Chef LaLa to Demonstrate Skills at Cultural Food Expo

By Marisela Santana, staff writer, Los Angeles Wave

LOS ANGELES — Laura Diaz, internationally known as Chef LaLa, will be taking a break from her usual routines of back-to-back televised cooking demonstrations, international cookbook signings, catering events for internationally dignitaries and radio appearances to be at the one event in Los Angeles she credits to giving new meaning to the word flavor.

This will be her sixth year in attendance at the fused Expo Comida Latina, the All Asia Food Expo, KosherWest and El Mercado del Mar, taking place Monday and Tuesday at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

While registration is required for attendees of the annual event, the event boasts a pavilion of local, national and international vendors specializing in Latin, Asian and kosher foods.

The expos, which were held separately for the first few years, are now being called the Cultural Food Los Angeles Expo and this year alone, brings together more than 800 manufacturers, distributors, importers and wholesalers of authentic Latino, Asian, kosher certified and seafood and beverages from around the world.

The best part of it all, says Chef LaLa is that the exhibitors also launch thousands of tomorrow’s hottest products, ingredients and services.

“You don’t just have to remember anymore your [grandmother’s] recipes,” Chef LaLa said. “This expo allows you, allows me and anybody else who wants to cook a certain dish, to go to the store and buy the ingredient. The ingredients our grandparents used can now be found at the supermarkets. This expo made that possible.”

When she was younger, Chef LaLa recalls going to a special event at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Guests of the Mexican consulate, Chef LaLa said her father brought with him a can of Mexican jalapeños. “My mother thought it was embarrassing that he would carry around with him a can of jalapeños,” Chef LaLa said. “She would tell him, ‘put that can away.’ But he wouldn’t. They served ribs that evening and would you believe that our table was mobbed by people who wanted some of my dad’s jalapeños.”

People even asked her father for the jalapeño juice, she said. It was then, at 8 years old, that Chef LaLa realized that Latin food was “way too underrepresented.”

“I couldn’t believe, here we were in a room full of Mexicans, at a Mexican event, basically, and there was not one chile or jalapeño in sight other than the can that my father brought,” Chef LaLa said. “At that moment, I thought something was wrong with the picture.”

Fast forward to today and there is no other word that can describe Latin food other than “flavor,” she said.

From various types of Jamaica powdered drinks to enchilada sauces galore, the expo, she said, brings to Angelenos the ways and means to make traditional, authentic foods, whether they be Latin, Asian or kosher recipes. Chef LaLa, author of “Latin Lover Lite: Recipe for Passion,” which sold more than seven million copies last year, is a huge believer in healthy cooking.

Rather than tell a Mexican, to eat a rice cake if he or she wants to be healthy, Chef LaLa takes a more sensitive approach to her methods.

It is much easier to tell a Mexican to eat beans, but without the added lard. Another sound piece of advice, from one Mexican to another, would be to eat corn tortillas, rather than flour tortillas.

Having traveled all over the world, Chef LaLa said she knows firsthand that it isn’t easy telling Latinos to eat healthier without offending anyone. She also knows that for many Latinos, it is like Thanksgiving every weekend.

“Things have changed for the better concerning general interest in eating well. I no longer feel like I’m ‘nagging’ people about eating right,” she said. “They’re more aware and want to be empowered to take care of themselves; they want to be healthier. I encourage people to be conscious of what they’re consuming, even if they choose to eat something that is high in calories or fat. I believe that if they know, they will make good choices most of the time.” Then, she added with a laugh, “Let’s face it — none of us are going to be perfect all of the time.”

With her parents owning a chain of restaurants throughout Los Angeles during her childhood, Chef LaLa almost fell into the art of cooking by default. But something happened in medical school and her passion suddenly kicked in and the rest has been history. With a new book on the way, “Best Loved Mexican,” set for release in March, Chef LaLa is making sure that Latin food, as far as she is concerned, is no longer misunderstood, misrepresented or underrepresented.

In following in her father’s footsteps (no she doesn’t bring a can of jalapeños to events with her), Chef LaLa merely wants to recreate the magic her father did with his recipes.

“He was the type who didn’t measure anything. He didn’t use measuring cups, he just cooked,” she said. “People tend to think that Mexican foods are tacos and burritos, and I’m here to tell them that it’s not.”

For someone who has had three out of four grandparents die of diabetes complications, encouraging healthy cooking has become Chef LaLa’s calling.

Mexican food is about tradition and about culture, and the fusion of ingredients, she said. It’s the reason that the Expo Comida Latina and the All Asia Food Expo have fused so beautifully, she said.

“It’s not just a fusion of ingredients, it’s the fusion of cultures,” she said. “You learn about other cultures through food, right? You wouldn’t believe how [much] both of our cultures are similar.”

At last year’s expo, she said, she and fellow a chef, who was cooking an Asian dish for the expo’s culinary demonstration session, practically used the same ingredients, except she was making arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) and he was making chicken fried rice.

The result last year was a new recipe for Mushu burritos, Chef LaLa said with a laugh. Chef LaLa will be conducting demonstrations Monday from 3 to 4 p.m. and Tuesday from 1 to 2 p.m.