Since winning season six of “MasterChef,” Claudia Sandoval hasn’t exactly rested on her laurels (or her crown). The scrappy Mexican-American chef has since opened a successful consulting and catering company in her native San Diego called Claudia’s Cocina, released a hit cookbook of the same name, and last year helped launch “MasterChef Latino” on Telemundo, which she hosts alongside Gaby Espino.
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Having grown up in a traditional Mexican household but on the U.S. side of the border with the Pacific Ocean, and all its bounty, just minutes away, Sandoval developed a distinctly coastal Mexican style of cooking, which has served her—and everyone within a fork’s distance of her—well.
Knowing how important food and family is to Chef Sandoval, and with Thanksgiving upon us, we asked about some of her favorite holiday food (and non-food) traditions as well as what she gets most excited to eat—and make—this time of year. (Hint: Sandoval makes sure to stuff some of it in a container before it even hits the table so she doesn’t miss out, but you’ll never guess what’s in it).
Tell us a little about your family and upbringing in Mexico-adjacent San Diego and, of course, how it influenced your cooking?
Claudia Sandoval: I was born and raised in San Diego, a border town to the largest land border crossing in the entire world. My grandmother came to Tijuana, leaving behind our port town roots of Mazatlán, Sinaloa, for a better life. She would work on [a] migrant worker’s visa picking strawberries and grapes in California. It’s because of her sacrifices that we grew up on this border town and were able to make an incredible life for ourselves. What I love though is that those roots and heritage were never lost; all those recipes [were shared] with my mother and aunts, so that they too could share them with us, and believed the only way they could live on was through those recipes. I’m very grateful for that.
People from all over the world come to Tijuana—not just Mexicans—so you see the incredible influence from around the world and that too continues to inspire my cooking, and my very border town way of seeing the world of cooking.
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How would you define “Mexican coastal cuisine” to someone who was unfamiliar?
CS: My family comes from a port town, Mazatlán, Sinaloa, where everyday fishermen head out early morning on small boats to hook & line fish and dive for everything from mussels and clams to lobster, shrimp, and fresh fish. Mexican coastal cuisine is something you already know and love, it’s ceviches, shrimp cocktail, shrimp aguachile (similar to ceviche), and grilled whole fish, or “zarandeado”. Our Mexican coastal cuisine is vibrant in flavor, honors the gifts of the sea, and has a connection to its source—those incredible fishermen out there catching our next meal.
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What should we know about Mexican cooking around the holidays? What are the highlights? What gets everyone excited?
CS: One of the things I love about Mexican American families around the holidays means we have salsa with our turkey. (My mouth just watered!) It’s the best of both worlds! I want turkey and ham, but I also want cilantro salsa, and some Mexican stuffing, that is a lot more like the filling for chiles en nogada, and not so much like a traditional American bread stuffing.
And of course, wondering about some of YOUR favorite traditional holiday dishes/foods to make?
CS: While I’m stuck making the turkey every year and it’s a two to four-day process thanks to the brining, my favorite holiday dish is my mom’s turkey stuffing. It’s a ground beef dish that includes things like walnuts, raisins, bacon, and many other things I can’t share because my mom would kill me. It’s a perfect mix of sweet and savory. I am not kidding, I pack myself a to-go container before everyone else eats because I don’t want to miss out.
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What are some non-food related traditions you love and would like to share?
CS: Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s the time of year our family goes around the table giving thanks for all we are grateful for this year. This tradition, no matter who is at the table that year, means everything. It reminds us how far we’ve come, and how much we have to be grateful for. Additionally, it forces the awkward teens, kids, and every single person at the table to practice gratitude. Often there are tears about who’s no longer with us, and with losing our matriarch this year I’m sure many tears will be shed. We miss you, Abuela.
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What is one thing that shows up every year at Thanksgiving that you could not live without (besides the famous stuffing)?
CS: While many of my family’s traditions are very Mexican, I have to say that the one thing that must be there every single holiday that I could not live without is pumpkin pie. It has to be a flaky all-butter crust with a luscious pumpkin filling and, of course, some fresh whipped cream.
For more Thanksgiving tips, tricks, hacks, and recipes, check out our Ultimate Thanksgiving Guide and our Ultimate Guide to Friendsgiving.
Head image courtesy of Manny Rodriguez / Getty Images