Homemade Podcast Episode 56: Home Cooking and Heritage With Byron Gomez and Maria Mazon from Top Chef Season 18

These top cheftestants credit their cooking to their roots.

composite image of chefs byron gomez and maria mazon
Photo: Allrecipes Illustration

Each season of Bravo's Top Chef takes the careers of 15 talented chefs to the next level, both through the challenges that test their technique and in the exposure that the popular cooking competition affords. On this week's episode of Homemade, host Sabrina Medora chats with two of season 18's brightest stars to get their advice for the everyday home cook.

First, Chef Byron Gomez discusses his Costa Rican upbringing, setting new goals for himself in the culinary world, and his ultimate comfort food. Then, Chef Maria Mazon joins Sabrina to talk about embracing her Mexican heritage on Top Chef, her obsession with carne asada, and how eating truly helps us time travel.

Listen to this episode of Homemade on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, PlayerFM, Amazon Music, and everywhere podcasts are available beginning Sept. 29.

About Byron Gomez

Chef Byron Gomez cooking in the kitchen with flaming pan on the stove
Courtesy Byron Gomez

Chef Byron Gomez traces his interest in cooking to his early childhood in Costa Rica. He immigrated to the United States when he was 8 years old and began working in restaurants as a teenager. After several years cooking on Long Island, he sought jobs under some of New York City's top chefs, like Daniel Boulud, Ronny Emborg, Gavin Kaysen, and Daniel Humm. He's currently the executive chef at 7908 Aspen. He competed in season 18 of Top Chef. Follow Chef Byron on Instagram.

About Maria Mazon

Maria Mazon smiling wearing an apron standing in a backyard space
Courtesy Maria Mazon

Born in Tuscon, Ariz., and raised in Sonora, Mexico, Chef Maria Mazon has dedicated her career to cooking the flavors of her two homes. A James Beard Award semi-finalist for Best Chef in the Southwest Region, she's the executive chef and owner of BOCA Tacos y Tequila in Tucson, where she lives with her wife and son. She competed in season 18 of Top Chef. Follow Chef Maria on Instagram.

Episode Transcript

SABRINA MEDORA: Hey food fans! I'm food writer and culinary entrepreneur Sabrina Medora and you're listening to Homemade by Allrecipes. Each week we bring you talented home cooks, authors, chefs, and celebrities to discuss the memories and traditions behind their favorite foods, along with discussions on what's happening in food culture today.

This week, we're chatting with Chefs Maria Mazon and Byron Gomez. They were cheftestants on this past season of Top Chef, and, I have to say, this entire season was completely unique. I mean, first of all, the show was shot in the middle of the pandemic, and so all of the cheftestants, and the guest judges, and the regular judges were in this little bubble. They had to just only form relationships with each other, they couldn't even go anywhere, they couldn't even shop for groceries in person — like we normally see those dashes to Whole Foods, we didn't get that, they were doing everything online. And so, with that came these really strong bonds that these cheftestants formed with each other. And so, when Chef Maria and Chef Byron each got eliminated very close to the finale, you see some real emotion there.

Chef Byron was born in Costa Rica, but then he migrated to the United States when he was just eight years old. His interest in the culinary arts actually started at a very young age, he always wanted to be a chef. So, after several years of cooking on Long Island, he ended up setting his sights on, where else? New York City. He set out with this mission to learn from some of the country's best. And he didn't just want to do that, he wanted to keep setting goals for himself and his career. He wanted to learn about various cultures through cuisines, he wanted to cook at one Michelin starred restaurant, two, three. And that's exactly what he did. I mean, this guy has trained under culinary luminaries like Daniel Boulud, Gavin Kaysen — he even worked at Eleven Madison Park, which not only has three Michelin stars but in 2017 it was also ranked number one on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. So talk about setting and hitting those goals. He's done an amazing job so far and he's only just getting started. I'm so excited to have him on today, so everybody please welcome Chef Byron Gomez.

How are you doing?

BYRON GOMEZ: I'm doing good. Yeah, keeping busy, can't complain.

SABRINA: Yeah. Last time I saw you, we were together in San Diego.

BYRON: Yes.

SABRINA: For an amazing event. We brought Restaurant Wars to life except we just did the winning restaurant.

BYRON: Yeah, that was pretty magical. It was so great to meet you and just be part of it. And just how everything rolled out was really, really amazing.

SABRINA: You guys were so like — like forget Cloud 9. It was like Cloud 19, all of you. And what I loved was seeing you with your family. Your sister is such a sweetie.

BYRON: Yeah, you know, throughout my career, they couldn't have three Michelin star meals like everyday type of thing. So — the fact that I think this is even bigger, you know, the fact that I made it to television and the fact that she was able to experience a Restaurant Wars, like, menu, that was the icing on the cake.

SABRINA: That was really magical. I loved being able to see the families coming together and supporting you all. And it really does feel full circle in a little bit of a way.

BYRON: Yeah, it definitely does. I mean, in this industry, you kind of deprive yourself from all those normalities that — sometimes you kind of become numb to it and it just becomes like normal routine. So to be able to experience and have them sit down and enjoy the fruits of your labor is very rewarding, for me at least.

SABRINA: Yeah. A lot of the general public I've noticed doesn't really know what it's like to have that lifestyle as a chef. But really, when you sign up to work in restaurants, you're sort of signing your life away. You don't get to have those family celebrations. You don't get to be there for those moments. And on top of that, it's this extreme physical and mental labor.

BYRON: You know, there's this thing that I always say. Especially now where I'm at is like 'everybody sees the glory, but they don't know the story.' You know?

SABRINA: I love that.

BYRON: It's hard. You know, it's very hard. And like I said, you have to kind of detach yourself from a lot of feelings, emotions, and things like that. So it's up to the individual, how far they want to take it. But I think the industry is changing a little bit, which is great. There's more awareness for mental health, physical health, meditation, so on and so forth. And for me, I'm focusing more on that, on more things to help me cope with my career and everything that's going on.

SABRINA: It's so funny because we talk to guests on this podcast about how for home cooks cooking can be such an act of self-care. But for professional cooks, we have to really push self-care in the middle of cooking.

BYRON: Yeah, nailed it.

SABRINA: So I love that what you said the story behind the glory, so to speak. And that's really what I'm here to, like, coax out of you is that story. So you were born in Costa Rica. Tell me a little bit about your childhood. Where did you grow up and how did you get into this love of cooking?

BYRON: It's funny because right now I'm in the process of getting the first sketches to write my book. And I'm very fresh in this sense of, like, the first early years of what Byron's life has been like. Growing up, my parents, they were great cooks. And I remember on Sunday, specifically, my household was like the place to be; where all my cousins, and uncles, and aunts used to go and hang out. And the gentleman would be watching the local soccer league in the living room. And then the ladies will be in the kitchen just like yapping away, cooking, laughing, and then the little cousins will be, like, running around all over the backyard and whatnot. But I was centered in like three different worlds, I would say. You know, I would look at my cousins and I want to play with them, but then I would look at how the grown-ups, the guys, used to kind of hang out and drink beers and watch soccer. And I was like, 'OK, well, that's maybe what it is to be a man.' And then all the ladies in the kitchen, congregating and just kind of having a great time. And I always drew more towards that, I guess, the smiles and the laughter and them working with their hands. And, like, they acted like they never seen each other for years. They just saw each other like the week before, you know? All the neighborhood gossip. So I felt like there was, like, a lot of warmth, culture. There was more of a focal point in the kitchen for me. So when I came to the U.S. from Costa Rica, I got deprived from all of that. So that family cell that I knew that was warm, that was comforting. I got stripped away from that. And my immediate family, you know, I grew up with my sisters and both of my parents on Long Island. And we would try to replicate that. My parents love to host people. So through the church groups and through friends, we would always have people, very constantly in our household. But it still wasn't the same.

SABRINA: I love that. You know as a fellow immigrant, it is interesting how you trade your one life for another. You come to this new country, you lose your sense of community, you lose your sense of self, and you have to build it back up.

BYRON: That's very prominent in immigrant communities. You know, they arrive to this country and they build these communities where there is one, two, three blocks. And they have their shops. They have the little cafes. They have their cultural gatherings or meals. And that's what makes them feel at home. But one thing I've realized is that sometimes that hinders you a lot from growing because if you step away from what the box that out of protection and out of survival mode, that these generations or these families have built, you are an outsider and you're taking a gamble. And sometimes they don't look at you the right way. And why are you going against the grain type of thing? We're supposed to stick together. So as important as it is to feel that connection to who you are and the people that you are around with or about, a lot of people in these communities don't move forward, don't progress because of the fear of failure, because of being scared to be exposed. And I was totally the opposite. I was like, 'no, I'm going to go out there and make something out of myself and we'll see where this goes. Just roll the dice, see where he lands.' And I don't think I'm in a bad spot thus far.

SABRINA: You landed pretty solidly on your feet if I do say so myself. It just sounds like you can't have those experiences if you're not willing to take the risks.

BYRON: Yeah, that's very true. I sometimes don't think about that because you get caught up in the everyday thing and push, push, push. But those are the rewards that I think are well deserved, for all the hard work that anyone can put into their lives or their career or whatever they want to focus on.

SABRINA: Right. In today's day and age, there's a hefty blowback on fine dining in general from the, sort of, brigade mentality of how the chefs are being brought up, the kitchen culture. What is your perspective on things that you think fine dining can leave in the past and things that we can really embrace about fine dining moving forward? Because I don't want people to ever feel — and maybe this is me getting on my soapbox — I don't ever want people to feel like I don't want to go — like, it's a waste to spend three hundred X-dollars on a meal, it's OK to treat yourself. It's OK to have that bells and whistles experience. And there is much to admire from it. But I want to hear from you, as someone who's been in the kitchen. Tell me what we should be leaving behind and what we should be moving forward and embracing.

BYRON: I mean, let's take the recent, I don't know, 12 months. What was Michelin last year? It wasn't anything passed a to-go box with a carry, you know, take out. What defines the best meal in the world? What defines a one-star, two-star, three-star? Is it your silverware, by the time you get to three-star? Is that going to taste different? The food? I mean, if my piece of silverware is kind of throwing smoke and, you know, then that's, like, gimmicky and OK, I'll give you that. Not taking any credibility from the chefs, or anyone, any restaurant, and any hard work, but I think people are starting to realize that being comfortable going out to eat, loving yourself, feeling how you're looking, whether it's a cocktail dress or whether it's a button-down, however you want to go, there shouldn't be a box where things fit in here.

The other side, chefs and cooks, I'm one myself, you know, I did it all. I could literally say I did it all when he came to the Michelin world, now my culture here in the restaurant is more, 'hey, you committed a mistake. We're going to learn from it. I'm not going to bash you and yell at you and all this, because we learn from our mistakes.' And someone didn't give me that shot one day, I want to give it to someone else just to better the handoff to a next generation of young cooks. So I don't think having a $300 meal at a white tablecloth is any different than hanging out with your friends. It's all what you wanted it to be.

And a lot of cooks are straying away from the three-star Michelin restaurants, and they're rolling up their sleeves. And they're wearing, like, dishwashing shirts with hats and doing some amazing meals, doing some really, really great food. So I think that veil is being ripped off and people are pushing out of those boundaries and all of those boxes. And it's the next movement. We have to be more self-conscious of eating in the sense of like, 'hey, I don't want a perfect squash squared away. And if it's not perfect, it's going to go to the garbage.' Like you can't control Mother Nature, you know, so sometimes being so perfect, we are hurting ourselves more than doing any good.

SABRINA: Right, it's not about perfection, it's about passion. It's about expertise.

BYRON: It is. And sometimes it gets caught up because, I felt at a point, that if I didn't work at a Michelin restaurant, I wasn't worth anything. There was no meaning to my life. And you just become so engulfed in that that you lose the passion and then eventually that takes a toll on you, and you lose yourself and the real message of what it is supposed to be like.

SABRINA: That's so powerful, and I think that's something so great for our listeners and our audience to hear because there's so much pressure that home cooks put on themselves like, 'oh, I'm going to do this recipe, but it has to be perfect. I have to please my family. I have to please myself.' But you know what? Even if you're like one of the best cooks in the world, sometimes you're just going to burn the chicken. And that's OK.

BYRON: Yes. Yes. I mean, when I cook at home, it's, like, therapeutic for me, because I don't have to think about a million things. I have a glass of wine or some whiskey. I can take all the time that I want. I turn on the stove, put it on low, watch a few episodes of something, go back. So people shouldn't think about it like that. People should think about it in the approach of like, 'hey, it's going to take me about five to six times to perfect this recipe,' because one of the biggest things that I see with home cooks, they start reading the recipe and then they start kind of — 'OK. So I need to get two things of cilantro.' They get the cilantro. They add in — no measure everything out, like set yourself up. It's reading the recipe two or three times to see if you understand it. Then gather all the ingredients and measure them and have them lined up in front of you, wherever it is, and then go back to the recipe. And as you're cooking it, you're seeing where to add certain things and then you're looking at timing. I understand, like, this process could be overwhelming because they're hungry and they want to get the end result and they want it to look like the picture, but forget that. Like, just start building the building blocks, feel comfortable, because once you succeed at that, it's just heating up stuff to a certain temperature and turning it and putting it on a plate. The hardest part is the beginning. The end part? That's easy.

SABRINA: So literally, like, the biggest secret to chef life is, you're just heating it up. That's it. Just heating it up. No big deal.

BYRON: I've just done it for a long time for many things. So.

SABRINA: Secrets on how to win Top Chef. The end. No, but, like, seriously, I'm a self-taught home cook. One hundred percent.

BYRON: Amazing.

SABRINA: And like when I say I'm a recipe developer like God, that took me a long time to, like, have the patience to figure that out.

BYRON: Yes. Yeah.

SABRINA: But I can't tell you even today, like, I would say as early as this week, if I'm hungry and I know I'm about to cook from a recipe, the lack of patience that I have with recipes. I will, like, skim it and be like, oh, OK, so mushrooms. And then you throw that. Let me just do this, this, this to make it easier. And then Byron, it takes me an hour longer because I have messed up in some phenomenal way or it tastes like hell and then I got to restart. The biggest lesson someone can learn in the kitchen is a little faith and a little patience.

BYRON: Yeah that's it. That's all it takes, and I mean in the world that we live now, you know, we want results like right now. And cooking, it's not like that. That's why, like, good chefs do it for a long time because it's passionate. It's like making love and you can't go in there and, you know — take it easy. You know, you've got to read the language. You're using your five senses. It's a task that you are using your five senses. You're hearing how the sizzle is going. OK, I got to turn on the heat. You're smelling the aromas. You're seeing how everything is getting mixed. You're touching the textures. You're tasting. It's something so beautiful that we got to take our time. But if you're really hungry, don't do a recipe you've never done. Go back to your portfolio in your head to be like, 'hey, I'm really hungry. I know this takes me 40 minutes. This is what I'm going to make.' Otherwise, you become more frustrated and then people lose the interest of cooking and then be like, 'I hate cooking' or 'it's not my thing.' It really is, because it's an expression of what you have to offer and whether it's in music, in art, in painting, sculpture, culinary arts. That offering from a human being, from the inside to another human being is, like, the best reward ever. And if you're able to perfect that and get better at it and keep on repeating it and express it? It's something that's going to be so rewarding that you're going to be like, 'I can't wait to cook Sunday night for whoever,' and it's just very beautiful for me. I mean, it draws a smile to my face and that's why I do it for a living. That's my life.

SABRINA: You are making it sound so sensuous. I have, like, this big grin and I'm blushing right now. You had mentioned that cooking at home is like therapy for you. What are some of your favorite go-to comfort food or quick, like, one and done, like, Byron specials?

BYRON: If I had one meal that I could eat for the rest of my life? It would be fresh-made white rice, chopped-up scallions, and ginger. Two fried eggs and a little dash of soy sauce. That will be my comfort, go-to meal, it's so rich. It has texture. It's fresh. Rice, to me, is comfort. Rice is life. Many cultures eat it around the world so they could have a familiarity with it. But at home, I try to keep it simple. Honestly, I try to like, start with fish. So I do like a ceviche. I have this one sauce, it's really simple. It's like one clove of garlic, one shallot, cut in half. So you use half of shallot. You throw one whole avocado in there, a little bit of oil, some lime juice, and just kind of blitz it in the Vitamix. And it just comes out this nice, almost like guacamole, but more like a ganache texture because it has the richness of the avocado. That with either chips or like ceviche. That's amazing. Everybody always loves it because I try to keep it a little bit different. You know, when you're hosting people or you go to a dinner party, most things are going to be a charcuterie plate and a cheese board or a crudité. Great. That's amazing. Why not do a dip? Why not do something different? And that's where the challenge for home cooks. It's hard to think about that stuff. There's a few cookbooks — one of my favorite authors and one of my favorite chefs that I always recommend to home cooks is Yotam Ottolenghi. And his recipes are very user-friendly. They're directed for vegans, for vegetarians, for people with diabetes, for people that just want to make something different. When you look at the pictures and the ideas, you're like, 'oh, wow, why didn't I think of that? It's so simple.' But you're always used to the norm because it's kind of hard to learn from stepping out of the box and your repertoire that you're good at. Just, kind of like, push yourself a little bit. And then if that's the one part of the meal that is really challenging, get a roast, get a whole roast, get a whole chicken, you know, it's set it and forget it. You put a timer and then you could focus on, like, getting better at another aspect of it, whether it's the sides, whether it's the appetizers, things like that. So always kind of look at what you're comfortable with, what you can set aside, set it and forget it, and try to better another recipe with something else that you're not familiar with.

SABRINA: I love that. I love this avocado, like, blend drizzle...

BYRON: Yeah.

SABRINA: It's so easy.

BYRON: It's good. It's so easy.

SABRINA: It's a little oil, a little shallot, some garlic, and a whole avocado and you just blitz it. And a little salt and pepper to taste.

BYRON: Yeah. Use cilantro also. Like the cilantro stems?

SABRINA: OK.

BYRON: I love them because on stews and braises, they give so much flavor and most people throw them out. But also if you're going to puree it, it's where, like, most of the flavor is. So, it's my go-to. I always have cilantro stems laying around the kitchen.

SABRINA: That's awesome. And yeah, I love how you said, like, just focus on one thing because, you know, sometimes I like to host little breakfasts or brunches with people at my house

BYRON: You're brave.

SABRINA: And, you know, part of me wants to like bake the biscuits and then I want to make my own quiche, and then I want to do this, and then I sit back and I'm like 'get real, girl there's no reason why you need to do that.'

BYRON: What time are you waking up? At 4:00 in the morning?

SABRINA: I know, like, I'm not doing that. So, like, I'll go to the bakery and I'll get the brioche and I'll get a quiche. And then I really like to just take a mix of sweet and hot Italian sausage and just throw it on a really, like, ripping hot cast iron sort of pan.

BYRON: Yes.

SABRINA: And I just like char it so that it gets really tiny bites and really crispy.

BYRON: God, it sounds so good.

SABRINA: And then I'll put it over like watermelon or something.

BYRON: Yes, that sounds so...

SABRINA: And it's like that sweet, spicy, oily, fresh. And then that's my little contribution. And it's something that's a little different.

BYRON: Yeah.

SABRINA: And people are, 'oh this is, this is unique' and then I'm like, yeah. And here's the bakery where I got this quiche so you should go support them.

BYRON: Well that's exactly it. Break down a home-cooked meal into something, like, the chicken. That's your croissants. That is your quiche. You know, it's not going to fail. Set it and forget it type of thing. And then once your mind is out of that, then you have to focus on one thing. Instead of making three or four things. And then you make your watermelon with sausage. And it sounds amazing that I'm, like, drooling right now. I want to eat it just because you explain the searing of the sausage. And I'm like, oh, my God, it's like my favorite part.

SABRINA: Anything that's like crispy crunchy for me. Oh, and then you, like, add a little, like, of that natural fat from the sausage. Ooh. Just makes me happy.

BYRON: Yeah. You're speaking my language. I'm coming over for breakfast then.

SABRINA: OK, let me go get the brioche hold on. I'll be right back.

BYRON: I'll bring the watermelon.

SABRINA Oh yeah. Perfect. Perfect. Well, Byron, this was so fun. I loved getting the chance to chat with you and talk all things like home cooking, but learn a little more about your fine dining experience. Congratulations on the book. I can't wait to see what comes of that and everything else you're doing sounds amazing.

BYRON: Thank you so much.

SABRINA: And we can't wait to see what comes next.

BYRON: Yeah, it's been so much fun. It was so great hanging out and getting to meet you and now to have the privilege to do this podcast. I really, really appreciate it. And, the fact that I was able to tell my story, I love it. I love it. So thank you so much, Sabrina.

SABRINA: I love it. Next time when things are safer, party at my house.

BYRON: Oh, amazing. I'm coming over for breakfast. We know that already.

SABRINA: That was such an amazing conversation. Follow Chef Byron on Instagram at @chefbyrongomez, or visit ChefByronGomez.com for information about his work as an Executive Chef at 7908 Aspen in Colorado.

When we come back, Byron's fellow season 18 Top Chef competitor Maria Mazon visits to talk all things on simple cooking at home. We'll return, right after the break.

Welcome back to everyone. I'm Sabrina Medora and you're listening to Homemade from Allrecipes. Our next guest stole our hearts with her kindness and generosity, not to mention her incredible cooking on this past season of Top Chef. Her warm approach to hospitality earned her the coveted winning spot on this season's Restaurant Wars challenge.

She celebrates her Tuscan roots and Sonoran upbringing with every dish she makes, whether it's at her restaurant BOCA Tacos, a dish on Top Chef, or even a casual bite of comfort in her own home.

I had the incredible pleasure of meeting Chef Maria this summer where she cooked for an event I hosted in San Diego and our friendship has been such a joyful one ever since. Chef Maria has a lot cooking right now and I'm so happy to welcome her to Homemade.

Hi chef!

MARIA MAZON: Hello, hello.

SABRINA: How are you?

MARIA: I'm still kicking.

SABRINA: So Chef Maria Mazon, you were on season 18 of Top Chef, the most recent season. It was a crazy season because you guys were actually filming during the pandemic. So you were sequestered, everything was on a whole other level in terms of, like, shopping and serving, and cooking, in vacuums almost. And through all of this, you made it to the top five. So congratulations, that's a huge endeavor. And on top of that, you actually won the most coveted challenge, Restaurant Wars. Not only did your team win, but you, as an individual chef, were honored as basically the MVP of that particular challenge. The reason why the judges chose you was because they said not only was the food amazing, but it was your warmth. It was your hospitality. You kept saying during the episode, 'I want you to feel like you're having dinner at home with me.' Tell me a little bit more about that mentality of yours.

MARIA: That's the whole point of owning a restaurant. I earned my stripes different than the other chefs in the show, per se. I've never worked under anybody. I was thrown into the wolves with this concept of BOCA Tacos here in Tucson that I had a business partner — that didn't work. And when everything was said and done, I was left with a restaurant that was super in the red. And I'm like, 'OK if I'm going to make it work, I need to make it work.' At that point, all I knew how to do, it was me. Hey, welcome. I am the server. I am the cashier. I am the cook. I am everything. And that's how I became who I am now through going head first, not knowing what I was doing. And now 11 years later — yes, I'm on national television. But still, if you go to my restaurant, you will see me with a bus tub picking up plates because it's mine. It's my house. People are choosing to go to my restaurant. They're paying me money to go eat my food. The least I can do is to make them feel welcome. The least I can do is to prep the best bite of food. The least I can do is to make that hour memorable.

SABRINA: Now, I mean, hospitality is kind of something — yes, you can cultivate for sure, but it's also something you're really born with. It's something that you kind of have in your own home. So tell me a little bit about your family and the way that you grew up. You grew up in Sonora, Mexico, correct?

MARIA: I was born here in Tucson and we grew up in Navojoa, Sonora. It's the last city of the state of Sonora. So we have Arizona on top, Tucson and you go down south — Nogales. And then Nogales, Sonora. And then, you know — it's a seven hour drive from Tucson to Navojoa, Sonora. I grew up in a very typical Mexican family. My mom didn't work — was a stay-at-home mom. Dad worked. I'm the middle child. That explains a lot. In Mexico, we eat bigger lunches. It's vice versa here. Dinner is sacred among families. In Mexico it's lunch. The nanny that took care of my mom, lived at our house, as well. So I grew up with that warmth, as well. Not saying that my mother is not warm, but it's just you have that sense of togetherness. But my passion for food — I remember and if I close my eyes, talking to my nanny, she was making tortillas or chile colorado or certain things that I was always peeking. I've always been very nosy, in a good way. 'Metiche' in Spanish. I came to the United States, did high school, I went to a community college and school wasn't for me. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I have ADHD — I just could not. I worked at different places and then I started at a Mexican restaurant here in Tucson and one thing led to another, I opened my own catering company, my own restaurant, and now I'm talking to you fancy people.

SABRINA: Oh, me fancy. That's cute. You started talking about fresh tortillas and my mouth just started salivating. I had to mute my mic because I was like, oh, God. Tell me about those, like, food memories that you grew up with.

MARIA: It's funny because I'm about to open my own tortilla factory. I'm waiting for a couple of permits so I can give it a go.

SABRINA: You're going to ship them directly to my door as the test taster, right?

MARIA: I actually will deliver. I will knock and we can share food stories.

SABRINA: Love it.

MARIA: Food stories. In Mexico, we fix everything with a carne asada — a barbecue. Somebody is happy, somebody's birthday, it's carne asada, on the grill, charcoal, salsa, guacamole, tortillas — I remember, I was eight or nine years old, and I remember my father — I kid you not, standing in front of the grill like any guy. And told me, I'm going to make you a special tortilla. So he grabbed a corn tortilla and put it underneath the steak. So while the steak was bleeding juices and it was getting, like, a little bit burnt on the bottom. And that was my special Maria tortilla that I made a quesadilla with. And it was one of the best things, till this day, that I have ever tried. Something so simple as a corn tortilla, cheese, and the juices of the meat. And if I close my eyes, it takes me when I was eight years old. And that is what food is to me. Food brings people together. Food take you places. Food is the only thing in the world that can make you travel in time.

SABRINA: Oh, you're going to make me cry.

MARIA: Because — see, I'm a crybaby.

SABRINA: We're crying together. It's OK. This is a safe space.

MARIA: No, because it took me when I was seven years old when I had nothing but mommy and daddy and just the younger Maria. Now I'm 40. I have stress levels. I have white hair that I need to go get, you know, my hair done, and the kid, and the this. That moment. Food, alone, is the only thing in the world that can make you travel in time. For those five seconds, you're a kid again. I guarantee if you close your eyes and you see your grandmother or your mother and you tried an item of food it will take you there. And that's the power of food. And as chefs, food writers, food critics, we can do that.

SABRINA: I mean, we got into this business because, you know, food makes us so emotional. There's some people that eat to live. And for me, the idea of doing anything but living to eat is crazy because all I want is to be able to taste Sonora from your arms, so to speak. And have you transport me back to that moment where you were eight years old and you had your steak juice tortilla? I mean, it's so wonderful. When you were on Top Chef, you struggled a little bit with wanting to put your authentic Sonoran cuisine forward at the forefront of everything you did. And that's something that I find a lot of Top Chef contestants from other backgrounds tend to grapple with is how much of myself do I put on the plate? But I feel like you, by the end of it, were going so all in with your culture and everything just screamed Maria on a plate. How did that make you feel?

MARIA: At the beginning, I had fear. I remember I said to myself or one of the contestants, am I too Mexican? Like, seriously, am I too Mexican, because I cook Mexican cuisine with a Sonoran twist. Yes, but I am about the nuance I am about that, but I'm not going to wreck a hundred-year-old recipe to fulfill the nuance and the yada, yada, yada. Let's put it this way, the sesame mole that I made Shota. If a Mexican lady sees me putting soy sauce and bonito flakes will slap me with a spoon. At the beginning of the three or four episodes, I never heard anything, no feedback, no nothing. So I'm like, 'OK, well, what am I doing here?' I wanted to hear it. If it was going to grab me and destroy me at the end, it was going to make me a better cook. By the mid-competition, I went all in. I'm like, 'OK, let's do this. Wrap it up. Embrace it.' I put my parachute and I jumped and I glide with grace till the end.

SABRINA: You have the best metaphors, I just have to say.

MARIA: Thank you, that's how I live in my brain. I came to Top Chef to prove myself something. Me. My wife told me, you owe it to yourself. And I'm like, OK, cool. So I did. So I glide and glide. And like I said, look at me, I'm talking to you. I have friends in the states, all around the states. I can tell that now I know Padma and Tom. We're not buddies, yet. But that's the thing. I got to meet beautiful people in the process of my gliding.

SABRINA: So I want to come to your house, Chef Maria. I want you to throw me a dinner party, but I want you to tell me ahead of time what can I expect. What is this dinner party going to look like? And don't think of it as Chef Maria. Think of it as Maria.

MARIA: When I cook at home, there's no chef coat, no apron. You're in my backyard. It's my happy place. I'm going to invite you to a dinner party, not in August, not in September — Octoberbecause you will melt here in Arizona. I will be on the grill. Or I have a nice pizza oven outside. I'll be grilling some either roasting something or veggies. I'm very, like, family-style. So I'm going to put like a chunk of meat or big bird on the middle or fish and you're going to have like a thousand sides. Because nothing against the protein, but I'll take you to places with the sides. A nice salad, veggie soup, salsas — all that. You can grab a piece of chicken breast and have a barley avocado salad and then you have a salsa here, salsa there. That's how I cook. I do a lot of sides. One main protein and just sides.

SABRINA: What are some of your favorite sides? You mentioned a barley avocado, like, grain salad. What else?

MARIA: I love grains like barley, quinoa, like, we do a lot of rice here, like brown rice, white rice for my son, I love veggies. Like green beans. Give me green beans, toss it in a little chili oil. I'm good to go. I love — kid you not — I love onions.

SABRINA: Ok, yeah.

MARIA: Give me a good grilled onion, like...

SABRINA: Yes.

MARIA: Grab a piece of foil, put an onion there. A little bit of butter, salt, fresh cracked pepper, lemon, and drop it in the fire. Get it out an hour later and you will die.

SABRINA: Stop it. I'm doing that tonight. You put butter on your onions? You're my new favorite human.

MARIA: Yeah, it just a little bit like — grab a piece of foil, a white or yellow onion, peel it, put it in the middle, dollop of butter, a little bit of olive oil if you want, lemon or lime, salt, fresh cracked pepper, a little bit of garlic powder, close that foil very well and throw it in the coals or in the oven. An hour later, you will have heaven.

SABRINA: See, we always do that with garlic, like, you take a whole head of garlic, you chop the tops off and then you just roast it. Oh, to do that with onions. And what would you say? Like 350 in the oven for an hour?

MARIA: For a good 45 minutes to an hour. Do not get impatient.

SABRINA: OK.

MARIA: But you're going to have heaven. Lily, my wife, likes halloumi cheese a lot on the grill. A lot of either halloumi cheese or queso fresco on the grill, like, nice crust. Fish. We're a lot of fish people. Lily, weirdly enough, doesn't like cooked salmon, but she eats salmon nigiri like no other.

SABRINA: I can see that.

MARIA: I am, like, slowly but surely, introducing her again to grilled salmon, cooked salmon, but in a very different way so she can get over the texture of cooked salmon.

SABRINA: I can understand that because cooked salmon, to an extent, does feel a little heavy and sometimes oily.

MARIA: Yes.

SABRINA: It shouldn't be but it — but it can be. Whereas it — it's so bright and fresh in its raw form.

MARIA: Indeed. You know, what my guilty pleasure is? If I'm not going to cook dinner at home? It's the Mexican grilled chickens. Do you have those there?

SABRINA: Like a pollo asado? We get a lot of them.Yeah, we get those. I mean, I have two in my freezer right now. They just come ready-made.

MARIA: Yeah, but when you go buy it from their restaurant? The pollo asado and a nopalitos salsa. You know, cactus salsa?

SABRINA: Yep.

MARIA: I have avocado at home, and because I'm such a girl, I try to not eat tortillas during the week, so I do lettuce wrap and that is heaven.

SABRINA: OK. So your guilty pleasure is like a full-on restaurant meal. My guilty pleasure is chips dipped in yogurt with drizzled with hot honey.

MARIA: Chips?

SABRINA: Oh, yeah, OK, OK, OK. Ready for this? I'm going to blow everybody's minds right now. Sea salt and vinegar chips — Cape Cod, are you listening? You want to be a sponsor? And you take — you dip that in some Chobani Greek yogurt. Right?

MARIA: Yeah.

SABRINA: But then you have hot honey. And you just drizzle on the bite and then just pop it in. Oh, baby. Life-changing.

MARIA: OK, ok. I see you.

SABRINA: It's so good.

MARIA: Like you're talking about guilty, guilty pleasures.

SABRINA: Yes.

MARIA: It's literally — and you're going to laugh, and my wife cannot believe I'm going to say this, Pace salsa.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MARIA: Sea Salt. Tabasco in it. Lime and chips.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MARIA: Or a good ramen from the cup, like, from 7-Eleven.

SABRINA: From the cup.

MARIA: From the cup, you know, and I have to eat my ramen with pepper jack cheese and saltines.

SABRINA: OK, you've lost me a little bit. Do you melt the pepper jack?

MARIA: No, no, no, no. You heat up the water. Ramen, five minutes. Put it on a plate. Salt. I put lime on anything. And you have a block of cheese, you cut it, grab your saltine and cheese, spoon your ramen and then eat the combo.

SABRINA: Oh, my gosh. OK, so, listeners, I'm going to request you guys to try this, and then you have to write in your reviews whether you loved it or hated it.

MARIA: Please.

SABRINA: But then also share your guilty pleasure with us because, clearly, we love guilty pleasure food.

MARIA: We have a lot apparently.

SABRINA: We have a lot. You have no idea. So I'm Indian. I grew up in India, partially. And there's this thing called khatta meetha snack mix. And it comes in, like, a three-pound bag that I fully will buy and my mother is just like — just, like, doesn't even know what to say. But khatta means sour and meetha means sweet. And it's peanuts and chickpea flour like little disks and just like puffed rice. But it's all in a khatta meetha, sweet and sour, like, flavor. And it makes your mouth, like, pop.

MARIA: Yeah.

SABRINA: And so yesterday I took yogurt because obviously yogurt is the base for all of my guilty pleasures.

MARIA: Yes.

SABRINA: And I dumped the yogurt into a huge cup of diced watermelon. And then I added the khatta meetha mix on top and I mixed it all together until all of the crunchy was just a little bit getting a little soggy, but not too soggy. And I just eat it. And it was awesome.

MARIA: Wow. See? See? Yogurt is your jam then.

SABRINA: A little bit. I just feel like maybe it's healthier for me. So then I can have, like, a lot of the yogurt and then a little of the bad stuff and I feel really well balanced.

MARIA: Yeah. OK, ok, I get it. You do what I do. Ok, but I'm eating a salad and I'm going to eat a lot but it's a salad. But no, I get it. That's why we click. You and me, we're cut from the, you know, the same cloth.

SABRINA: Ok. So back to dinner parties at home. So clearly you love the grill. It's awesome to be cooking outdoors and especially when you're in Arizona, you can do that except for when it's, you know, hot as Hades. But tell our listeners, as a chef and then also as a mom, what are some things you do at home that when you're hosting other people, you keep it really simple for you?

MARIA: I mean, the dinner party, it's one of those things because in the kitchen, you don't have the help you have at the restaurant.

SABRINA: Right.

MARIA: Every dinner party that I throw. It's on the simple side of the menu planning. I don't stress about it because I do buy good product. So you let the product shine. And that's the whole point as a chef, when you're dealing with local farmers, from local butchers, from local everything, you know where the soil of whatever you grow how it's treated. So I do buy a lot of things for the restaurant and for home if I'm going to have a dinner party. I do think about what I'm going to order so I let the product do the 50 percent of the work. And I do the other 50. When you have good product, you should not stress.

SABRINA: Right. So you're saying invest a little more in what you're working with so that you don't have to do as much to it.

MARIA: And, I get it. Now, these days it's hard. I'm a mom. I am also a housewife. You need to make the dollars stretch. I get it. I am conscious of that. But as a mom or as a wife or as a human being, you MacGyver certain things with your money that you can get that good product.

SABRINA: And a great tip, you know, when you're shopping organic is think about the purpose of it. So for example, if I'm buying meat, I want to go organic because I don't want anything that's been injected or anything like that. But then when you talk about vegetables and fruits, if you're not going to eat the exterior of it, then, yeah, just buy the regular stuff. But if you're going to be eating, you know, the apples, carrots, tomatoes, then yes. Then you want to buy organic. But like the bananas, for example, the bananas have a nice hard skin that you're not going to be eating so you can buy regular bananas and not pay that $1.99 for the organic stuff. Right? You have to think about how those pesticides are being used.

MARIA: Yeah. And also a good tip and this is what I do for the restaurant as well. I go to farmers' markets. And if you're not going to eat the fruit or the vegetable super right away? Don't buy it. Sometimes I don't buy it till let's say today's Monday, I'm going to go to the grocery store after I'm done with you and I'm going to buy tonight's dinner. I, personally, don't buy, like, the whole week's worth of groceries, because we live such fast lives that I don't know if I'm going to be able to cook dinner tomorrow night. But if I know that the whole week we will be eating dinner at home, I rather buy by the day. Because you spend less. Believe it or not, you spend less because life happens and then you have the tomatoes sitting there, and then you have to throw them away and you spend X-amount of dollars.

SABRINA: So keep it simple. Keep the menu plan very simple. You like to have a star protein and then surround it with fun, easy sides. Would you say that it's easy to make some of those sides in advance, maybe like a day or two days earlier to the dinner party?

MARIA: Yeah, you know what? Like the quinoas, the barleys, the grains? I don't mind making them ahead of time. Even the rice, if you're going to do, like, a quick fried rice or anything like that. I tend to cut all my veggies and stuff and put them in Ziploc bags, they're a godsend. I just have a lot of them. So it doesn't take the stress away from the party. If you start prepping ahead, you will not be super tense the day of your dinner party. Have you seen those palm tree disposable plates?

SABRINA: No, but, you know, growing up in India we used to eat off of, like, actual banana leaves. Those would be our plates at all of our big fancy functions.

MARIA: Well, that's beautiful. This plates that I'm talking about they're made out of palm tree. They're super hearty. They're good for the environment. And you don't have to wash plates.

SABRINA: I love that tip. I'm actually hosting a dinner party tonight. And now I feel like going and buying those plates because who wants to do dishes at the end of the night?

MARIA: I personally don't. And then you, and then you get the guests, 'Oh you want me to help you?' You're like, no, you're in my house. Don't help me. You know, get a nightcap or whatever. Just chill.

SABRINA: OK, I'm going to wrap things up here by asking you some rapid fire questions.

MARIA: Ay, dios mio.

SABRINA: I love rapid fire. OK?

MARIA: OK.

SABRINA: Take a deep breath. Here we go. What's the one kitchen tool you can't live without?

MARIA: Blender.

SABRINA: What's the one spice you can't live without?

MARIA: Salt.

SABRINA: What's the one recipe you will never share?

MARIA: Oh. I don't know because I — ooh, my chipotle barbecue.

SABRINA: Never?

MARIA: Well, the restaurant knows. My kids know it. I don't know? I'm going to think of that one. When you own a restaurant, you give your recipes away, I mean, to your cooks. I don't know?

SABRINA: You're a giver. That's OK.

MARIA: No, you know what? I will share a recipe. I don't mind it because every hand is different.

SABRINA: Right. Right.

MARIA: So come on, I'm getting ready.

SABRINA: OK. OK. What is your favorite Sonoran dish?

MARIA: Carne asada.

SABRINA: And then last, and I saved this for last. What's the one piece of advice that you would give aspiring home chefs? Like people that are too intimidated to walk into that kitchen?

MARIA: I mean, don't — I mean, be scared. Yeah, but don't have fear. Being scared is one thing, fear to me is different. Just go for it, try little by little. Don't start cooking a seven-course meal. No. Start easy. Start slowly. Don't be afraid of trying new things. It might not work for, I don't know, John Smith, but it might work for Maria Mazon. So just be mindful of your surroundings. Be mindful of what you like. Be mindful of what your friends or family like. And little by little, you can make a five-star restaurant dinner with a couple of components. One main dish and a couple of side dishes that all together, holding hands, they're going to make one beautiful dinner party.

SABRINA: That's perfect. Thank you so much for your time. I can't thank you enough.

MARIA: No, thank you. Thank you. And you will see more of me. I promise.

SABRINA: Good. I look forward to that. And, obviously, I'm going to come knocking on your door for that dinner party.

MARIA: Please. I'm game. We can do a fancy dinner party here.

SABRINA: How cool was that, guys? You can follow Chef Maria Mazon on Instagram, at @chefmariajo, or if you're close to Tucson in Arizona just visit her restaurant BOCA Tacos, or go to bocatacos.com. Remember, you can also catch up with season 18 of Top Chef to see all of Chef Maria and Chef Byron's biggest moments on Hulu, Peacock, and Bravo.

Next week, we've got a really exciting guest for you. She's known as The Cake Mix Doctor and she's got A New Take on Cake for you. Literally — that's her new book. With over a dozen cookbooks under her belt and over 20 years of experience teaching cooking classes and consulting for different food brands, you really won't want to miss what Anne Byrn has to share.

ANNE BYRN: You know, bringing somebody a whole cake really says a lot, doesn't it? I mean, it's very celebratory. And that's what I've always loved about cakes. Even if they start with a cake mix, they're just so much more fun than a pie. It makes you want to celebrate. And whoever you share them with, it's an occasion.

SABRINA: Be sure to follow Homemade on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And hey we're always looking for feedback so if you love us and have a second, please rate this podcast and leave us a review.

Don't forget, you can find thousands of recipes, meal ideas, and cooking how-to's from the world's largest community of cooks at Allrecipes.com. And you can find me on Instagram at @sabrinamedora or at sabrinamedora.com.

This podcast was produced by AllRecipes with Digital Content Director Jason Burnett. Thanks to our production team of Rachael King, Matt Sav, Danielle Roth, Jim Hanke, Maya Kroth, and Andy Bosnak at Pod People.

This is Homemade, I'm Sabrina Medora, and remember: Cook with love, eat with joy.

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