Celebrity Chef Marcela Valladolid on Owning Her Mexican Culture: 'We're Living It Because We Love It'

Through her popular books and Zoom cooking classes (co-taught with her big sis!), the mom of three is once more taking the culinary world by storm—this time, by doubling down on her culture.

Marcela standing in doorway for portrait
“I’ve always viewed Mexican culture as magical,” says Valladolid, at home in San Diego. “It’s so much more than just food.”. Photo: Isabella Martinez-Funcke

Chef Marcela Valladolid gets up at 5 a.m. every morning. Don't blame the kids. They're still snoozing when she is already wide awake, brainstorming future projects worth adding to her never-ending to-do list. This week alone she is recording a Zoom cooking class, guest hosting two different television shows, and turning in the manuscript for her first children's cookbook. "I have to tell you, I think sleep is a waste of time, that's just the way I am," she says, with the kind of unabashed candor that inspires her followers to refer to her as "comadre."

At 43, Valladolid is intentional about how she spends her time. "The pandemic was a huge message from the universe: 'If you don't make things happen now, you never will.'" You'd think that after a decade spent hosting cooking shows on the Food Network, including Mexican Made Easy, she had already achieved the pinnacle of her success. But despite reaching culinary stardom, she always craved freedom to be her authentic self.

You only need to tune in to one of her virtual cooking classes—replete with a mariachi band, visiting relatives, tears, and plenty of laughter—to understand what she means. "For me, being Mexican is the best thing you could ever be in the world," she says. "How great to be able to celebrate our heritage in the most fun, loud, and incredible way." It's what drives her. "Mexican culture is a bottomless Mary Poppins bag that you can pull magical things out of," she says. "My goal has always been to show that."

Now she gets to do it as her own boss and in the company of the loves of her life—fiancé Philip Button, sons Fausto, 17, and David, 6, and daughter Anna Carina, 5. The cherry on top? Traveling from her home in San Diego to her native Tijuana in search of inspiration anytime she wants. "There's no border for us," she says. And that sentiment comes across in everything she does.

Marcela sitting with kids at breakfast nook
Isabella Martinez-Funcke

Your whole brand is focused on Mexico, from the cookbooks to your line of artisanal goods online. What prompted you to dive deeper into your roots?

When I was growing up, my family lived in Tijuana, where everyone was so proud of who they were, and being Mexican was the coolest thing. But I also spent half of my day across the border at school in San Diego, where things were very different. It was crazy to me that my friends there had this stereotypical view of Mexico. Then they would visit our home in Tijuana and say, "Oh my God, this is actually really beautiful. This is not like Taco Bell!" And so that became my mission—to show what we've got and all that Latinos contribute.

Did you feel that you had to temper that for the Food Network?

Yes, but I take full responsibility for what I put out. When you're with executives from the most powerful network on culinary TV, you don't think you can fight back on anything. It took me a really long time to find my voice. I have nothing but gratitude for that relationship, but there are life cycles to jobs. I wanted freedom to do things my way. So one day I said, "Thank you so much, but no thank you." And that was it.

You pivoted from national television to Zoom classes with your older sister, Carina, as cohost. How did that happen?

At the beginning of the pandemic, we did an Instagram Live making roast chicken, and the feedback was insane, so Philip suggested I start Zoom classes. I thought, "I'm too cool for that—I do TV!" But then we did the math and saw that we could produce a high-quality production with little overhead cost. I asked Carina to cohost because whenever she's with me, in any situation, I feel protected. It's been our dynamic since we were kids. I didn't want the classes to make me feel overwhelmed and overworked, and I knew that having her next to me on camera would give me the opportunity to relax into teaching, which is the thing that I love to do the most in the entire world.

The classes have also put you in direct contact with your community.

That change started to happen before the Zoom classes. I was at a signing for my 2017 book, Casa Marcela, and nearly 600 people, mostly Latinas, showed up. They thanked me for providing this space that feels authentic, away from stereotypes. They were saying, "Your pride in your culture inspired me to be proud." I got so many messages that snowballed into everything that's happening now. And the feedback is still the same: How nice for us to be represented as Latinos in a way that's approachable and that recognizes our power and strength as a community.

As an entrepreneur, you like to surround yourself with women. Why is that important to you?

I grew up in a comunidad muy machista with a lot of rules for women. You could go out only once a month because otherwise te quemabas and no boy would date you. You couldn't wear anything revealing. My father, who is the human being that I love the most, along with my kids and partner, was like, "You are not leaving this house until you are married." He was just passing on what he'd learned growing up in Mexico. I was the weirdo who rebelled and literally ran away from home after high school to find my own way. So even now, I want to show women what we are all truly capable of.

How are you teaching your children differently?

There's nothing being taught. It's just being lived. There's a saying in Mexico that goes, "La palabra conmueve, pero el ejemplo arrastra." The most important thing I can do for my children is to show women and men as equals. Philip and I both do the dishes. We both pay bills. We both work hard. The only limit to our dreams has to do with our own drive.

I'm not trying to instill Mexican culture in my kids. We're living it because we love it.

Your mom passed away when your oldest son was just 2 years old. How did that change you?

That was really hard, man. My mom called me her shadow because I was always with her, especially after my divorce from Fausto's dad. So when she passed, I felt untethered. Me sentí como papalote. My biggest security blanket was ripped away. But at the same time, I was so overprotected that it was crippling, and this is something I've had to work on as a parent. It wasn't until she died that I realized I had to get myself together. That's when I turned in my first book proposal, got my first show, and went out into the world and started to do things for myself. I felt that she was helping me in a different place, in a different way. As painful as it was, it was my birth.

You've also evolved through motherhood.

My children have forced me to take a deep dive and resolve past struggles. I stopped drinking because of my kids. I never thought that I'd be in a stable relationship because I wasn't in one for the first 35 years of my life. But seeing Fau grow into a young man, I really wanted to show him that I could do it and wanted it for myself. When I didn't love myself enough to do the work, my love for my kids made me want to do it, and that's the power of parenting. My biggest growth has come because of them.

How do you spend time together as a family?

I'm so manipulative of my kids' time. A lot of our activities involve stuff that I like, which is so wrong! Philip is the one who takes them outside and teaches them how to kick a ball. I'm more like, "Everybody in the car, we're going to Starbucks at ten at night!" David loves antique shopping because I'm obsessed with antiques. The other day I asked him, "What do you learn from Dad?" And there was a list of 700 things. Then I asked him, "What do you learn from Mom?" "Well … we have fun." I said, "Great. Dad's going to teach you how to get things done, and I'm going to teach you how to have fun. I'm okay with that!"

Who's passing on the Mexican culture?

We're fortunate that we live right on the border. My dad's house is 20 minutes away in Tijuana. Anna spent half her time there the other day and spoke Spanish because literally nobody is going to speak English to her. So I'm not trying to instill Mexican culture in my kids. We're living it because we love it. We have to hire a mariachi band for big family gatherings. We have to eat tamales at Christmastime. Not because we're trying to show anybody anything, but because it's a part of who we are.

marcela carrying cake into room
Next up for Valladolid: a Latin cookbook for kids!. Isabella Martinez-Funcke

Everything You Need to Know About Marcela Valladolid's Family

Fave bilingual children's book: Super Torta!, by Eric Ramos (per my daughter, Anna).

Mom mantra: "If I'm okay, they're okay."

Family happy place: Our dining room.

Go-to holiday recipe: Leah Koenig's latkes—Philip is a nonpracticing Jew, but we still celebrate Hanukkah.

Secret guilty pleasure: Doritos and cottage cheese.

Best taco combo: Mulitas de Carne Asada con todo.

Playlist jams: Led Zeppelin, Lila Downs, Luis Miguel, Krishna Das … it's an eclectic mix.

Cooking pet peeve: Messy kitchens. Clean as you go.

Forever cooking tool: My molcajete.

This article originally appeared in Parents Latina's December/January 2022 issue as "Marcela From Mexico."

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