Chef Carla Contreras: Cooking is Self-Care

  • Written By:Alexandra Perron, Managing Editor
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It’s my mission to empower others in the kitchen.

- Chef Carla Contreras

Collagen cake truffles, probiotic coconut cream, and chocolate truffles. Are you drooling yet? These are just a few of the recipes developed exclusively for JustBobbi by Chef Carla Contreras and we thought it was time for you to meet this incredible foodie. She’s made food in professional kitchens (working at Daniel Boulud’s DBGB) and on television (you might recognize her from Chopped) and now she’s sharing her philosophy not only here, but through her new online cooking school, Cooking Is the New Healthy. We caught up to hear more about how she got her start, her favorite meals and why she sees cooking as the ultimate form of self-care.

Tell us about how you got your start in the kitchen.

When I was a little girl, the kitchen was my home. The kitchen is where I first learned how to cut a peach (all by myself) and make chocolate chip cookies with my mom. We went to the farmers market twice a week. Cooking with seasonal ingredients was ingrained in me.

We also went out to eat at fine dining restaurants regularly, with white linens for dinner and Sunday brunch, it was the ’80s, and decadence was in. I was fascinated by restaurants and restaurant culture. I knew I wanted to work in one. I started working in my first professional kitchen when I was 18.

When did you realize you wanted to be a chef?

I was in a professional kitchen working my station and the chef asked me what my life plan was. I was taking a year off college and I had just finished an associates degree. The truth was that I was partying, drinking, and doing a ton of drugs. I was on a path to nowhere. The moment he suggested going to culinary school changed my life. Within three months, I moved to Providence, Rhode Island, and started culinary school.

You’ve cooked on TV and in busy kitchens. What’s been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your years working as a chef?

Never give up. Working in a professional kitchen is incredibly difficult—and not just physically but mentally. The kitchens I first started working in were the ones Anthony Bourdain wrote about. Lots of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. With all that chaos, there was also a code for perfection.

I took that work ethic with me when I became an entrepreneur. Ten years ago, I launched a catering company and meal delivery service in Brooklyn. I was also a personal chef to some of NYC's most elite, including billionaires, celebrities, and musicians.

The everyday food we eat is so special to me. It’s the food that nourishes us to our core and shapes our lives.

- Chef Carla Contreras

How have you taken what you’ve learned and applied it to what you’re doing now?

David Chang recently interviewed chef Marco Carnoa on his podcast. Marco talked about being a home cook first. I know that despite my training, working in restaurants like DBGB, hotels like Marriott International, and in professional kitchens for the past 20 years, first and foremost, I am a home cook.

The everyday food we eat is so special to me. It’s the food that nourishes us to our core and shapes our lives. It’s the north star that drives my work. Creating approachable recipes for EVOLUTION_18 is one of the many projects that I look forward to each month.

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What is your food philosophy?

It’s my mission to empower others in the kitchen. I want to make cooking accessible to home cooks. I believe cooking is the highest form of self-care and I want people to experience that magic in their kitchen every day.

Why do you see cooking as self-care?

Cooking is so much more than learning to sauté kale properly. It’s about learning to truly nourish yourself from the inside out with real food. Once that foundation is built in your life, things start to flow (with your health and everything else)!

Tell us more about your online cooking programs — what made you want to develop these?

Cooking Is the New Healthy is a monthly membership where we cook one new recipe a week. The Meal Prep Masterclass is also included, it has everything from how to hold and sharpen your knives to dicing an onion and the proper way to cut an avocado. I also have the MORE Than Salad mini course, which teaches you how to make Insta-worthy salads at home.

The point of both of these classes is that I want you to feel inspired and, dare I say, fall in love with cooking at home. Your food is going to taste so much better than you thought when you start cooking consistently. People are going to ask you, “What did you put in this? It's delicious!” That’s my goal, for you to have food that you love to eat at home. For you to feel proud of and satisfied with what you created. Really good food can be created by anyone—not just professional chefs.

What do you think is the biggest misconception when it comes to healthy eating and cooking? What do people get wrong?

In my in-person cooking classes, the number one answer to this question is fear and intimidation and that it needs to be perfect. I want to help you ditch the perfection around what a healthy lifestyle means and take it one recipe at a time.

It’s about making cooking less of a chore and more about bringing the joy of real food into your life. There is no failing, no pressure, and no need to force anything. I want you to see that cooking (and eating) is for pleasure.

It’s like a casual stroll through the grocery store or farmers market. Not like fighting for a parking spot or jamming yourself into a packed line at Costco, Trader Joes, or Whole Foods on a Sunday afternoon.

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What 3 things will we always find in your kitchen cabinet?

  1. Oils like extra-virgin olive, avocado, and coconut.
  2. Salt and pepper—this is the difference between good food and great food. It’s also the reason restaurant food tastes so good.
  3. Dark chocolate. I collect different bars. I love having a square of chocolate after lunch with a cup of hot tea or a matcha latte.

Is there an ingredient you can’t live without?

Fresh leafy greens like kale, spinach, lettuce, and chicory like radicchio. My goal is to eat greens three times a day. It’s not perfect, but I start my mornings with greens in my smoothie. I like to have greens for lunch and greens for dinner. It makes me feel my best.

Your go-to breakfast:

I start every morning with a huge room-temperature mason jar full of water or hot lemon water. If I’m going to work out early, I grab a handful of almonds before I leave. I’m also obsessed with my daily matcha routine. I drink a matcha smoothie every day. I make some modifications here and there, but it’s full of greens and healthy fats and keeps me going until lunch. Lately, I’ve been adding black sesame seeds. Here is the recipe for my favorite matcha smoothie.

Your go-to lunch:

I work at home most days testing recipes, writing, shooting food photography, and working on my courses. I like something that’s ready in five minutes or less. This is why meal-prepping is so important. This is usually my biggest meal of the day. I often post my REAL MEALS on Instagram. Lunch can be giant salads, quick soups, or scrambled eggs with roasted veggies. If I’m getting fancy, I sear a piece of salmon.

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Your go-to dinner:

This totally depends on the day. I follow my same formula that I use for lunch. My kiddos love freshly roasted veggies, so I usually prep one veggie and have it ready to go. They also love pasta or rice plus a protein. I always have snacks like hummus, cheese, and fresh fruit for them to snack on while they wait for dinner to be ready. My snack before dinner lately is spicy Sicilian olives. It reminds me of being a kid. My mom always put olives and cheese out before dinner. On days that I test and shoot recipes all day, I often have a green smoothie minus the matcha or a Vanilla Collagen, Chamomile and Rose Hip latte.

Best meal you’ve ever had (where, what and why!):

There are so many beautiful moments in my food story. Here are some of them: my great aunt Jo’s grilled cheese sandwiches; eating toro in a walk-in cooler with the Japanese chef who trained me; the countless dinners on my rooftop when I lived in Brooklyn; giant oysters in Paris; my first date at Pure Food and Wine with my partner, Ed; and eating sumo oranges with my kiddos (we have an entire ritual of how we peel an orange, including smelling it). When was the last time you smelled an orange as you peeled it? It’s pure bliss.

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