May 10, 2013

Up Close With...Zarela Martinez

On May 6, chef and restaurateur Zarela Martinez was honored as one of six 2013 inductees to the Who’s Who of Food & Beverages in America, a prestigious award the James Beard Foundation bestows upon renowned culinary professionals who have made a significant and unique contribution to the American food and beverage industry. In a press release announcing the list of inductees, the James Beard Foundation called Martinez—of New York City’s Zarela restaurant fame—“a renowned cultural interpreter between Mexico and the United States through the medium of food.”

A few weeks before the ceremony at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, el Restaurante Mexicano editor Kathleen Furore asked Martinez to share the story of her journey from the Sonoran border town of Agua Prieta to New York City, where her name became almost synonymous with regional Mexican fare.

Zarela Martinez has always been a woman with a mission.

Born in Agua Prieta, she traveled frequently between Mexico and the U.S. as a young girl, ultimately landing at a finishing school in Mexico at her father’s insistence.

“I learned to cook the food of the rich there. But I [eventually] told my father, ‘This is ridiculous! I’m going to college!’” Martinez recalls. “I went to school in Mexico and studied mass communications. I had to take four years of philosophy and of was the best education. And it has all helped.”

Post-college life took Martinez to El Paso, Texas, where she began her professional cooking career. She so impressed mentors Paul Prudhomme and Craig Claiborne that they encouraged her to give New York City a try. In 1983, with $10,000 and an abundance of talent and ambition, she headed east. Her ex-husband said she would have to go back to him; she put $9,000 down on “a very nice apartment on the Upper West Side” and relayed one brief, blunt message:  “I’ll sell burritos in Central Park but I won’t come back!”

Central Park never got the burrito stand.

After a stint as menu designer and executive chef for Café Marimba, in 1987 she debuted Zarela, her namesake restaurant featuring regional Mexican cuisine, with $20,000 working capital.

“I told all the purveyors who had worked with me at Café Marimba that if they believed in me, they would stock my first order free and if they didn’t I would never buy from them,” she recalls. As some unfortunate vendors learned, Martinez kept her word.

Years of accolades for Zarela (the restaurant and its owner) followed until Martinez closed the spot in 2011 to pursue her commitment to promoting Mexican culture through food and traditions. She launched Food Arte, a program for the Mexican Cultural Institute; runs an extensive catering business; teaches Mexican cooking lessons; and gives demonstrations on Mexican culture and cuisine. Her website,, has received more than six million hits, she says.

What’s next for this entrepreneur is anyone’s guess. In April—in honor of the 30th anniversary of her New York City arrival—she debuted Zarela Act 7, a one-woman show described as “equal parts performance art, cooking lesson, inspirational memoir, and—when you least expect it—soulful serenade.”

“I love to perform, I love to teach, but more than anything I love to tell stories!” Martinez says, recounting the time Barbara Sinatra (Frank’s wife) visited Zarela not long after it opened. “She wanted a taco and I told her, ‘We don’t have them here—this is regional Mexican food and you are going to love it!’” Martinez recalls. “She said, ‘Your little experiment is going to be a dismal falure.’”

True to form, the chef/restaurateur didn’t miss a beat. “President Reagan and seven heads of state liked it and so did Queen Elizabeth,” Martinez responded, “so I think I’m going to be ok!”

Zarela’s 12 steps to success

The restaurant industry is a competitive one filled with many challenges. Zarela Martinez’s path to success was not without obstacles; yet she overcame them to reach the top of her profession. Her advice to others: “The way to succeed is to have something unique. Don’t be doing the same thing others are doing—people will always compare you to them.”

Martinez says the formula for success “once you’ve found your passion or calling” includes these twelve steps:

1. Develop an identity, a style, that will be instantly recognizable and that carries through the different facets of your career or product.

2. Develop a career plan, an ultimate goal; but in the meantime...

3. Set small, attainable goals that further your career and build confidence.

4. Take chances and calculated risks.

5. Always deliver. Do the best job possible so people trust you and know they can count on you.

6. Surround yourself with good people, let them do their jobs, be clear about what you want and expect. Always praise them and always compensate them for extra work.

7. Be informed—stay up on current events and developments in your field.

8. Build your brand and make your product known, donate services, and participate in events that will reach a large number of people.

9. Stay on message so people will know what you stand for. My mission, for example, is to make my culture known and understood.

10. Develop relationships with the press—they will help get your message out.

11. Reinvent yourself every two years so there’s always something new for people to write about. Publicity is a symbiotic relationship—they need stories you need coverage.

12. Always send thank you notes to every one, for everything.

May 10, 2013

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