At the end of a wide and brightly lit, high-ceilinged conference center hallway inside the Hard Rock Hotel in Nuevo Vallarta, Claudia Sandoval, the Season Six winner of FOX-TV’s MasterChef, maintains a striking presence.
There is her signature red hair, of course, and a floral pattern dress that brightens up the otherwise nondescript, if bustling, concourse. But beyond that she is a bundle of energy, which—coupled with an always full-bodied laugh—is intoxicating and infectious.
We sit down in front of a large floor-to-ceiling window, a sunlit nook, where Sandoval, the only Latina to win the MasterChef competition, reveals that the win came with a great deal of responsibility. Waving a flag for Mexico to a mainstream nationwide audience (“Mexican food isn’t tacos, burritos, and enchiladas!”) forced her to appreciate the nuance of Mexican cuisine in the time since her season ended three years ago.
“When I was the one saying ‘This is the authentic way’ or ‘This is the traditional way,’ people would come up to me and say, ‘Well that’s not how my mom did it,’ or ‘It’s not how my grandma did it.’”
“I always give the example of Italy,” she says, the prepared response she uses for when critics and fans question her certainty. “In the north of Italy and the south of Italy you have completely different foods because they were based on what was available in those regions. If you’re in the south part of Italy you’re going to have lots of seafood, but if you’re in the north then you’ll have a lot more egg pastas and things like that. Mexico is very much that way. Latin food is very much that way.”
“When you look at every region,” she adds, “you start to see the variety of foods that were made traditionally and why they were made based on what was available, so yes, your grandma didn’t make it that way, but your grandma isn’t from the same region of Mexico as mine. So that’s something that I almost have to educate people on as well, because we forget that.”
The Puerto Vallarta tourism board brought Sandoval to this city for the annual Vallarta Nayarit Gastronómica, a five-day culinary event which on this day was filled with young people, school children on a field trip. A lady and a young girl politely step into the chef’s line of view to catch her attention, and the mother asks if she can take a photo with her child. Sandoval immediately rushes to step in between the two, flashes a quick, sharp smile, then warmly thanks them and returns to our conversation.
Motherhood played a significant role in providing Sandoval with a character-driven identity on the reality show and, by winning, she gained the freedom to become a family focused working professional. “If you watched my season, you remember I’m the Latina single mom who worked her butt off to get to where she was, you know? And that has not changed!” she says, erupting in laughter. “I’m still a single mom who’s working her butt off! The only difference now is that I can pick up my daughter from school every day.”
In addition to partnering with brands to develop recipes that either pair with or complement products like Coca-Cola, Target, and Disney, Sandoval announced exclusively to O&AN/O&APV that she’s working on her second cookbook, one that will regard culinary influences from multiple generations in her family history. And since early this year, she’s been a judge on the Telemundo TV show, “MasterChef Latino.”
The show has met with overwhelming success in viewership amongst both Spanish and English speakers and, as the only MasterChef winner to ever graduate to judgeship, it is allowing Sandoval to expand her reach in both markets.
“It’s very U.S.-driven and you see the diversity because America is a melting pot,” she says, “but when you talk Mexico it’s really all Mexicans. Dominican Republic, it’s all Dominican Republic. But Latino includes Peru and Mexico and on and on and that almost becomes more difficult [to evaluate the dishes], like how do you define which one is better than the other? You’re splitting hairs, and it’s very difficult. There are nuances between the different cultures that you have to be careful with.”
“It’s a dance and it’s one that I’m willing to tango right into. It’s amazing.”