Tatiana Rosana, 35, grew up as a picky eater until a delicious dare involving fried fish changed her mind. Still, she wasn’t sold on actually cooking food — in fact, the Florida native planned to become a doctor. After college graduation, though, she traded stethoscopes for skillets and enrolled in culinary school. Today, the Fort Point resident has appeared on “Chopped” and is executive chef at Para Maria at the Seaport’s Envoy Hotel. The restaurant is named for her grandmother, and she infuses the menu with Cuban-American childhood favorites (including fried fish).
Was there a formative experience that made you want to become a chef?
Starting out, I really didn’t think I wanted to go into the culinary industry at all. I was a really, really picky eater. I wasn’t experimental at all; I didn’t go out of the box.
I didn’t even eat seafood or anything. One day, my cousins had gone out fishing and brought back all this really gorgeous fish and fried it up. Then they actually dared me to take a bite, and I never say “no” to a dare. So I did take a bite, even though I was completely disgusted. I thought, “No, this is going to be the worst thing ever.”
After I ate this fresh piece of fried fish, something in my head just unlocked this understanding that food could be delicious. It was one of the best things I had ever had. And, from that day on, food really became a passion of mine. I always grew up around food, being Cuban-American, cooking with my grandmother, but I was still a very picky eater. It was that moment with the fried fish that really kind of changed everything for me. I must have been 11 or 12.
So you took a bite of fish and decided to become a chef?
I wanted to be a doctor. My father’s a dentist. I kind of wanted to follow in his footsteps, and I think being first-generation and the oldest daughter, you have a lot of this pressure to take one of those successful kind of career paths: doctor, lawyer, something in that regard. I really wanted to make my family proud. So I did start off school doing the whole pre-med route. Just two years into it, I just realized I was absolutely miserable. I had what I called my quarter-life crisis, and I called my dad. I was like: “I just can’t do this. This isn’t what makes me happy.” And his words to me were: “You’ll be good at what you put your head into, but you’ll be great at what you put your heart into.” And he just wanted me to follow my heart.
So I ended up switching majors. I got a bachelor’s degree in English and then went to culinary school. Once I graduated culinary school in Florida, I wanted a change of scenery. Florida is great, and my family’s all there. But it’s not very diverse in its food scene. New York was a little too large because I didn’t have any experience in the kitchen. So I kind of landed in Boston and knocked on doors. My resume was all doctors’ offices and shadowing surgeons and stuff like that. So I didn’t have any experience. Luckily for me, Mary Dumont, who was the chef of Harvest at the time, gave me a chance [as an intern] — and, ever since then, it’s been an amazing journey.
You went to culinary school, but you’d never worked in a restaurant before. What was that like?
Going to culinary school was very eye-opening. I already had a bachelor’s degree. I was actually a little bit older than a lot of the other kids going into culinary school. They were 17 or 18 years old, fresh out of high school. A lot of them had already been working in kitchens for a while. So I felt very behind the eight ball when it came to that. And it was terrifying. I had no clue what I was doing. In my mind, when you graduated culinary school, you were a chef, which was obviously not true.
However, I do feel like going to culinary school a little bit older and with a little bit more life experience gave me a leg up because I was so focused. I felt like I had to work 10 times harder than everybody else because I was already behind. I really kept my head down and kept my goals top of mind and wanted to make sure that I was making up for lost time. But it wasn’t until I worked in my first restaurant where I was like, “Oh my God, what did I get myself into? This is hard!” But the passion was always still there, and I think that’s really what drives me. I feel very fortunate to have worked with Mary because she’s such a good mentor and such a strong female chef in the industry.
What don’t people understand about culinary school?
There’s so many misperceptions about culinary school. If you know you want to be a cook, or a chef, or you know that this is the industry that you want to get into early on, culinary school is not necessary. It’s going to put you in debt. It’s very, very expensive. I think you get much more experience by just working in restaurants. But for me, because I didn’t have any experience, I felt like I had to get that base first. Culinary school is good for the base and the foundation. However, it’s absolutely not necessary. Just get your hands dirty. Start working in as many restaurants as you can, because that experience is really going to teach you more than a very expensive culinary school ever can.
I just finished reading the new, unauthorized biography of Anthony Bourdain, and I just watched “The Bear.” So, how brutal is kitchen life, really?
Even the best kitchens, even the most well-run kitchens, are hard. You’re working long hours within stressful environments, trying to provide the best food and service you can for hundreds of guests with different preferences, and on top of that, you’re working with fire and knives and perishable food and very expensive ingredients. So it is, a lot of times, how it seems on TV. “The Bear,” for me, was such a good depiction of what it is, and you’re trying so hard to be so perfect all the time for everyone, which is impossible. …
But, at the same time, you are cooking for so many people who have different preferences, and trying to juggle all of that while at the same time keeping your staff happy and keeping your labor costs low. The pressure does build. But it is hard, and it does get ugly sometimes. And I think mental health isn’t spoken about enough in the industry, and it does wear on you. I think my goal as a chef is to change that. My staff is my family. I see them more than I see my son a lot of times. So just trying to change that perspective in that kind of environment is a huge goal of mine.
What about being a chef appealed to you? Because it is hard, right?
Honestly, I didn’t realize how hard the field was going to be when I first got into it. I think that they don’t warn you enough in culinary school what the reality of it is. I was drawn to the food. I was drawn to my passion for ingredients and, you know, flavor and tasting, you know, and new flavor profiles and new cuisine. I didn’t realize what it would really be. So I feel like the draw for me was kind of an illusion.
That’s not to say that I don’t love what I do. I still have a huge passion for it. However, what initially drew me to the industry isn’t the reality of the industry, which is a little bit crazy. But I was drawn to just the food and growing up in a culture that embraces foods so much. And then I got into it. And I was like, well, it’s not really like that at all. You’re going to be working long hours and not seeing your family. But luckily, I still really love it.
Let’s talk about your family life. How do you work out a balance?
My wife and I have been married for almost 10 years now. And we have a 2½-year-old son named Arlo. And I think, before Arlo came around, it was much easier for us to work through my hours. And my wife is also in the industry, so she really understood what this life looks like.
Now that we have our son, it’s been a little bit more of a juggling act. And I’m lucky enough that, while she’s in the industry, she does work a 9-to-5 job as a food purveyor. So she’s able to be with him for that week to week, daily responsibilities. And then I’m normally off Sundays and Mondays, and I get to be with him on the weekends. And breakfast is a huge bonding time for us.
But I am not going to lie: It is really difficult to juggle it all. A lot of times I feel like I’m failing at being a mom when I’m at work, and I’m failing at being a boss when I’m at home, but it’s just trying to find that balance. I’m lucky to have a partner who does support me so much in everything that I do, and that makes everything easier.
What’s your advice to other women in this industry — or does gender matter anymore? Are these pressures gender-neutral?
I still definitely think there are factors specific to women or childbearing people in the industry. I can only speak for myself, but I feel like as a mother, we have so many societal pressures: to be the nurturing one that stays at home and who cooks dinner every night for the family. And that’s just not the reality of female chefs in the industry. I’m a mom, but I’m also a boss, and that’s as much a part of my identity as being a mom is, so I think it’s hard to kind of break through that guilt and people’s perspective of the kind of mother you are.
For example, I was six months pregnant the last time I went on “Chopped,” and everyone was like, “Why are you here? Why do you want to be on ‘Chopped’ when you’re six months pregnant?” And my answer was, you know, I want to prove that I can do both, that there are pregnant women out here rocking it and doing it really well. I want to represent for that. And even still, one of the judges asked me if I was going to go back to work after having Arlo. My answer was, “This is why I’m here, because you wouldn’t ask a man if they were going to go back to work after their child was born.”
The Seaport, as a neighborhood, is polarizing. People either think it’s great or that it’s bland steel. What role does the Seaport neighborhood play in Boston?
I think the Seaport kind of came in fast and furious, and kind of out of nowhere, and became this new cool place to be seen and go out for a night on the town. I’m not going to lie: I live three blocks away in Fort Point. I have a true bird’s eye view of everything that goes on around here. So I do think it’s polarizing. I do think people either love it or hate it. I truly like being here, because I think being so close to the water is amazing. Everything that I need is in this area. However, I do think there needs to be more diversity. I think that, while there are a lot of different restaurants in the area, I still think it’s not attracting enough diversity. I feel like, a lot of times, it does feel cold. And it’s concrete. And there’s not a whole lot of history. Part of what I wanted to do with Para Maria is bring that culture into the Seaport and bring a little bit of home and softness and warmth to something so concrete.
Tell me about your menu.
A new menu is dropping in the next few weeks. But, even the current menu, a lot of my dishes, while they’re not exact replicas of things that I grew up with, definitely have flavor profiles that are really ingrained in who I am and what my upbringing is, especially a lot of the citrus that I grew up with and the fresh avocados that grow in my grandmother’s backyard. I want to feature things like that, because they touch on my culture so much. As a chef, my goal is to create these flavor memories and hit on these nostalgic flavor profiles that people have and bring that out in the dishes, which has been really fun to do. I definitely like the mojo recipe, which is my grandfather’s. I grew up making this mojo with him for years. So just being able to dedicate that to him has been really fun.
You’re standing in front of an open refrigerator: What are you reaching for?
Oh my goodness. Well, if it’s in front of the cupboard, I’m definitely reaching for the Hot Cheetos. I like the spicy stuff. I love marinated olives; that’s a big snack of mine, straight from a jar. And anything pickled, I’m there for. But, I mean, the Hot Cheetos is probably my jam.
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.