Chef Melissa Araujo has cooked all over the world, including at New Orleans restaurants Mondo, Restaurant R'evolution and Doris Metropolitan. Araujo is now the owner and executive chef of the boutique catering company Saveur Catering (www.saveurcatering.com). Last year, she launched the pop-up Alma (www.almanola.com), featuring the food of her native Honduras. Her next event is a five-course meal with wine pairings on July 9 at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. Araujo spoke with Gambit about Honduran cuisine and why it's hard to find in New Orleans.
Where did the idea for Alma come from?
Araujo: I've been cooking since I was 18 and I haven't looked back. I worked in New Orleans since 2011 and I worked in Mexico for fours years, and 10 years in Italy.
I started my (catering) company in 2013 and that gave me the opportunity to do some work on the side, and like every chef in the city, I hustled. I kept my fine-dining career going until the catering business could pay the bills by itself, and that took about two years. I had a lot of friends that kept on asking me when I was going to cook Honduran cuisine. I would tell them, "That's labor intensive," but they kept pushing me. My ex-girlfriend was the one who pushed me to explore more of my heritage.
Food for me is memory. I was spoiled growing up. My grandmother was an amazing cook and my mother was also an amazing cook. Every time I would go eat at a Honduran restaurant in the city, I'd end up sending the food back. (Most Honduran restaurants) don't specialize in one cuisine; they're all mixed together — Honduran, Mexican and so on. They're not focused on the quality ... and it's not a good representation of the cuisine.
(In Honduras) I used to go with my mother and my grandmother to the fishermen's market and we could get anything and it was cheap. I didn't have the memories growing up of going to a supermarket; it was all local and fresh. Everything came directly from the local fisherman, the local farmer.
One of the things I also wanted to do was to cook the way I was taught from my mother and my grandmother. I thought, "This is very personal to me. I want to do it right."
Why is Honduran food underrepresented in New Orleans?
A: Louisiana is very similar to Honduras — Honduras was also conquered by the Spanish. Honduran cuisine is a lot like Creole (cuisine); it's a mixture between Spanish and the native tribes of Honduras, and there's an abundance of seafood. It depends on where you go, but if you go to the coast, by La Ceiba, where my father is from, you'll get amazing seafood.
The (Honduran) population has mixed in well here. ... But Hondurans are very private and they keep their culture confined to their house. If you really want Honduran food you have to go to (someone's) house. It has not made as big of an impact as some of the other cultures have on New Orleans cuisine.
The biggest thing I've found in New Orleans is that (diners) don't think Honduran cuisine can be fine dining. Of course it can; it's all about the cook's perspective.
How do you balance running a catering company and a pop-up?
A: It is a lot of work. I'm literally sleeping about three or four hours a day. It's a lifestyle, but you get used to it. When you become a cook, you come to this profession because you have a lot of passion for it and because you're a workaholic. It's not because of the money. You sacrifice a lot of things. You have to be well-organized. I organize as much as I can in advance. I'm not perfect, but I try to look for people who are as passionate and good at what they do. I try to find people who share the same vision that I do, and that helps.