When Aritza Garcia decided to go back to school and try a different career during the pandemic, she turned to her love of cooking. She went to Nunez Community College, and while completing her culinary program, she opened a food stand at the St. Roch on November 13. At Aritza Kitchen, she focuses on traditional Cuban dishes. For more information visit @artizaskitchen on Instagram or strochmarket.com.
Gambit: How did you get into cooking?
Aritza Garcia: I cooked at home growing up. I cooked all the time and when we had parties with my family, I was always the main one.
I am from Honduras but I grew up in Chalmette. My stepfather is Cuban and we ate a lot of Cuban food. My stepsister also cooks.
In general, I have always loved to cook. But it was never something I thought of doing as a career, even though I’ve worked in the service industry for 20 years. I was a bartender for a long time, and before that I worked in a catering company. I used to work in an office, but I also worked as a caterer. I bartended, served and helped manage.
When the pandemic hit, I decided it was time to go back to school. It was the right time. So I went to college at night at Nunez Community College. The first thing I saw was the culinary department, and I took that as a sign. I decided that’s what I would do.
I was in my happy place because I love being in the kitchen. But I also struggle with following recipes. I don’t cook like that. I like to add a little bit of this and a little bit of that. That’s how my grandmother cooked.
It was a great program. I’m finishing my business classes.
Gambit: How did you start your business?
Garcia: When I was growing up we had a Spanish festival with food stalls from all over. I would like money, but not to go on walks. It was edible. I remember when I first started thinking about (opening a food stand), I thought it would be great to do something with a little different taste.
New Orleans has a large Honduran community and Honduran food is everywhere. But there isn’t much Cuban, Puerto Rican or Colombian food in town. It seemed like it would be great to do something with Caribbean food, like Dominican food and all. We don’t have that variety.
I really wanted to do a food truck. When I started school I thought I wanted to go there with that.
Then this market opportunity came up and I felt in my heart that this was where I should start. It was one of those things I didn’t even have questions about. I jumped head first.
I’m there every day. When I’m gone, my mother is there. I also hired a friend to help me.
This is my first business. I don’t think you’re ever really ready. It was a challenge to go back to school so late. Now I have a 12 year old who is about to go to high school.
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Gambit: What’s on your menu?
Garcia: These are very traditional dishes. There’s a Cuban sandwich with slow-cooked pork and mustard and pickles. They don’t have the regular Cuban bread here. I wanted to make my own bread, but I haven’t gotten there yet. So we use Gendusa’s po-boy bread.
We make ropa vieja with rice and beans, and tostones, which are fried plantains. Empanadas are filled with ground beef.
I make my own fritters, chicarans. We make them at home. My father was usually the one in charge of preparing them and he would cook them outside. I had to make a few adjustments to be able to put them fresh on the market. He joked that I was taking his job. I had to make some changes to make them custom. They come out great.
We cook with a lot of garlic, especially with yucca. It’s done with mojo. I boil it with water and salt and cut it up and the mojo is made with olive oil, onions, peppers, lots of garlic, cilantro, red pepper and a little bit of whatever your heart desires. You also add lemon and lime juice and a little vinegar so there’s a little acidity.
I make tres leches and flan for dessert. Tres leches is made with whole milk, condensed milk, condensed milk and a little vanilla. You use a white sponge, making it the night before and letting it soak.
I will release majors. I will be making Cuban Tamales and other specialties throughout the week.
I currently have bottled sodas. Eventually I want to make Jamaica, which is like hibiscus and pineapple tea and different aqua frescas.
I will come up with a catering menu and start offering it.