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Dining halls welcome Latin cuisine aficionado Chef Grace Ramirez

La Latina Cocina
Chef Grace Ramirez holding a dish made from La Latina Cocina for Boston University Dining Services. COURTESY OF ARAMARK

Authentic, comforting and colorful Latin cuisine — inspired by Masterchef USA contestant Grace Ramirez’s cookbook, “La Latina” — is coming to all of the Boston University dining halls this Friday.

“For Latino students, I hope they feel fairly represented,” said Ramirez. “I hope that they’re able to have a bite of those black beans and [it] reminds them of their grandmother’s beans or their mom’s beans.”

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Ramirez said she worked with Aramark, the food supply company that works with BU Dining Services, to design “La Latina Cocina.” Students can expect a series of “station takeovers” for lunch on Sept. 16, 20, Oct. 4, 12, and for dinner on Sept. 22, 28 and Oct. 6, according to Campus Culinary Director Chef Christopher Bee.

Menu items include Mojo pulled pork tacos, frijoles negros, vegan chipotle tostadas, and horchata, a traditional Latin beverage made of soaked white rice and flavored with cinnamon, maple syrup and sugar, Bee wrote in an email.

Bee wrote that they partnered with Ramirez specifically because she “understands that food is culture and loves sharing the nourishing traditions of Latin American cuisine.”

“We look at this as an educational opportunity,” John Webster, director of BU dining, said in an interview. “We want to make sure that we’re teaching you about food and culture in an appropriate way.”

Ramirez said she created the concept after hearing that students wanted healthier, authentic flavors and more representation in their dining halls.

“Students were being vocal about how they wanted representation and traditional flavors in schools,” Ramirez said. “That is the most exciting part, that it came from students being vocal and someone like Aramark understanding.”

BU isn’t the only school awaiting Ramirez’s recipes — La Latina Cocina is rolling out at 75 Aramark-affiliated schools across the country this fall. Ramirez said she has been working with Aramark to test and tweak recipes since January.

“To be able to celebrate Latin American food and culture at this scale is very exciting,” Ramirez said. “I feel very honored and privileged to be right now in this position.”

Starting off her career as a production assistant for Latin American television, Ramirez said, she worked her way up in the industry and eventually landed roles as producer and director for “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” on the Food Network. After a critical run on “Masterchef USA,” Ramirez switched careers and landed a scholarship to the French Culinary Institute.

“I didn’t go very far in the show, but it got me to where I needed to be, which was Gordon Ramsay saying to me, ‘you should do culinary school and then come back,’” Ramirez said.

Ramirez described pursuing her dreams in working with food as a turning point. She would yet again work her way up, but this time on the culinary ladder.

“I think that the challenges are real of being a Latina woman in all these different spaces [and] being a pioneer,” Ramirez said. “When I did ‘La Latina’ there were only a couple of cookbooks that were for Latin food and culture in general done by a major publication.”

Chef Melissa Tung, a BU alumni who graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 2008, said she helped Ramirez design the concept for Aramark. Since meeting at culinary school in 2010, Tung said, the pair have been amazing friends as well as business partners.

“Having another strong female minority person to lean on, and ask for advice between the two of us, really has helped us navigate to the place that we are now, to feel that much more confident,” Tung said.

Ramirez said growing up surrounded by “powerful Latinos” didn’t prepare her for the stereotypes she would face in the culinary industry where none of the executive chefs looked like her.

“If you can’t enter through the front door, you have to enter through the back door or the side door or the window,” Ramirez said.

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