While she may be a new face to KLCS and PBS cooking show viewers, fans of food competition shows will recognize Chef Monti Carlo when she hosts “Wellness Program Presents: Nutritious Bites,” a new series produced by KLCS in partnership with the L.A. School District’s Wellness Programs. Chef Monti was on Gordon Ramsay’s “MasterChef” Season Three where she placed fifth, and for someone who has fond recollections of sitting on the couch with her mother watching Julia Child, the opportunity to educate viewers on this new show is a full-circle moment. Born in Puerto Rico, she built a successful career as a morning radio host, and then she became a chef by necessity. Chef Monti shares with us the catalyst in her life that got her on the path to cooking and teaching others the importance of cooking and eating nutritiously, her first food memory, what it was like being on various network cooking shows and, of course, her favorite places to food-shop in Los Angeles.
Chef Monti how has your upbringing and being from Puerto Rico influenced your cooking?
That story’s really deep I didn’t even really cook (laughs) professional, or really cook that much to begin with, until I lost everything and I was living in L.A., facing homelessness with my two-year old son, which is why I ended up auditioning for “MasterChef” and that’s when I really started developing my love for Puerto Rican cuisine. I had just gone through a divorce and I used to cut apples and pretend they were my ex-husband’s face and that was the pie that I auditioned with at my cattle-call audition, an apple pie. But then they let me know they were going to have me on the show; I didn’t want to present this really angry little apple pie. I wanted to show [Gordon Ramsay] more about the flavors that shaped me in Puerto Rico with my grandmothers that taught me how to cook. My very first memory is rolling sorullos, which is a corn fritter that’s shaped like a cigar, I think I was three years old and that’s one of my very first memories of doing that with my grandmother. I started with the whole Puerto Rico thing because of “MasterChef” and wanting to show Puerto Rico on a platform like that.
That answers my next question, which was “What was your path to being a chef?”
My path was disaster. That’s my path. (laughs) It was, literally. I was facing…I legit lost everything that I had and that I had worked for, for 15 years. And in the [radio] business you have to hop from station to station and I moved to seven different states in five years. I was signed to a half a million-dollar contract in Seattle and I had a baby and that changed everything. I was working ridiculous hours and my kid was calling the nanny “mommy” and I was like, “No, I’m not going to do this anymore and I thought I had all this savings. I was like, “I’m just going to take a year off and raise this kid. Then I had three days off and my ex-husband left his [dating website] profile open on my computer, so I filed for divorce and that’s when I realized he’d gambled away my savings. I had to go on WIC and that’s how I started cooking a little bit because I had no money, legit, and I was to the point where I couldn’t get a job. I was down to my last $50 bucks and I didn’t know how I was going to make rent.
You didn’t want to go back to radio?
I couldn’t. I had quit in this spectacular way. (laughs) No one was hiring me. That’s when I auditioned for [Master Chef]. I had never seen the show and I didn’t know how serious it was and the producers were like, “Do you know what the five mother sauces are?” I had no idea. I’m like, “ketchup, barbecue.” I’m thinking it’s sauces that moms give to their kids, but they kept laughing and I think that’s why they let me through to audition to Gordon, because they thought it would be funny. But out in that very first audition; that was my only opportunity, as soon as they told me there was a $250,000 grand prize that was like, “OK, I’m going to learn how to cook.” And I taught myself how to cook in the space between the auditions, which I think was nine weeks. It was a lot, but I would stay up all night while my kiddo slept. That was really the only time that I could cook, but I also had zero money and zero ingredients, so I had to go on the Internet and learn recipes and figured the whole thing out virtually. Hitting bottom truly was the biggest gift I received because it really was the only reason that I auditioned for that show and that show completely changed my life. Completely.
That also answers my next question, “What made you originally want to cook on TV?”
I had no other choice. I couldn’t get work, I had no money and legit, the only choice I had was to become a chef and teach myself how to cook and try to win a world renown cooking competition (laughs). But I got the top five and after I left the show, the people from OWN called me, they introduced me to my agent, I shot my very show – with FYI called “Make My Food Famous” and that was the very first time I hosted a TV show. Food Network saw that and then they came calling and I hosted “Help My Yelp” for them and they put me through as a judge on “Cutthroat Kitchen,” “Chopped Junior,” all the competition shows I got to be a judge on, which was really great and I learned a little more every time about how to communicate and how to word things properly for camera when you’re describing food. So that’s how I got started.
Many of us, like you, didn’t grow with cable to watch those cable show, and you mentioned growing up watching PBS, can you share more about how PBS was important in your life?
Oh my God, it was everything. For me, when I first moved to the states I didn’t speak a lick of English and I was six or seven, so I learned English watching TV and we didn’t have cable. I think I learned watching “Scooby Doo,” “Donahue” and PBS (laughs), they had “Electric Company” and “Sesame Street,” “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and my mom would watch Julia Child and the Cajun chef.
“Wellness Programs Presents: Nutritious Bites” is a new production from KLCS and it must be fulfilling to be on a show that educates kids and their families about eating nutritious food and to encourage them to participate in making healthy food choices. How did that come about and how did you become connected to this project?
I co-founded a company called “Everything Food” and we are dedicated to helping people learn more about food, learn how to shop for food, learn nutrition so they don’t have to actually read labels, we created a quality score so they can just see right away if it’s a high enough quality for them. We’re even working on a program right now, like a google maps where people can type in a shopping list and they can see all the stores and their zip code and how much that list costs at each store and the quality of each ingredient at each store. It’s an amazing thing, these techie guys are doing it, I have nothing to do with it. I started that company and it became a passion of mine. I started with Common Threads and then I started teaching classes in these schools and it became a huge passion of mine to teach people how to cook nutritious food in neighborhoods like the kind that I’d grow up in. Common Threads called and they were like, “Hey can you shoot something for u?” Because I shoot videos all the time, I was like, “Yeah, you can shoot it in my house, I have a little studio set up and we can shoot there.” That’s how all of it got started.
On the new KLCS show, I love how you make everything easy to understand, informative and yet it’s not talking down to children, is that something you deliberately wanted to do since nutrition is so important? And was it easy to do that because you teach your son to cook in this way as well?
Yeah I’ve got an 11-year boy and I’ve legit spent so much teaching kids (laughs) that I know that they’re people; don’t treat them like babies because they’re going to get turned off, but if talk to them like, not an adult, but talk to them in a straight way and in an engaging way, where you’re not treating them like these little frail people that can’t do anything, they become engaged. And that for me is the most wonderful time in every class that I do with kids. And even when I was teaching at Sur La Table, when I would teach the kids classes, none of the other chefs wanted to teach the kids and I loved teaching the kids, like I love teaching seven year olds how to roll sushi, because kids are hilarious. (laughs)
It must be fulfilling that you’re able to make a positive difference because you’re helping people become healthy and little kids become healthy throughout their lives.
Nutrition is everything and what’s on the plate is everything, with environment, politics, chronic disease, communities and opening up to communities that aren’t anything like yours, all of that discovery happens through food and what you put food on the plate. So for me, being able to teach kids, and their parents, habits that they can carry with them for the rest of their life, I know that I’m creating change in my own little way. I’m not any good at math; I’m not going to cure cancer, but this I can do.
You can tell you really enjoy what you do; what keeps you going everyday?
My kiddo Danger (laughs) I do everything for him, everything is about him. I work so hard because I know what it’s like to have nothing with Danger, and I don’t ever want to go to that place. I don’t ever want to go back there and I want to make sure that I set a great example for him, so he knows it’s not all about having a ton of money, it’s not about being a show off, it’s about creating change in your community, positive change. And if you can do that in your life, then you’ve done something amazing.
Do you have an easy go-to nutritional dish or soup that you make when you don’t have time but want maximum nutrition?
That’s a great question. I love making a chicken noodle soup with barley and then you can put different tubers or root vegetables in there to get to some really great nutrition and it’s also a really easy meal to make if you use rotisserie chicken. If you’re a mom on the go and you don’t have a lot of time to be at a stove, you take a rotisserie chicken and you finish the dish with the rotisseries chicken and then you can save the bones and make a chicken stock afterwards as well, so it’s a gift that keeps on giving. And the barley is a wonderful whole grain, it’s important to have whole grain, it’s much better than having past a in the soup. And of course, veggies you can throw in there.
What’s the most frequent question you get and what is your response?
Oh my God, every time and it’s “Is Gordon Ramsey really as mean as he is on TV?” Every time. No, he is the sweetest, kindest human being. The man completely saved me from the most ridiculously bad situation. He kept me on that show, even though to be perfectly honest there was no reason I should’ve made it to the top five. There were so many amazing cooks there that had much more experience, but he was really pulling for me and that was just incredible. And he loves to laugh. If you see “MasterChef Junior,” that’s what he’s like.
What’s your average day like now?
It’s nuts, I get up at three in the morning and I read four or five newspapers, kind of figure out what’s going on in the world, what’s happening in the food world and I test recipes before my kid gets up, because once they’re up, it’s a done deal. I test recipes, I write recipes, I put together social media posts for Everything Food and I start writing scripts; I’m writing a book. The other day I got up at three in the morning, did my recipes, did the posts, went to a shoot for Food Network at 7 a.m. and shot for 12 hours, came home and then got the post for the next day ready. (laughs) It’s a nonstop thing. I’m doing a ton of cooking demos online on Zoom in colleges all across the country, so that really keeps me busy because you have to develop those recipes and then figure out how you’re going to play them to camera, so people can actually learn something and I’m doing it all by myself, I’m the director, food stylist, host and script writer and the person that washes the dishes afterwards (laughs).
Almost everyone chef we’ve interviewed has had a Julia Child story, do you have a Julia story?
First of all, the only time that I spent with my mom on a couch was watching Julia Child. She loved to cook, but she was a very busy single parent so she would very rarely take time out, but she loved watching Julia Child. The way that she would transform when she was watching that show, how the stress would leave her and she was so curious about learning these techniques, that was what I wanted to do when I finally decided that I wanted to be in the food world after “MasterChef”. I cut out a picture of Julia Child holding that chicken (laughs) and that was on my poster board, I still have it actually (laughs) because that’s who I wanted to be, I wanted to teach people how to cook in a very light hearted manner, but legit get them to learn something that they can use forever. On the vision board I had Julia Child, I had the Food Network magazine cover and a bunch of different Food Network chefs; I’ve worked with all of them.
Do ever just pinch yourself you do this for a living and follow in Julia’s footsteps of educating people about cooking on TV and food?
Yeah, (tears up) I’m going to get choked up, are you kidding? When I saw the pre-cut of the video, it was insane to me that I’m getting to use the same space that taught me everything and that I’m able to go into communities all over and help teach them something. It’s a really full-circle moment.
There aren’t that many healthy chefs, they still cook a lot with butter for example and not a lot of healthy swap outs, like I cook with cauliflower and put it with mashed potatoes, so I like how you break down a lot of the nutrition.
Yeah, I’m obsessed with letting people know. So many people don’t even understand or know how much their food goes through with pesticides. I did a series called “Smart Eats” for Everything Food where I let people know what to watch out for when they’re shopping for cereal and chicken – people don’t know that it’s bathed and bleached, [it’s] illegal for the rest of the world to buy American chicken because of that. There’s just so much for people to know about the food system and unfortunately we’re so separated from the food system now. I’ve had kids come up to me, older kids, we cooked a hard boiled egg and they came up to me and said, “How do I get the egg out?” That’s legit.
What are your favorite places to food shop and to dine in Los Angeles?
Right now I shop online (laughs) but I love the Silverlake farmer’s market, I love the Santa Monica farmer’s market. If I’m headed that way, that’s one of my favorites, just because if you get there early enough, you can find just the coolest veggies and the most amazing tomatoes ever in the history of the world. As far as grocery stores, I’m a budget shopper so I love Super King, it carries a crazy amount of food from all the world. I’m Puerto Rican, so I’m all about going into a Latino neighborhood and taking advantage of a little Mexican corner store because that’s really the only place I’m going to find the ingredients I need for Puerto Rican food. Right now in Northridge I’m obsessed with Gasolina Café, because it’s a true Spanish restaurant and there are not a lot of that in the city. They have the best jamon, the best paella, so great. It’s legit paella. It’s legit.
You can watch “Nutritious Bites”, Wednesdays at 5 PM on KLCS, tune-in or live stream (stream.klcs.org).
Don’t forget to follow Chef Monti Carlo’s social media feeds; she’s on Instagram (instagram.com/themonticarlo), Twitter (twitter.com/themonticarlo) and Facebook (facebook.com/TheMontiCarlo)