people who have trouble with manifesting their dreams and starting something new from scratch. I think there’s a lot of fear behind that, because that’s a big move. What would be your advice to those people?
I would say, as cliché as it sounds, just do it. What’s the worst that could happen? You’re in same situation you’re in now that you’re trying to get out of? Just do it. That’s all I can say, because it’s like, I wasn’t happy and I knew what I had to do to fix it. I’m very headstrong and resilient when it comes to a lot of things, and once I’ve made my mind up, I just have to do it. And once you get over that initial fear and do what you were set out to do? Everything else falls right into place.
Especially with culinary work, that’s a creative field. If you don’t have that drive you’ll get pushed to the side.
Exactly. You’ll get burnt out. It is a creative field, and it’s one of those things where I don’t want to be complacent, I don’t want to do the same thing every single day. I want to be creative and showcase my talents in different ways. That’s why I found that you have to be passionate about it, you just have to love it. And that’s with any kind of art or creative work.
One of my favorite scenarios I think about when going after your dream is “What kind of shit-sandwich are you gonna eat with the pickle.” Have you heard this analogy? The shit-sandwich is all the bullshit you have to put up with. Washing dishes, mopping the floor, but the pickle is the dessert part. Doing what you want to do and feeling rewarded.
That’s the perfect way to describe the culinary industry. Because guess what’s not the fun part? Doing the dishes, mopping the floors, scrubbing the sinks, cleaning out the walk-in cooler, being on your feet for 13 hours a day. It’s hard. And tiring. But making a dish from start to finish and having someone enjoy it? It’s all totally worth it.
All the bullshit aside, what’s your dream meal to make?
Fun fact: when you’re a professional cook, you mostly eat garbage when you get home because you don’t feel like cooking. I mostly eat cereal, some sautéed veggies, or stovetop popcorn. Now for other people? I love making roast chicken. I feel like it’s such a special thing and a labor of love. And I make damn good chicken.
Duck Fat Roasted Cornish Hens with Citrus & Herb Butter // Herb Roasted Chicken with Puerto Rican Rice & Beans and Salad
Okay, so I got to know you through Chris, because every Sunday during either Game of Thrones or WestWorld premieres we would get together and cook. What are your plans for the Game of Thrones premiere?
Oh, man! I want to do an epic roast. I’m in the process of planning out the menu now. Maybe a suckling pig or a huge porchetta. And a big spread with lots of sides and lots of wine. Always wine. Because for Game of Thrones, drinking and knowing things is the only way to go.