If anyone knows her way around a kitchen, it’s Marcela Valladolid. From learning the basics as a child in Mexico to hosting her own Food Network show and everywhere in between, the San Diego-based chef has cooked her way around the globe, her heritage informing her cuisine every step of the way.
However, no project has been more from-the-heart than Marcela’s latest contribution to the culinary world, her new cookbook, Fiestas
filled with expert, stress-free hosting tips and go-to recipes to get even the most timid home entertainer excited to plan their next fiesta.
We caught up with Marcela at her breathtaking Chula Vista home to talk all things food, entertaining, and of course at the top of our minds, Cinco de Mayo. The dinner party she hosted for close friends is bursting with decor ideas and design inspiration you won’t want to miss.
We love your home. What’s the story there?
My home is an historical Chula Vista landmark! Built in 1912, the home was built in the middle of 55 acres of citrus trees. There’s a ton of history here and, when remodeling upon purchase, I wanted to respect the architecture of the home. I brightened it up and added a tone of elements that pay homage to my upbringing in Mexico. The best compliment I could ever receive is when folks tell me it’s so cozy they don’t want to leave. Mexico exists in some way or another in every room of the home. But it’s subtle and that’s how I entertain. Nothing is in-your-face of any culture or ethnicity. I just search for beauty. Same with my entertaining. I don’t search for Mexican-only themes or menus, just things that are beautiful and work well together!
Where did you learn to cook?
My mom spent a lot of time sick and in bed when I was growing up and it was common practice in Mexico to hire beautiful women from all over Mexico to do not only the housework, but also the cooking. They were like my moms and sisters. I learned the most from them as they all came from a different region with an entirely different cuisine. Oaxaca, Yucatan, Puebla, Mexico City…
Sounds like a childhood filled with incredible meals. What do you always keep in your refrigerator these days?
Milk. Butter. Eggs. Pickled Jalapeños.
Tell us about Cinco de Mayo in your household?
Truth? It’s exactly the same as Cuatro de Mayo. It’s not celebrated in Mexico or by Mexicans — only in Puebla, where the specific battle being celebrated was won. It’s an American creation and whatever celebrates our food and our culture I get excited about, but the truth is everybody just gets up and goes to school or work like any other day!
We love the way Mexican culture influence your entertaining style. What’s the number one favorite tabletop item you own?
My Talavera anything. Such gorgeous hand-painted pieces.
The restaurant meal you’ll never forget:
The Sundays spent eating lobster in Puerto Nuevo with my family are the most treasured food memories I have in my life. Served with red rice, refried beans, clarified butter and homemade flour tortillas to make your own burritos. Who the hell needs a michelin star after that.
That sounds like heaven! What’s your signature dish to serve at parties?
We grill lamb chops. A lot. My personal obsession, and my kids live them. They’re well-known around these parts. As is Philip’s pasta sauce.
What a collection! Out of all of these, what’s your must-have entertaining tool?
I don’t know about a tool, but serving utensils are a big deal for me. I have a formidable collection. I can’t stand a beautiful plate of food being served with a regular old kitchen spoon.
What would we never find at one of your parties?
Disposables. Horrible for the environment and oh so cheap.
Cheers to that! And what is your signature cocktail?
Tequila. Straight. In a snifter. With an orange wedge. My dad’s venom of choice.
No one knows entertaining quite like you. What would you say is the secret to a great dinner party?
The hostess is happy. Period. You set the tone. Everything can suck but if you can laugh about it, the guests will laugh with you. Your stress becomes their stress so don’t stress!
Love that! What entertaining rule would you never break?
I never pre-plate food. Ever. No matter how formal the occasion, it’s always self-serve. I hate wasted food and honestly I’ve gone thru so many experimental diet restrictions in the last few years that I know what it feels like to be presented with a plate you can’t eat but at the same time you don’t want to be annoying and make people make you a special plate of food.
Standard hostess outfit, go.
Little black dress. Big heels. Red lip. Red nails. High pony.
The perfect dinner party playlist includes:
A bunch of contemporary pop Mexican artists, a little Bob Marley, maybe some Gipsy Kings, definitely Frank Sinatra and Edith Piaf makes my heart happy. Elvis makes occasional appearances.
What does after dinner typically look like at your house?
After-dinner conversations with the teens at the table. Or Philip will organize some sort of soccer-related tournament for the kids outside. He just amazoned an obstacle course by American Ninja Warriors. I’ll let you know how that goes.
You dream dinner guests:
My family. My family. My family. Eckart Tolle and Albert Einstein would also be pretty cool.
Fill in the blank: “It’s not a party without ____________.”
Good food. Good lighting. Good music.