This is the story of a young girl who knew by the time she turned seven what she wanted to be.
The odors of bitter orange, garlic, and mint marked unforgettable days in her grandmother’s house and later in the restaurant run by her aunt and mother. She was shaped by the family’s passion for the Nicaraguan cuisine, and there was no turning back: she’d become a chef.
She wanted to recreate those dishes and flavors of her country, and be able to watch customers enjoy a special atmosphere. She wanted to offer them a unique, engaging experience, it would be like performing magic for those people, she thought.
That little girl who grew up in Managua in the 90s would feel proud of her adult self today – a professional chef who, from one day to the next, was forced to begin all over again from nothing, and in the United States. A chef who was recently featured on US national television, in ABC’s program “The View”, crafting a delicious holiday stuffing whose recipe she learned from her grandmother.
“It’s good luck when you know from the time you’re little just what you want to be for the rest of your life. That way, no time is lost,” Adriana Robleto comments. A member of the family that founded the famous Nicaraguan restaurant Doña Haydee’s Kitchen, this young chef is now an immigrant, living in California.
Our interview with Adriana Robleto was first aired on November 6, as part of the Nicas Migrantes segment of the online television news show Esta Semana. Today, it can be viewed via YouTube.
It was 1996 when her aunt and her mother opened their restaurant. It quickly distinguished itself as a different and innovative project for the Nicaragua of that day. It wasn’t a small stall or diner specializing in fried foods, but a full-service restaurant with a complete menu of typical Nicaraguan dishes served in a welcoming and elegant atmosphere. There Adriana grew up, surrounded by the comings and goings of the kitchen staff and the dedicated customer service.
Seeing her family all involved in the world of gastronomy inspired the young girl to sell little pastries and other simple foods at her school. By 15, she was even serving some special orders. She enjoyed cooking so much that her parents sent her to summer school in the US, at Rhode Island University’s Culinary Arts School.
Adriana’s experience there only served to confirm what she already knew from the time she was little. “They offered different weekend courses in cooking, hotel management, business and pastries,” she recalls. “I spent four weekends there, and when I returned, I told my father: ‘I want to do it all!’”
There was no looking back. The young girl then had the opportunity to further her career at the Kendall College of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management of National Louis University in Chicago, Illinois. That city is considered one of the capitals of world cuisine, and there she met chefs of international standing and was able to learn from the best.
After completing her studies, Adriana stayed on to work with one of her professors in a Chicago restaurant. After a year there, she returned to Nicaragua to help her family as manager of kitchen operations at Doña Haydee’s restaurant.
She worked alongside her mother, her aunt, and her brother. Together they managed a group of restaurants that included Doña Haydee’s Kitchen, Mr. Lee, and Oriental King.
After several years working in this capacity, Adriana decided to start her own business. She wanted a place with a flexible and varied menu, utilizing fresh products and with a casual atmosphere. That’s how El Mercadito was born, a place that offered gourmet food, plus nights of tapas and cocktails.
Everything was going well, until the 2018 sociopolitical crisis. El Mercadito closed its doors, and Adriana had to leave Nicaragua on an instant’s notice.
Like so many Nicaraguan citizens, the young woman acted in solidarity with the demonstrators who poured out onto the streets in massive civic protests during what became known as the April rebellion. Protesters soon began suffering brutal repression from the government, the toll of which would end up being over 350 dead, thousands wounded, and hundreds jailed. Adriana’s involvement in the form of humanitarian assistance put her in danger amid the government’s growing violence. Her parents begged her to leave the country as a safety measure.
Beginning all over again in Los Angeles
Adriana Robleto arrived in California without having had time for a lot of thought. She knew she’d go to the United States but wasn’t sure what state or city to head for. A friend suggested Los Angeles, a city she’d been to on vacation four months previously. “Why not?” she said, and that’s how she landed on the West Coast.
She got a job at The Brixton, a fine foods pub in Santa Monica, one of California’s most exclusive, expensive and iconic coastal cities. She began as a hostess, but quickly distinguished herself by her experience. She shortly became the owner’s right-hand person.
At the pub, she was first elevated to the position of line cook, and later to executive chef and general manager. She recounts this as if it were an easy feat, but later clarifies that it was hard, and took time. Food service work is demanding, and she faced additional barriers due to her gender and national identity.
“The hardest thing is to prove to people that you’re good enough, especially when you tell them you’re from Nicaragua. ‘Where??’ they ask, and then you have to explain. Then they ask: ‘So what are you doing here?’ and ‘How did you get this job?’ That’s when I tell them that I’ve been doing this work all my life, and that I had a restaurant there in Nicaragua and left a whole life behind me,” she shares.
Leaving one life behind and beginning all over again from nothing was a steep challenge for this chef. She had to prove even to herself that she was capable of getting through the moments of greatest weakness.
“This industry is even more difficult for women. When I entered here, there were only men in the kitchen. It was hard to earn the respect of all the cooks,” she recalls.
And of course, it was painful to be so far away from the family she had worked so closely with for so long. “The first two years were very tough, because I didn’t know when I’d see them again. I still haven’t seen my brother,” she says in a sorrowful voice.
Pinto Foods, Nicaraguan dishes on delivery all over the United States
The idea for Pinto Foods was born over a decade ago, when Adriana was still at the university. It was a class project she was assigned to develop and present, and she wanted Nicaraguan food to be at the forefront of it. “I wanted to create something with Nicaraguan roots, with Nicaraguan flavors, but mixing them with other techniques and other ingredients, other seasonings,” she comments. The name is a reference to Nicaragua’s most typical staple dish – a mix of rice and beans known as gallo pinto.
In the odd way that crises can open opportunities, she was in her new country and right in the middle of the pandemic when Adriana decided to make real that class project. She began selling 20 pounds of holiday stuffing. Demand grew swiftly, and suddenly it was 200 pounds she had to prepare in the very little time left her after work.
Through Pinto Foods, Adriana now offers a menu of Nicaraguan dishes with home delivery all across the United States. She’s already cultivated a network of clients in New York, Miami, Texas, Ohio and Kentucky. The orders arrive in vacuum packs via the mail service.
“This is a long-term project, but give me a chance and I’m going to get there. I don’t like to be under pressure when I do things. I’m a careful planner, and I go little by little,” she says. That’s the advice her mother gave her, who opened Doña Haydee’s Kitchen in the same way, starting with a very small kitchen until she eventually had several branches.
Not very long ago, Adriana joined in on an internet application called Shef. She describes it as a kind of Uber Eats, except those offering their services are professional chefs and experienced cooks who prepare each client’s orders at home. Seventy-five percent of those offering services through Shef are women; 80% are persons of color. They come from a total of 95 countries. “Shefs are aunties and abuelas, immigrants and refugees, stay-at-home parents and restaurant dreamers,” states the official Shef homepage.
Adriana’s Nicaraguan food featured on ABC’s The View
It was through Shef that Adriana went to New York in October 2022 to appear on US national TV, together with famous chef Aaron Sanchez, her mentor.
Ana Navarro, the Nicaraguan-US host of The View, presented her on one of the country’s most popular talk shows. Navarro described her as a talented chef who had overcome many obstacles to make real her American dream. Adriana seemed at ease, speaking easily and passionately about the holiday stuffing, gallo pinto, and the chicken empanadas that she demonstrated in the segment. However, she also spoke of the crisis in Nicaragua and how she was forced to leave her country like the thousands of Nicaraguans who have left in the last four years. The show’s presenters tried the stuffing – prepared according to her grandmother Haydee’s recipe – and said it was delicious.
The young chef was delighted by the experience and received many positive comments afterwards from her customers, friends, and family. “A cousin told me: ‘Dude, it’s the first time I ever saw gallo pinto or Nicaraguan stuffing on a Gringo show! For us Nicaraguans who’ve been living here for decades, it’s an honor.’” Adriana recounts this story laughing, but with pride.
Adriana feels very privileged to be able to introduce Nicaraguan food to hundreds of palates that are encountering it for the first time, thanks to Pinto Foods and Shef. “It exposes people who previously didn’t know anything about Nicaragua or Nicaraguan food. I can offer them a flavor that, to me, is exquisite,” she asserts.
“In Los Angeles, they know a lot about Mexican food and Salvadoran food, but Nicaraguan food is something few people know about. It brings me great emotion and nostalgia – more than anything else, it’s a privilege. It’s my own history, all because I come from the family I come from. Thank God, I had that school,” she declares emotionally.
Adriana stresses the fact that her profession is more difficult than people think, especially for people like her, passionate and committed to excellence. “One aspect that people don’t take into account is what it means to deal with the customers. Customer service is very important. You have to be able to do it with a smile and apologize [if you make a mistake], because if you don’t come through with the experience you’re promising, the responsibility is on you. And if you have to say: “I’m very sorry I couldn’t meet those expectations,” it’s horrible. It gives me a terrible feeling, and affects me greatly,” she admits.
Producing that magic for each one of her customers is something that Adriana Robleto takes very seriously. That’s what made her decide when she was just a little girl that she’d become a successful chef someday. Upon returning from New York after her appearance on The View, Adriana realized that she still yearns to have her own restaurant. After that opportunity, she feels more certain she can achieve this soon, in order to continue delighting her customers with her best culinary tricks and incredible taste experiences.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times.