Arts & Entertainment

Local chef brings people together for holiday cooking class

Rosa Alvarez, right, and daughter-in-law Nicole Maiden Alvarez show off the results of a tamale making class that helped them bond in the kitchen.
Rosa Alvarez, right, and daughter-in-law Nicole Maiden Alvarez show off the results of a tamale making class that helped them bond in the kitchen.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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A Southland woman and her daughters-in-law didn't realize that a holiday cooking class would be a lesson in food from the old country and a generational bonding experience.

The class took place at Chichen Itza, Gilberto Cetina's Yucatan food restaurant just east of USC.

"Its roots are Mayan. With Spanish, Lebanese, Dutch influences," Cetina says, looking over plates of pork marinated in achiote - red annatto seed rub. "On a busier day – our busier day of the week is Sunday – sometimes we serve 500 people."

Cetina evangelizes about food through his new book "Sabores Yucatecos" - and through his holiday cooking classes. He wants authentic regional Yucatan food to remain available in Los Angeles. Asian American, Anglo, and Latino patrons take the class, he says.

Rosa Alvarez, a Tijuana native who has lived in San Pedro for many years, is one of them. She’s 54 years old and says it’s hard to remember an age when she didn’t cook. Over the years, that means she’s made a lot of tamales.

"Uf, probably more than 50,000 tamales," she says, "Yeah, because every year we make a little bit over 500."

All of that, in a tiny, modern kitchen that’s about 15 feet by 8 feet.

Alvarez mastered the fundamentals early on - sopes, enchiladas, tacos - by watching her mother and father cook. She signed herself up for the Yucatan cooking class last month to learn a different tamale-wrapping technique: banana leaves instead of corn husks. Neither of her daughters in law grew up cooking like she did, but they're trying hard, she says, so she signed them for the class.

One of them, Nicole Maiden Alvarez, is originally from Tucson. "My mother is Fillipino, Chinese, Hawaiian," she says. "My mom makes pancit, lumpia, she makes adobo," for the Christmas holiday.

Maiden Alvarez says that as a teen she turned her nose up at the idea of spending time in the kitchen.

"I saw how much hard work it was in the kitchen, you know, standing on your feet for hours on end, and I was like, I don’t want to do that, no," she says. "I just want to eat, I just want to have fun."

She says that’s changed, in large part because she married into the Alvarez family eight years ago. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are festivals of food in her mother-in-law’s San Pedro kitchen.

"There’s just a huge pot of tamales in her steaming and a big pot of rice and beans and pozole," she says. "You come in here – I don’t want to say buffet – but it’s just a lot of food everywhere and the smells are amazing. And you come in and you want to make sure you’re hungry when you come here. Don’t eat all day."

She's learned from her mother in law that the satisfaction of making good food and sharing it with people is more than enough to carry you through the hours of meal preparation.

"There’s a lot of love that goes behind food, especially good food," Maiden Alvarez says. "Anybody can say, ‘I can cook, I can do this.’ But I think if you put your heard and your soul into it, your food, you’ll always remember it. You’ll always remember someone’s food."

She and her mother-in-law pull an aluminum-foil package with Yucatan-style tamales out of the refrigerator. The tamales are wrapped in banana leaves. It's the fruit of their labor from the cooking class. The plump packets are waiting for Christmas Day, that's when they'll be plopped into a steaming pot.