Our next edition of Cooking Beats—Raíces sees Gisela Salazar Golding, executive chef of Grain Traders, helming the kitchen on Thursday, 30th March. In a follow up to a packed-out evening in our first session, led by our very own founders Javier and Joshua, Gisela will be presenting dishes from her hometown of Venezuela with influences from all the places she’s worked at around the world, fuelled by a little bit of friendly competition. Known for her hearty dishes with layers of flavours, as well as her nurturing, friendly personality, Gisela’s bound to deliver a night to remember. We spend some time talking to her to ahead of her guest shift.

1/ You quit college at the age of 17 and moved to Spain to pursue your passion of food—what did your parents think? Was it a tough decision to make at such a young age?

I had the opportunity to get into college because I was part of the basketball team. When I was waiting to start class I did an internship in a restaurant recommend by another chef friend. After three months I quit the team and college, and decided that I wanted to move to Spain to study in the kitchen instead. My parents almost killed me, especially my dad. At the beginning they didn’t take me so seriously, but I started sending letters to culinary schools in Spain and got responses from them. At that point my mom started helping me. For my dad it was more difficult—both my parents are teachers, and for them it was very important to go to college. But after my dad visited me in Spain, he finally understood that this was my passion and he has been a big supporter all these years.

2/ You worked in Cambodia before coming to Singapore—how was your experience there?

Cambodia was a great work and life experience. It’s a completely different place from Singapore and you have challenges everyday. There is a huge barrier with the language so it’s important to have a lot of patience (I’ve not always had it!). The produce was complicated—the suppliers were not always able to secure the stock, so it became a challenge to keep a stable menu. Sometimes I would need to go around stores looking for the produce I wanted, especially at the beginning, 7 years ago. On the other hand, all my vegetables, fish, and seafood were from the central market with local producers, so I was lucky to always have fresh produce to work with. The place where I’d buy from would always keep special fish or seafood for me. Another challenge was the food culture. At the moment we opened we were the only restaurant that wasn’t doing French or Italian fine dining. We called ourself South American-Asian fusion (or confusion). It was a great experience seeing how the expat community and locals were excited about what we were doing and bringing to the Phnom Penh food scene.

3/ Besides Cambodia and Singapore, you’ve also worked in Dublin, Shanghai, and France. How have these different cultures and cuisines influenced the way that you cook?

I think all have had a huge influence. You can see that I have a wide mix of flavours in my kitchen. I don’t like it when people try to put you in one category, so I prefer to work with everything that I’ve learnt from my years of work, and of course from my time in Venezuela. However, I think the ones that had more influence on me would be Spanish and South American cuisine. My kitchen education was in Spain and I worked there for more than four years. I consider the Mediterranean diet as one of the best in the world—the use of fresh produce, almost no manipulation, trying to keep all the flavours, and that feeling of homemade and  real food.

Even though my work experience in Venezuela is limited, my family was a huge influence. My dad is from the countryside, Acarigua y San Carlos, and he, all my aunts, and my grandmother are amazing cooks. They all taught me the best of our traditional cuisine that is always present in everything that I put on a plate.

4/ How did you meet Javier and come to be involved in Grain Traders?

I meet Javier in Cambodia. He is a good friend of my business partner in Tepui, the restaurant I was working at, so he came to Phnom Penh for a weekend. There, he had the opportunity to see what we were doing in Cambodia. After almost five years in Cambodia, I decided I wanted a change, so I started looking for other options to work in Asia. I called Javier and asked if he knew about anybody looking for chef. After a week or so, he called back and told me he could introduce me to a few people in Singapore but that he also had a project that might be interesting for me. A month later, I moved to Singapore.

5/ What do you like about cooking?

I read once that cooking is the only art that really feeds people. I guess it’s true—it doesn’t matter what you’re cooking, or the style. I believe cooking is a great opportunity to create and share with friends, family, customers, etc, and it goes a little bit further than only feeding people. I love that I have the opportunity to bring that to people every day, and to enjoy and share a meal to create memories or bring memories back.

6/ How does it feel to be a female chef in a mostly male-dominated industry? 

For me it hasn’t been a problem. I’ve never considered myself as a woman in the kitchen; I’ve always been a person who’s part of a team. I’ve been lucky to work with people who empowered and taught me without caring if I was a woman or a man. I believe one of the most important things is your attitude in the kitchen: to be  confident in what you are doing and who you are.

7/ Tell us something that most people don’t know about Venezuela.

– The gas is cheaper than water. Because the government subsidises the oil industry, Venezuelans enjoy the cheapest petrol in the world (about $0.01 per litre).
– There is a night club in a prison.
– Baseball is Venezuela’s most popular sport and there has been a professional league since 1945.

8/ Can you describe a typical dish from your childhood?

Cachapas, my favourite. It’s a kind of corn crepe made of fresh yellow corn. You eat it with fresh cheeses (queso de mano, queso telita, queso Guayanes). My dad used to make them for special brunch on Sundays at home, and every time we went to visit my family in the countryside we used to stop in a local restaurant on the road to eat them.

9/ How did you pick up cooking, and what was the first dish that you learnt to cook? 

I always helped my mom to make cakes or anything that I could help her with. One of my grandmothers used to say that every time I was in her house, I’d run to the kitchen to take out all the things from the drawers and help her with cooking. Or at least, that’s what I was trying to do, though I was just making a mess in her kitchen.

I don’t know if this was the first dish I learnt to do, but I remember doing a Spanish omelet for my brothers and some friends. I didn’t cook the potatoes beforehand, so we ended with a very crispy, raw omelet for dinner. It was beautiful!

 10/ What’s your signature dish to cook, or something that you always make when you have guests over?

Depends on who’s coming. I love to cook Venezuelan food, arepas are one of my favourites and that way I have the opportunity to eat them too. I also like to cook with rice a lot, paellas especially. I worked for two years making paellas in Spain and I have continued doing them everywhere. For me it’s something very easy and fast to make—I can do it with my eyes closed—and it’s also something that a lot of people can eat. Every time I go back home, I do rounds of people (family, friends, my dad’s friends, my mom’s friends) coming over to eat and I always do paellas!

11/ What can people expect from your dishes for the evening at Cooking Beats?

A mix, my own interpretation of Venezuelan food. I’ve lived outside Venezuela for 16 years, and I’ve incorporated certain flavours inside some of the dishes I’m presenting. I’m making the Venezuelan food I used to eat back home with the influence of my mom, my dad, and my grandmother, Luisa.

12/ The previous Cooking Beats by Javier & Joshua had Puerto Rican cuisine, which has South American influences too. How are you going to make yours different (or better, even)? Is there going to be a little bit of friendly competition?

There are a lot of similarities between all the kitchens in South America, specially with the Caribbean countries like Venezuela and Puerto Rico. There are a lot of similar dishes, just with different names, because each country has received a lot of influence from the European, Asian and African immigrants. But what I’m bringing will be a lot of corn dishes, seafood, and influences from my family and the places where I used to live. Of course there will be friendly competition (or not-so-friendly!). I’m lucky to be second, so I was able to see what they did and to make sure I won’t present the same things to guests.

13/ We heard you’re a big fan of music—you’ve even attended a Coldplay concert one night in Barcelona, then taken an overnight train to catch them the next day in another city. Are you going to be curating the playlist for the night at Kilo? What will it be like?

Of course I will! I’ve asked a couple of friends to help me with this and we’ve been doing a mix of traditional music with new Venezuelan music. It’ll definitely be a plus to show the guests not only my food, but part of my culture. Music has a huge influence; we are happy people, and music is in all our parties and life.

14/ What’s something you would tell people to do/see when they visit Venezuela? Or what’s the one place you always have to visit whenever you go back home?

Venezuela is a beautiful country with amazing nature, it’s such a privileged place. We have deserts, jungle, snow, mountains and the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean (of course, I’m Venezuelan!)

If I were to recommend a few places to visit, it’ll be el Amazonas, La Gran Sabana to see the Tepuis (oldest rock formations in the world) and the tallest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls. It’s really a beautiful place. We have amazing beaches: Morrocoy, Los Roques, Isla Margarita, and my favourite place, Choroni, a small town on the coast surround by mountains.

15/ If you could invite someone, whether living or dead, from your hometown to dine with you, who would it be and why?

My family and friends. It’s always a pleasure to have the people you love with you in the special moments. I would love to have my parents, my brothers, my Lelela (grandmother), and my aunts, Tia Rosa and Tia Nohemy. I know they would be full of pride seeing me making their dishes for more people.

Join us for Kilo Cooking Beats—Raíces on Thursday, 30th March as Gisela dishes up an 8-course feast for one night only.
More details on the event page here, and visit here to make a reservation for the evening.