Colombian chef brings culture, healthy eating to Legacy Project

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The Legacy Project continued its exploration of Latin America with a lecture from Chef Ronaldo Linares.

From young immigrant to media personality and chef, according to County College of Morris’ website, when Linares sets out to accomplish a goal, he infuses every ounce of energy in order to make it a success. On March 21, Linares shared his story hoping to inspire the next generation of students at CCM.

Born in Medellin, Colombia during the cartel wars of the 1980s as Pablo Escobar was rising into power.

“As most kids in America were waking up and walking to school and not worrying about anything my walk to school was a run,” Linares said. “We didn’t know if there was going to be a car bomb or shootings…We had this 8-foot-brick wall that surrounded the whole compound of our house. I felt like I was in a military base. The wall had metal spikes in the top and glass embedded in the cement to stop the bad guys from coming, the windows were covered with bars and we had three doors to get into the house.”

During Linares’ youth the sounds of shootings were not uncommon.  However, Linares and his family wanted to depart from this and ascended to Miami via Avianca airlines, taking an Amtrak to New Jersey in March. Linares said when coming to the U.S., he faced a familiar set of challenges.

“What I experienced in Colombia is something that we experience here which is the racism,” Linares said. “I don’t look Colombian. I look very white. So, since I didn’t look like the rest of the Colombian’s, I was excluded from them. I would try to change the way I was to fit in and it never worked… I got here in America, I experienced racism because I didn’t speak the English language right. I had a heavy accent and that started all the doubts in my head like what are we doing here.”

Pam Marcenaro, director of the Educational Opportunity Fund at CCM and member of the Legacy Project who grew up with Linares said despite the challenges, Linares became a successful person because of it.

“I think because we shared similar experiences as immigrants coming to a new country we certainly identified well with each other and in the process inspired one another,” Marcenaro said. “He started elementary school and I began middle school and at times you feel judged. But eventually, you learn your way and you learn to advocate for yourself, to stand up and showcase who you are and what you bring to the table… I think through Rolando you can see that someone that dealt with all of that, took it in stride and used it for his benefit to become a much better and successful person.”

Through talking with Marcenaro, Linares said he aspired to become a chef, run a restaurant and write a cookbook.

In an interview with NBC news Linares said he began the journey of becoming a chef in the Marine Corps.

“I went in as a private and got out a sergeant,” Linares said to NBC. “I made five ranks in four years and was awarded the Navy Achievement Medal and got other awards for being a leader…While I was there I cooked for 6,000 every day and I was good at it. I took additional college courses in food to focus and discipline me.”

Today Linares is the CEO and executive chef of his family’s restaurant Martino’s Cuban in Somerville, NJ as well as the author of “Sabores de Cuba: Diabetes friendly traditional and Nuevo Cubano cuisine,” according to his website.

At the Legacy Project, Linares said today diabetes is increasing in the Latino community.

“Latino’s are twice as likely to get diabetes,” Linares said. “If you are African-American, you are twice as likely to get diabetes as well. Non-Latino’s are good to go, but it is rising in the non-Latino’s because of our diet. Our western diet is full of dairy, milk, cheese, meat and very little veggie.”

Shelsey Vazquez, a liberal arts major at CCM said this statistic is not unexpected.

“I’m Puerto Rican and I have been raised with Latino food all my life,” Vazquez said. “So, to me, it was not surprising that this is a problem as both of my grandma’s have diabetes. I suppose I am more intrigued by how he can manage to make dishes that can still have a semblance to Latino food and still be edible for someone with diabetes.”

In Linares’ 200-page cookbook filled with 100 healthy Cuban inspired recipes, Linares said when it comes to the four desserts that are in the book he does not add sugar.

“I like apple pie,” Linares said. “So, I took an apple. I cored it. I added almond butter, cinnamon, pumpkin spice, nutmeg and whipped that up. Stuffed it, where I cored it and roasted it in a water bath. It’s even better because you have the apple roasted creating all of the natural sugars without the crust.”

Besides bringing food to the table, Linares also brought words of inspiration and advice to students, faculty and staff.  “Throughout my whole journey I feel like there is so much more I need to do,” Linares said. “My thing is yesterday was great. Make today better and make the next day even better through hard work.”


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