By Cheryl Tiu
Mexican-born Karla Hoyos is the first female and Latina chef de cuisine at The Bazaar by José Andrés South Beach. She first met Andrés while volunteering in Puerto Rico during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. And two years later, they were once again churning out hundreds of thousands of meals in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian.
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“Karla, this is not good, it has too much water,” Chef José would say while we were making the seasoning. “If it’s a sandwich, it’s going to be the best sandwich they’ve ever eaten. If it’s rice, it’s going to be the best rice they’ve ever eaten.” We were running a José Andrés restaurant. But for disaster relief.
It was 2017, and I was living and working in Carmel, Indiana, for Bon Appétit Management Company when the call came. My district boss was like, “Hey, we know you love to help others, would you like to go to Puerto Rico and help with the disaster relief for Hurricane Maria?” And I said, “Yes!” He didn’t mention José Andrés at the time. I didn’t know I was going to be working with him. “Get a satellite radio, get some cash, and book your flight,” my boss told me. “You’re leaving tomorrow.”
I packed like I was going camping and flew to San Juan the next morning. I consider myself an adventurous traveler—I’ll go to the corners of the world. But this was like a movie scene. On the screen, all flights were cancelled, people were laying down on the waiting area, people were fighting with the stewards because they wanted to get on their flights. You could breathe desperation and sadness, and that was the first time I thought, “What did I get myself into?” I was a little scared, I’m not going to lie.
There were only two hotels functioning at the time. And all the rooms were humid because they had gotten flooded. We arrived at 3pm, and I remember walking around the hotel to find something to eat—nothing. Later on, we met with someone from Chef José’s team at World Central Kitchen, and that’s when I realized, “Oh my god, I’m working with Chef José Andrés!”
The CEO of Bon Appétit is very good friends with Chef José. He needed chefs to help him set up the operation on a bigger scale. Bon Appétit was a company that cooks in a large scale—all made from scratch. There are 6,000 chefs at the company, and they picked me and two others to go.
Chef José wanted to make sure that every meal we made had fruit and water, had enough protein and vegetables—and that it was not greasy food. The sandwiches we served each weighed about a pound. He always told us, “This might be the only sandwich they will eat all day, so it better be a good sandwich.” We used turkey, roast beef and ham, depending on what was available. We were producing up to 40,000 sandwiches a day with volunteers! We wiped out all of the cheese on the island, and at one point we moved to canned cheese sauce because that was all that was left. But of course, cheese sauce was not enough for Chef, so we chopped peppers and seasoned it to become a pimiento cheese sandwich. Everything had to be amazing.
We also started doing the pastelón—or similar versions of it. Chef thought it was very good because you have the mashed potato or yuca, and then the ground meat, so with every scoop, you get a little bit of everything—protein, carbs, vegetables, and good fat. Chef also likes to adapt to the culture of the place. In Puerto Rico, they didn’t like a lot of spice, so we used yuca and plantain. It was like, “I’m going to bring you something that’s like home food for you, not something that you don’t even know.” He also made sure that everyone used gloves.
There were people, mostly locals from Puerto Rico, volunteering 10-12 hours a day who had lost their houses. But they wanted to help. There were times we would stay longer at our cooking area in the Coliseo after the 7pm curfew. We wanted to buy water for the hotel, or do laundry, because there were times that I’d use the same shirt for three days. But all resources were limited. I didn’t eat fresh vegetables, fruits, and salad for a month. I think I lost about 30 pounds.
I met my fiancé Alejandro there. He’s from Puerto Rico, and he was a volunteer. Since they didn’t have homes, a lot of them would be cooking all day and sleeping in their cars. I would tell them, “Hey guys, from 7-9 today, whoever wants to, take a shower at my hotel.” A couple of them, in appreciation, would then bring me pastelón, but this guy specifically, he would bring me coffee every morning. Getting coffee there was so hard. I remember I was so happy when I saw the first coffee shop. He would send someone to the kitchen, “Send coffee to the chef.” It was funny because nobody knew we started liking each other. He would give me a ride to my hotel at night, and we started kind of dating towards the end.
I would get to the hotel maybe 9pm. But then Chef José would have a meeting every night to talk about the next day and about which kitchens we were going to open. He was so invested in feeding as many people as we could. These meetings would end at midnight and then we were back in the kitchen at 4am. I was at a point there where I was thinking, “Do I really want to go back to my air-conditioned house and watch TV when there’s so much help that needs to be done?” I was in Puerto Rico for a month, and had to go back because I had a job and previous commitments that I couldn’t skip. But I wanted to keep helping.
My parents always taught us that the fact that you have more doesn’t mean that people that don’t, don’t deserve it. Since we were little, growing up in Veracruz, Mexico, when Santa Claus came home, we were given the three things we really wanted, but Santa always left us a letter, saying “You have to pick one of the gifts that you asked for and give it to a less fortunate child.”
When I was 20 years old, there was a hurricane in Veracruz. At the time, I was running my catering business. One community went completely underwater, so they were moving the community to a shelter where they were putting sleeping bags. “I need to do something,” I said to myself. I grabbed all my equipment and started cooking. My family was so invested, too—we were cooking for 300 people. When I left to go to school, my mom continued and became friends with them. It’s always been in my family. Once you experience that, it’s addictive. You want to help more, you want to do more.
Chef José has that passion for helping. And it’s not fake. Because I saw it. I saw it to the point where he was dehydrated and sick and we were telling him, “You need to stop, you need to go home and recover.” He would not sleep. If I slept four hours, he slept two. I don’t know how he does it. I wanted to work with someone like him because I knew there was a purpose for whatever work I would be doing. I wanted to be a part of his team.
In the beginning of February 2018, I sent my resume , and two hours later I was on a call with chefs David Thomas and Jimmy Pumarol from Chef José’s Think Food Group, and they said, “OK, next week, we will fly you to Miami.” I responded, “I’ll get there around March or April. Give me a couple of months because I have been living in Indiana for six years.” And Chef Jimmy said, “You don’t get it. Chef José will be there in 10 days for South Beach Wine and Food Festival, and you need to be started at the restaurant by then.” I was like, “Whaaat?!” I didn’t have time to move or sell my stuff. I gave them all away to my roommate, packed my car with mostly kitchen utensils, books, and some clothes, and then Alejandro and I drove down from Indiana to Miami.
It was a very big transition. In Indiana, I was working Monday to Friday from 5am to 5pm, doing Pilates every day. I loved Indiana. I loved the weather, the safety, and how close I was working with the farmers. Miami of course is different. I love the restaurant. I love my team. My team is my family. But I had a little hard time adapting to Miami’s lifestyle, to Miami’s food scene. There’s not a lot of women in higher positions. There are amazing women pastry chefs in Miami—some of the best I’ve met—but not a lot of women in the restaurant industry. So that was a little bit of a shock.
When you go from a corporate position to super-extra fine dining, you’re suddenly doing 18-19 hours a day. The hours are not a problem, but the clientele is different, the way people interact is different. The expectations are different. I think my team had a struggle adapting at first—a lot of people were very concerned about having a woman as the new chef. Some people didn’t like it or feel comfortable with it.
Miami, having a Latino culture is a little more macho or male-oriented. I had a couple of issues in the beginning of the transition. A couple of my staff, the younger chefs, were so used to the dominant male chef, and my style is not like that. I’m not a male chef, so some of them had issues listening to a woman and following directions. But luckily for me, I don’t have any issues with that. If I have to be stern, I am stern. I don’t take any of that personally. Everyone is entitled to feel how they feel and think how they think. I just know what I put up with, and what I don’t, and I make it very clear. I was more concerned about doing the job and not disappointing anyone. I handle a team of 100 cooks, and we do breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and events.
My main customer is my team. I do firmly and heartily believe that with so many places they could be working in Miami, I want to make sure that I have a team that feels appreciated and taken care of. So for me, it’s very important to create a culture of family. Before I was a chef, I was a cook for so many years. And I know it sounds simple for others, but doing the family meal is important. I remember when you’re a cook, you’re hungry when you get home. When I can, I will always cook a family meal for them. We have a dish at Bazaar—pork belly bao—where we use only the center part of the pork belly. I save the trimmings and make them into pork belly tacos.
“We are only as strong as our weakest member,” I always tell my team. We have different stations, but in the end, we are a team. You’ll see a station going down, but in less than five minutes, somebody from another station will come because they need help. That’s a culture we’ve created. You can be whatever you want to be, but you have to know how to work for a team.
My favorite part of food is what you can do to help others—to change the world, to relieve, to give somebody hope. Because when you are giving somebody a plate of food, you are giving them hope.