The MasterChef franchise through the years, have given the spotlight to many interesting characters hailing from different nooks of the world, who have presented various underrepresented cuisines, unfamiliar to the masses. Keyma Vasquez Montero, a MasterChef Australia (S14: Fans & Favourites) challenger, was one such celebrated individual who plated a concoction of cuisines and various types of food, few people outside her native region had been properly aware of. She had a majorly successful run which ended at a commendable 4th-placed finish on the competitive cooking show. Despite losing out on a place in the semi-final at the tail end of the show, Keyma made a solid case for Latin-American and Caribbean cuisine and quickly became a fans’ favorite early on.
“Montero is definitely one to watch on the cooking show this year, because she offers cultural knowledge and techniques that other contenders haven't necessarily brought to the table before.” - MasterChef Judge Melissa Leong
Growing up and embracing the geographical fervor that came with being brought up in the small town of Ciudad Guyana in Venezuela, Chef Keyma Vasquez Montero is well versed with the nuances of all that Latin American cuisine has to offer. Speaking of what sparked her interest in food she says - “I have to credit my mother and grandmother for being great inspirations. My grandmother, especially. She is from Trinidad & Tobago. She passed down her knowledge of Caribbean flavors and actually gave me lesson on the spices of the region. I really did grow up surrounded by foodies, people that love to eat and cook good food. There was some cooking event or the other in the neighborhood, which my family was always involved in.”
Keyma’s cooking expertise only scratches the surface with the sole mention of Caribbean cuisine. Being brought up in South America, Latin cuisine had always been a staple. From a young age, she figured out the subtle nuances and diversity among the different country-specific cuisines of the region. When she moved to Australia, she noticed the lack of South-American and Caribbean food understanding among the people in the country. This was the moment that sparked her chef dreams - to play her part in internationalizing her native cuisine.
Currently consulting and preparing exclusive Latin-American menus for several restaurants, Chef Keyma dreams of one-day having her own restaurant featuring a rotating menu with Latin, Caribbean and Australian flavors and influences, albeit at a time she feels most ready. As she slowly treads her way in the Australian culinary industry - making the cuisine more accessible by reinventing and presenting alternatives to ingredients endemic to Australia; she hopes she and her contemporaries will be able to spark a Latin-American food revolution of sorts, in the land down under, much like the explosion of East-Asian cuisines that the region has experienced over the last decade.
We had a memorable chat with Chef Keyma Vasquez Montero herself on a variety of subjects: her relationship with food, her cooking goals and philosophy, the MasterChef experience, life after the show and her first impressions on a cooking robot who is going to make some of her signature recipes..
QnA with Chef Keyma Vasquez Montero, 4th Placed MasterChef Australia Season 14 Contestant..
N: So, Keyma, you have made a name for yourself for your Latin American and Caribbean-style dishes which you showcased during MasterChef S14. We’re really interested to know how it all began for you. Tell us a little bit about how your journey with cooking has been growing up.
K: Well, I suppose growing up in Venezuela, I was really exposed to all these beautiful flavors from the region. And Venezuela is located in a really specific part of Latin America where we are exposed to a lot of Caribbean influence as well. We also have Colombia on one side, Brazil on the other. There's a lot of things kind of clashing in one place, like clashing in a good way because it means that in Venezuela, the cuisine is really rich and diverse.
My father is from the mountainous Andean region of Venezuela, so every time we would visit the region, I was exposed to different hearty flavors; and my mom is from the coastal side of the country. The Caribbean influence in my cooking is largely derived from my grandma who is from Trinidad and Tobago. She passed down her knowledge of diverse Caribbean flavors and actually made me understand the unique spices of the region. I really did grow up surrounded by foodies, surrounded by people that love food. There was some cooking event or the other, which my family was always involved in. I guess the conversations in these social meet-ups were about food such as - ‘how do you make this? What ingredients do you use?’ So I guess for me, it was that part of inspiration to get to know more about cooking.
After I moved to Australia, I guess my interest for Latin cuisine grew even more. I felt nostalgic and figured that the cuisine I grew up with was underrepresented in this region. I realized that due to the close proximity of Southeast Asia, Southeast Asian food is more present in the country, but that was more of an inspiration than anything else - there was a space for traditional Latin and Caribbean food here. I started to learn more about other Latin American cultures, and food - Colombian food, Brazilian food, and it's all so diverse. My journey evolved throughout the years, and I continue learning every day. To me, I just feel like there's so much to discover in Latin American cuisine that I continue researching and learning and being devoted to it.
"..In Latin America, we will use certain ingredients to create a certain flavor, so I thought how could I just substitute that and recreate the same or the same essence of the traditional cuisine? That's when it clicked to me that you have to adapt to the country and the flavors the region offers.."
N: Tell us a little bit specifically about the Venezuelan cuisine and how it's unique or how it is different from some of the other Latin American countries.
K: The location of the country is pretty unique because we're surrounded by different regional features. The culture was influenced by the Caribbean people and the Conquistadores. It has a history of being colonized by the Spanish, so evidently there's a lot of Spanish cultural influences which have molded into a distinct subculture in Venezuela. Then, there was French, Italian and African immigration as well. So today, I guess depending on the region of the country, there are different people living in the country who have had their own evolution through the years.
The main character of the Venezuelan cuisine is Spanish techniques with local ingredients. When the Spaniards came in, they found out they didn't find potatoes, so they had to use cassava and plantains, which were actually tubers or fruit vegetables. So you will find that Venezuelan food is really inspired by Spanish flavors, but using only local ingredients in the region. And when you move down the country towards the Amazona, you find all the Aboriginal techniques and the local ingredients of the Amazon. So I guess that’s a more local, regional cuisine. And I don't think many people know about this cuisine because it uses tarantulas, ants and the like. And it can be dangerous if you don't cook well. It's very unique, and I don't think the world knows much about it. I guess we evolved with the immigration and the more cultures coming to the country, they just add up to the local cuisine and transpire into something beautiful.
N: How do you approach prepping and plating your traditional Latin and Caribbean dishes to the Australian people?
K: Well, since I've been in Australia, and since I embarked on the MasterChef journey, I felt I was on a mission to tell the world about my cuisine, tell the world about Latin American cuisine. I saw that people didn't really understand the cuisine properly, because it's been such a regional cuisine, it hasn't been internationalized. So I feel that obviously, the evolution of Latin American cuisine has been really slow. So I feel that to me, it was about exploring how far I could take this - to the world stage and help people understand it in a different way. So I started just researching the actual traditional cuisine and trying to play a little bit with Australian produce. In Latin America, we will use certain ingredients to create a certain flavor, so I thought how could I just substitute that and recreate the same or the same essence of the traditional cuisine? That's when it clicked to me that you have to adapt to the country and the flavors the region offers. By using the same cooking techniques we use in Latin America and produce from Australia, we will be able to kind of create a bridge between the two cultures with delicious food.
So I guess for me it was understanding, how I could make each dish better? How can I create a spin? How can I actually make it in a way that people enjoy without taking too much from the essence of the traditional dishes. And ultimately, it’s just love that I express through my food.
I guess Latin Americans were recognizing the food, and they were saying - ‘how are you doing this?’ I was really nervous when I started bringing these dishes with twists and different ingredients. But still I felt - , ‘well, I'm still representing it, even though I'm making changes into some of the nuances’. So I guess it's just a new step, and there are some chefs around the world doing this, but I think we need more. We need more people just trying to push the cuisine throughout the world and making it truly international.
N: Another platform you’re using to spread your culinary knowledge is through your blog, right? - “Guava by Keyma”. Tell us a little bit about what went behind that and when did you decide to start it?
K: With the blog, my intention was to bring really simple recipes to people to try. I feel that when you don't understand everything, the first thing for you to say is, I won't go into it if you feel it's complicated or it has to make steps, or I don't understand the actual cuisine, I don't know where to find the ingredients. So I started to break down some of the Venezuelan recipes and to do small steps at a time. I haven't really made anything too complicated for people to actually try it at home with their family. And I always try to give as much substitution, as much explanation as possible. For me, the blog is more something for the regular home tool to actually try Latin American foods in a simple way and start adding some of those flavors into people’s everyday life.
Everything that goes in the blog has been tested, like, several times by my kids. And they are actually the ones that say, oh, mom, you should actually post this in the blog. It's really fun because I have a family that actually can validate my recipe ideas. Obviously, they're kids, but if the kids like it, everyone will like it because kids can be fussy. I trust my family to take the first feedback on any recipe. And if they like it has to be good. And when it’s not so good, they are mildly polite and I know it right away. So it’s really a group effort, this blog, if you ask me.
N: What is it that drives you to constantly keep innovating with cooking? What are your sources of inspiration?
Before, I was just a home-cook and loved cooking for my family. And I don't always cook Latin-American food to be honest, but I guess once I started discovering my heritage more deeply, I started to develop an identity, especially through MasterChef. I started understanding that there was so much more exploring to do. I started researching and trying Latin cooking techniques that I didn’t know of earlier, I just started to feel connected to it, you know? I was just looking for these idols that are in the same spin of Latin American & Caribbean cruise. I came across Jason Howard’s Instagram. He's a really talented Jamaican chef. He prepares a really modern kind of cuisine. And I started feeling that I needed to take my cooking to that level. But at some point I felt that in Australia, Latin American cooking hasn't developed so much. So it’s more important to keep it traditional so people can actually get to know it, taste it, and get accustomed to it. There's still some time to get into the modern stage of Latino making procedures over here. But I did adopt some French techniques. For eg - the Bouillabaisse, which is the French seafood stew, I incorporated some Latin flavors to the mix and it came out beautifully.
N: You came fairly close to the final stages of MasterChef, and you were obviously one of the most loved contestants on the show. How was your overall experience and what was the atmosphere like? And how much value do you think the experience added to your culinary journey?
K: I feel that when I started Master Chef, I wasn't really expecting anything from the experience because for me, it was like not really believing I could be standing there in front of the judges, in front of people that actually came to the show before. It was a really special season this year, and I felt that I was really intimidated by the fact that I was going to go against people that knew more than me, that had all the experience. I've been cooking for my family all this time and obviously developing in a way because I'm kind of a perfectionist. If I don't like it, I will remake it and remake it so I get into a loop of making stuff over and over again. But once I started and I started proving myself each week on the show, I thought - wait, I’m doing pretty good. And then I think at some point I embraced it in a way that I was like, well, it's really hard and it's a lot of pressure, but I can take this opportunity to actually learn and grow and take these skills further, because that's what MasterChef does. They just give you a platform for you to actually explore your skills, your abilities, and then push yourself as a person and as a go as far as you can.
I may be a perfectionist but I’m not very ambitious. But you have to have that little bit of ambition when you're in the show to continue going and not letting the pressure get to you. You have to brace yourself and kind of believe in yourself every day. So I think one of the things that happened during the show personally is to me, a lot of growth in terms of resilience. So I guess the whole journey for me has been inspirational in a way that I felt because of my age, my background, my accent, because I had so many blocks in terms of not actually getting into the show. And I got into the show even though all of that was still in my mind. And then I started just, I guess, overcoming all of those belief systems and reconnecting into myself as a person. And obviously, at some point after that self belief kicked in, I started looking into the evolution of my cooking and how I could keep improving. I started cooking my best when I was in the flow. Even though sometimes I felt I didn't produce a top dish but got good feedback, I thought that it was good progress. I was never focusing on the trophy, instead I was focusing on doing my best each week and keep growing.
N: How has life been post Master Chef, though? How does it feel to have this love from people on social media? What plans do you have for the immediate future?
K: I guess it was a bit daunting, to be honest, to have come out of MasterChef and having people reach out to me. I wasn't really expecting, I guess, becoming a celebrity or anything. And I still don't consider myself a celebrity. But then you go out and I have to allocate 30 minutes more to my shopping. People start hugging me and realize that I'm an actual person, haha. It’s really humbling, I just tell them I'm just shopping with my family. They have asked me when I go to the supermarket - "What are you making today? What special dishes?" and I’m like, “Actually, I'm just making toasties. Haha”
After you're in a really high speed competition and then you go back into your life, there's a period where you have to adapt. For my family nothing has changed. But for me, everything changed. So when I came back, I had to get used to the house again, to the kids, to what was going on. It takes some time to get used to it and then obviously deciding what I was going to do from now on.
I still have a lot of commitments being a mom and my kids still depend on me. So I had to slow down and start thinking, well, maybe I will start collaborating with restaurants, maybe I will start writing a book, but I will not hurry it. I want to cook, I want to contribute to the hospitality industry with what I do. But I have to do it in a way that actually balances my whole family life for a few years more. When I realized that I can do multiple things at the same time, I just pulled back for a bit. I started collaborating with the businesses and brands that I feel connected with. I've been developing some menus from some restaurants, and created a pop-up event recently as well. And yeah, I have a few projects going on, but everything at my own pace.
"..For me Nymble is convenience, available at the tap of a button. For someone who is busy, for someone who is working - this is simplicity, served. That really resonates with my cooking philosophy as well.."
N: Speaking of collaborations, what did you think of us when we first reached out to you about Nymble? And tell us just what went through your mind and how did you react to our product?
K: I guess with Nymble, what really piqued my interest is that I'm a mom as well, and I've been in that place where I'm really poor with time. Sometimes you need that extra help in the kitchen even as a home-cook. And I'm like, well, this is a great idea to have a product that actually can cook for you while you're doing something else, because it's an automated robot-cook. So when I heard about the idea, I was really interested in it, and I'm kind of into kitchen-tech as well. So I guess futuristically, it was really interesting to me. I really wanted to explore a little bit more about the idea and to partner with you guys and be able to actually develop a recipe. That was really fun, I’m glad that happened.
I guess to me, it's basically convenient to have one of these in your kitchen. You may have many appliances but having something that actually you can just turn on and just throw the ingredients and then let it do its magic, is just unbelievable. For someone who has a busy schedule, someone who works round the clock, for them, this will be perfect.
N: Tell us a little bit about the recipes that you have developed for us, especially the Chupe de Pollo and the Caribbean-style coconut curry.
K: So the recipes I wanted to bring to Nymble, again, I want them to be approachable both in flavor and simplicity. The Chuppe de Pollo has a lot of nostalgia attached to it. It’s a warm and hearty soup. And even though it's so simple, I guess these flavors of coriander and corn, they just bring so much of that Venezuelan flavor to the table that I feel people don't know that much about. When you see the ingredients, they look so simple, when you try the final product, it's just so delicious. In 30 minutes, you really understand how much flavor these simple ingredients can develop, it really is an amazing recipe.
But there's another recipe I wanted to bring, which was my curry. I wanted to bring the essence of the recipe, which is actually the curry powder, which is so spicy and delicious. It 's very different from the Indian one or the American one, but it still has influences from these regions. You can do it with chicken or beef or prawns and fish. So I wanted to showcase a recipe that people don't really think belongs to Latin American cuisine, but that it exists and really savory.
Keyma Vasquez Montero is one of the many MasterChef contestants who we reached out to collaborate and co-create some of their signature dishes on our cooking robot. This is a candid interview series where the chefs interact with our cooking-robot, as we draw from their experiences as chefs, their own cooking philosophies, techniques, tips and much more.
Click to join our early access community and try Keyma Vasquez's delicious Latin-American and Caribbean delicacies, only on Nymble!