A good chef knows how to put themselves on the plate and tell their own story through their dishes. Cooking is about more than just making food that tastes good. It’s about sharing who you are with others. Food is a powerful tool for understanding who you are and your background, meaning you really are what you eat.
For chef Ariel Fox, food was the key to discovering who she is and connecting with her cultural identity. The award-winning chef and “Hell’s Kitchen” winner has been able to tell her story through her culinary journey while bringing Latin and Caribbean cuisine to the forefront of the food world.
With the release of her new cookbook, “Spice Kitchen: Healthy Latin and Caribbean Cuisine,” Fox highlights the bold flavors of these cultures with a health-conscious approach. “I take quite a journey through Latin America, the Caribbean and Mexico,” says the Afro-Caribbean chef.
Healthy eating is important to the New York-based chef. The book offers accommodations and healthy substitutes for recipes from her life without sacrificing flavor. She talks about her transition into a healthier lifestyle and why it was so difficult for her. “There just wasn’t a lot out there, and I was missing and craving these flavors.”
This cookbook proudly celebrates cultures typically underrepresented in the culinary world and strives to change how we view healthy food.
You Are What You Eat
Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are. The old-school phrase highlights the importance of food and what it can show you about a person. Fox explains what the phrase means to her, “If someone tells you what they grew up eating or how they grew up eating, it really can paint a picture of who they are and what kind of life they’ve lived.”
She goes on to talk about the moments shared with your family around the dinner table. “It’s what your family is able to provide for each other. It’s the time that you spend together. It’s where you tell the stories of your day,” she muses. “Food is just everything.”
Growing up, she was exposed to different cuisines that gave her an appreciation for the cultural significance of food. Being the daughter of an Afro-Colombian father and growing up in a predominantly Mexican community in Northern California, she was immersed in Latin and Caribbean cultures from a young age. Her mother is of European descent, mainly German and Irish, and her stepfather is African American. With different cultures around her, she had to find a way to connect the dots of her identity and food became the bridge.
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Fox attributes her love of food to her family and upbringing. In her first book, “Freckle-Faced Foodie: Journey of a Young Chef,” she talks more about her experiences with food growing up.
Summers were spent in Colombia visiting her dad’s family and marked by fresh-caught seafood grilled on the beach and perfectly ripe tropical fruits. Her grandma, Nana Fox, would make traditional Caribbean dishes like empanadas, fried snapper, and her specialty — a sweet and spicy fish stew called rondón.
On her mom’s side, they were well versed in European cuisines like French, Italian, and German and always used fresh seasonal ingredients. Fox credits her maternal grandma Mimi for igniting her passion for cooking and showing her the ropes in the kitchen.
Her stepdad’s family is from Florida and introduced her to the rich, hearty cuisine of the South. Every bite of their food was packed with flavor, and ingredients such as sweet potato, okra, and collard greens were staples in their kitchens.
Knowledge of the different cuisines enjoyed by her family gave Fox an understanding of flavor and inspired her innovation in the kitchen and also elevated the soul of her food.
Journey to Success
Her journey from cook to chef starts at Le Cordon Bleu, College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, California. After graduating, Fox took her first job at an upscale seafood restaurant, where she was only allowed to shuck oysters for a while before moving on to a station.
She quickly climbed the ladder and received her first sous chef position after two years of working there. “I was willing to move my way up through a company, take a step down at another place, then move my way up again,” she says.
Knowing that she has made solid career choices, she does not regret the step downs taken throughout her career. However, she feels she should have seen herself as a chef earlier. “I didn’t feel like I had earned that title yet, but I should have acknowledged myself a lot sooner.” To push herself forward and build her confidence, Fox took on the challenge of competing on the show “Hell’s Kitchen” for the first time.
Initially, she had no interest in joining the cast of talented culinarians, but after being convinced by her executive chef at the time, she decided to go for it. She was invited to compete on season 6 in 2008 and secured third place, which is no small feat for even the greatest of cooks.
Although she was happy with her overall performance during the competition, Fox shares that she felt she did not give it her all, saying, “I don’t think I pushed myself hard enough at that time. I was still a little young in my career at that point.”
Deciding it was time to “kick it into gear,” she accepted a new chef position and moved from California to New York City in 2009. “I think between the two seasons, that’s really when I did the most career growth,” says Fox. She spent a decade honing her craft, boosting her confidence, and making a name for herself before being asked to return to the show.
Determined to win, she eagerly accepted an invitation to come back and compete on season 18 of “Hell’s Kitchen” competition entitled “Rookies vs. Veterans” in 2018. With more than ten years of knowledge and experience, Fox secured the crown this time, winning the finale by preparing a Latin and Caribbean-inspired menu that paid homage to her roots.
Following her big win, she returned to New York to further her career and start a family. She currently works as the concept executive chef for Dos Caminos and is the vice president of culinary for Del Frisco’s Steakhouses. She also appears as a guest judge on the Food Network show, “Beat Bobby Flay.”
With the release of her new cookbook and all her projects, she is grateful for what she has achieved and looks forward to what is next.
Leaving a Legacy
Fox’s rise to culinary stardom is an impressive and inspiring journey. However, it was not always an easy one; especially being a woman of color in the food industry.
“I was always the only woman,” she states about her time working her way up through restaurants. “There are so many things now when I look back that were just inappropriate; ways that I was treated or mistreated or spoken to or the jokes that were made,” she reflects. “Having to perform in that environment and still excel, I have to commend myself.”
By sharing her experiences, Fox hopes to encourage other women and people of color coming up in the culinary world. On how she was able to rise above, she says, “I focused on doing the right thing and never really compromised myself in a way that I was uncomfortable with.” She expresses how she wants to leave her mark, saying, “I want to be remembered for always having integrity and being transparent and honest.”
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When asked about her next big career move, she jokingly declares, “I would love to co-host a travel food show.” She then talks about her real dream stating, “One day I’m going to open my little breakfast spot. That’s my dream! When I say retire, I can never sit still, so my retirement project is to finally open my own place.”
Fingers will be crossed in anticipation of this big endeavor. As an accomplished chef, wife, and mother to two daughters, chef Ariel Fox is truly an inspiration to all generations.
She shares one more sentiment about slowing down to be present in life and the importance of the little moments you have with people. “If I meet you on the street, if I’m talking to you now, I want people to know that I was there in the moment with you and that I meant what I said. And that all of these moments are just as important as the next.”
You can continue to follow Chef Ariel Fox’s journey through her Instagram @ChefArielFox. Be sure to order a copy of her new cookbook “Spice Kitchen: Healthy Latin and Caribbean Cuisine.”