The hectic, pressure-packed atmosphere of restaurant kitchens remained hidden from most patrons even before the coronavirus shut people out of sit-down dining. The ingredients, cooking and plating of dishes were mostly unseen until the orders arrived at your table, except in restaurants with open kitchens. One Oakland teenager started getting a first-hand look at the magic that happens inside the best restaurant kitchens after she almost won “Top Chef Junior.”
“Before going into a restaurant kitchen for the first time when I was 13, I didn’t know what to expect. But afterward, I learned it is a well-oiled machine,” says Rahanna Bisseret Martinez. The now 16-year-old, who competed during the first season of the Universal Kids TV show, has garnered an impressive list of experiences inside some of the country’s top professional kitchens. “My favorite part about going into restaurants is learning how each restaurant works. Each restaurant has the same qualities, but there are always these little unique parts that each kitchen team has, and it’s really cool to see that.”
Path to the Future
Bissert Martinez also learned how intense and demanding the work of restaurant chefs is, from standing on your feet for hours to perfecting each dish served. She can speak personally on staging, the culinary term for working unpaid in a restaurant for a short period to gain exposure to new techniques and cuisines. It comes from “stagiaire,” the French word meaning trainee or intern. The young chef has completed staging at more than 20 restaurants since competing in the finale of “Top Chef Junior” in 2018. “I think something inspirational that I’ve gotten out of being in professional kitchens is the quality and hard work that people in the hospitality industry put into this craft,” Bisseret Martinez says.
The list of places where she has interned includes some Michelin-star restaurants such as Californios and Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco. Bisseret Martinez cooked at the James Beard House in New York and spent time in the kitchens of two of her favorite chefs, Emeril Lagasse and Nina Compton. Both of the New Orleans chefs impressed her with the gracious way they welcomed her. She calls her experiences at the award-winning Compton’s Compère Lapin remarkable. “When I was there, her menu and staff really showcased the quality of each ingredient. I got to learn a lot of different techniques,” says Bisseret Martinez. “You can tell how hard-working she is. I’ve seen how well her staff is prepared.”
The Oakland native impressed the chefs judging the 11 young cooks who went up against her on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef Junior” culinary competition. Fourteen-year-old Owen Pereira beat out Bisseret Martinez in the tightly contested finale to take home the $50,000 cash prize. However, she still received a flood of invitations to participate in cooking demonstrations, special events and culinary classes after coming in second. “Top Chef Junior, overall, was a really cool experience because although I didn’t win, I learned how to work under pressure and take critiques from judges. I learned how to think quickly while making the right decisions,” Bisseret Martinez says.
The opportunities that rolled in and the acclaimed chefs she met reinforced the love Bisseret Martinez has for cooking. Dire predictions on the future of restaurants after COVID-19 have not changed the young chef’s mind about following her passion. She looks forward to the time when she will be able to get back into restaurant kitchens while doing what she can for local businesses in the meantime. “Some places have reached out to me to do recipes or demos for charity or things like that, and I’ve been buying different things to support businesses and people.”
Bisseret Martinez was barely tall enough to reach the top of the stove when she started cooking with her mother at age six. By the time she was 10, the young cook had started challenging herself by finding recipes online that she wanted to make. The classic cooking shows of Julia Childs, B. Smith, Lagasse and other culinary celebrities were must-see TV for the aspiring cook. “All those chefs really influenced my love for cooking because the way they cook on TV is so passionate,” Bisseret Martinez says.
The passion comes through in the cooking Bisseret Martinez does every day. Whether cooking with her parents and two siblings at home or experimenting with new recipes, the teen incorporates the knowledge she has gained from professionals in the culinary world. “Overall, my knife skills and different cooking techniques have improved over time. I think everything is about consistency,” says Bisseret Martinez. “At home or when I’m doing a demo or a pop-up or anything like that, I always make sure I have good quality ingredients.”
Critiques from different judges on “Top Chef Junior” and from the chefs in restaurant kitchens have made Bisseret Martinez a more diverse cook. Her favorite comfort food will always be the Louisiana-style, California-influenced food she learned to cook at home. However, she changed her approach to what she prepares for the people eating her food. “What I really like about cooking is catering to people’s palates and what they like,” Bisseret Martinez says. “I’ve learned how important it is to pay attention to the demographic that you’re serving and what foods they like.”
Learning about seasonal foods and going to farmers’ markets has helped her broaden her culinary perspective. The quality of Bisseret Martinez’s cooking is also enhanced by her interest in the history of different cuisines, ingredients and dishes. “What is interesting to me is learning how my ancestors prepared different dishes, and how I can prepare them now. I like learning about where food is now versus where it was in history.”
The sophomore has already taken a college-level business class where she wrote a business plan for a food venture as her final. “I want to go to college because I think it’s a good way to be educated more about owning a restaurant. I think it is super important to learn how everything works.”
Her interest in the management side of the business extends beyond the kitchen. Bisseret Martinez enjoys exploring other aspects of the culinary industry, from food styling to food podcasts. “I’m really certain I want to make cooking my life’s work. I want to open a food business, but also there are a lot of different categories in the hospitality industry that are interesting.”
Compete on Culinary Stage
Bisseret Martinez’s diverse interests could also lead her back to television. She already competed twice on the Food Network show “Guys Grocery Games.” She won in one of the episodes. The teen chef is inspired by the detail and attention all great cooks put into giving people who eat their food an exceptional experience. “I really love cooking for other people because it is a cool way of giving them the experience of enjoying their favorite foods.”
Follow Bisseret Martinez on Instagram. You can also watch the Season 1 episodes of “Top Chef Junior” on sidereel.com.
Head to our recipe section to get a taste of Rahanna’s cooking with her recipe for Mushroom Chard Creole Hand Pies.