Q&A with Chef Ronaldo Linares

Not only is NJ-based executive chef, Ronaldo Linares a reality TV star (Chopped; Chef Race) he’s also a former Marine and ranked mixed martial arts competitor, an endeavor that aids and influences his work in the kitchen.

Today, he is CEO of Ronaldo’s Cocina and executive chef of Martino’s Cuban Restaurant; Ronaldo blends his Latin-roots with his passion for food to create unique and tantalizing recipes that express his personal culinary style. His outgoing personality enables him to engage people on a personal level while sharing his love for cooking with them.

What or who inspired you to become a chef? Where did you study?
It’s going to sound cliché but I will have to say my mom, dad, and my childhood in Colombia inspired my love for food. I was very lucky to have those influences at an early age. I studied through life; everything that I have learned has been through my last 32 years in this world. As for where I got my formal training it was The Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, NY. There I learned to understand the art of cooking, the reasons why certain ingredients pair well with others. That education really helped me in to wanting to learn more and eventually find my food voice.

Tell us more about Ronaldo’s Cocina, what’s that all about?
Well Ronaldo’s Cocina is my baby, the idea came to me at one of my dinner parties and since everyone always ends up in my “COCINA” kitchen the idea came. It was a chance for me to introduce my Cuban Inspired Cuisine to the people as a private chef. My cuisine falls between my mother’s rustic dishes and my father’s refined cooking. Another part of Ronaldo’s Cocina is my motivational speaking, doing speaking engagements at RVCC.com and the Educational Opportunity Fund Program. I also work with HISPA.org, going to middle schools and providing mentorship to kids in inner city areas.

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Where does your creative and inspiration come from?
My creativity and inspiration has come from my life, from the first 9 years in Medellín, Colombia, my travels, conversations with chefs, trips to restaurants, and moments in life. I am big on making dishes that bring me back to important times in my life.

In your opinion, what misconceptions do people have coming into a chef position?
That is a tough question! Well to become a chef you have to put in a lot of hours in the kitchen, working the different stations in the kitchen, learning the “CHEF” language, putting in the hours, and constantly driving yourself to become better. I mention these things due to the fact that most people get caught up with the glamour of what they see on TV. Those chefs on TV have put in the hours to be there, it is not easy by any means but could be so rewarding when you add the “LOVE” into your work.

What changes in the restaurant industry have you noticed over the years whether good, bad or both?
Over the years Chefs are looking at food with another eye, an artist eye. They are creating some amazing dishes, doing a lot of fusion cooking, adding science into the mix, getting involved with the community, and most important farm to table cooking. We are really making it a must to not only support but also use farm fresh ingredients, grass fed beef, humanly raised pork, and naturally raised poultry. Another great thing that has happened in the past years allowing chefs to shine through the TV screen, this really gives them an opportunity to send their message across millions and be a form of inspiration to our youth.

What are some of your main ingredients you focus on in your Cuban-inspired dishes?
Love using sofritos, taking three ingredients to kick-start my dishes. For example taking Spanish onion, red pepper, and green pepper to make some rustic dishes. Roasting some garlic, then adding green onion, and cilantro stems for a nice soup. That’s why I love Cuban Inspired dishes it allows me to play across the board with amazing flavors.

You were a sergeant in the U.S Marine Corps where you served as a food service specialist. What did you learn from the experience?
Becoming a U.S Marine was one of my greatest decisions and achievements. The knowledge gained from those 4 years has helped become the person that I am today. The decision to become a cook was not a popular one with my parents, but it was part of my plan to shape my future. Knowing the discipline, work ethic, knowledge, and leadership that I would gain from making such a decision would help me in the years to come. Three things that I always carry in my back pocket are leadership, integrity, and knowledge always reminds me to stay on track to keep growing.

You also trained as a MMA fighter. Are you currently still active with MMA and how did the experience help you in the kitchen?
This has been a passion of mine for the last 5 years, I have fought a total of 5 times both in the cage and in the Muay Thai ring, resulting in a combined record of 4W-1L. I also compete in grappling tournaments such as (NAGA) North American Grappling Association and have won gold, silver, and bronze. The MMA gloves have been hung because I got to keep the face good looking and it would not be professional of me to show up on a set with bruises on my face, but I am currently training for a grappling tournament on April 20th in Morristown, NJ. The reason that I got involved in MMA was due to my anxiety; my therapist (which I no longer have) suggested I get involved in something else besides just being a chef. This was the best advice I have ever received in my life and it has also saved me a lot of money. It made me patient, physically fit, and more aware of what I was eating which cleaned my palate up. I would say MMA has played a part in my Cuban Inspired cuisine and passion infused lifestyle.

You’re motivated by people, which is a wonderful trait to have in this business. Do you conduct any cooking seminars, speaking engagements, or work with any local fundraisers?
Sí,Sí!!! I do a few things, one of the cooking seminars that I do is called Ingredients For Life. I go to a school and set up a cook along demo, then talk about my life, and relate both to my success. Speaking about my troubled youth, from my crazy teen years, the Marines, and my adult hood. A story that keeps on growing by each day that passes.

Have a favorite piece of cooking equipment you can’t live without? What do you look for in equipment before you purchase?
To answer the first question I would have to say my $4 peeler, I know not what you expected. The reason I chose such a tool, is because the one that I own is a gift from my wife. That is the first culinary gift anyone has ever given me, so it is a tool that you will find me often using and it pretty much closed the deal. At that moment I knew she was the one!!!

As for what I look at before purchasing any equipment, history of the product, pros, con’s, durability, and how would It fit in the functionality of my kitchen. Last but not least it has to look good as it stands next to the other equipment!

The restaurant industry has a broad range of foods, what’s your buying approach?
My buying approach is simple, fresh, farm to table, integrity in the product, and that it comes from a safe place. My menus play a big part in my purchases, where I source the foods, and trust has to be the most important aspect of buying.

You were a contestant on The Food Network’s “Chopped” and BBC America’s “Chef Race: US vs. UK”. How did you first get on the shows and what was the experience like? What did you bring away from the shows to help you as a restaurateur and executive chef?
Being a contestant on these shows has been very good to me, we are talking about two of the leading networks in television today. Getting on the shows was no easy task, auditions, applications, on tape interviews, making one dish that defines your culinary point of view with only a few hours notice was tricky. Being well prepared helped me a great deal to get through this. I always say, “Life should be adored and lived with all the love in the world. Live your life to be something amazing and as long as you give it your all, then you have done right in this world.”

Chopped gave me more confidence as a chef and really ensured me that my food voice is on the correct path. Being able to do what I did that day was one of the best feelings in my life. The only thing I would love to take back was overcooking the “Chicharron” pork skin. As for chef race I was able to travel across the states, cook amazing food, take apart a bison, meet the great people of America, and leave dashes of my Cuban Inspired cuisine across the states.

What bit of advice can you offer to young chefs just starting in this business?
Be patient guys and girls, you have the rest of your life to reach your goals. Learn as much as you can, ask questions, never say “I know”, respect the people in the kitchen, become friends with the dishwasher, and be bold with your food. Always strive to do better each day you unzip your knife bag, create your food with LOVE, and most importantly make a difference with your food. It is more powerful than you think.

Thank you guys for this opportunity and allowing me to share some of my story and hope this inspires some one out there. This coming from a 9-year-old Cuban/Colombian kid stepping out of a plane in the Miami Airport and not knowing what was to come.