Chef Raquel Fleetwood, a trailblazing Puerto Rican chef, is an emerging culinary force who is making waves in the dynamic world of upscale cuisine. With a deep-rooted passion for her Puerto Rican heritage and a remarkable talent for elevating traditional dishes, Chef Fleetwood is redefining the boundaries of Puerto Rican fare. We interviewed her in anticipation of her appearance in the show, “Five Star Kitchen: Britain’s Next Great Chef” which will be airing on Netflix next Month.
Growing up in the vivacious culinary landscape of New York, where Puerto Rican and Latin Caribbean cuisine is a dominant presence in the city’s food scene, Chef Fleetwood developed an appreciation for her cultural roots and love for cooking at an early age. “My interest in food came young,” Fleetwood said. “My mom likes to tell this story of how she’d turn on Sesame Street for me when I was four, then she’d leave the room, and when she’d come back suddenly Julia Child was on the TV instead of Big Bird. So I always like to say that Julia Child was my ‘Big Bird’ growing up. My mom was a single working mom and was totally not into cooking at all. The way I got into it was going to my grandma’s house—she taught me all I know about Puerto Rican food.”
The chef’s journey into upscale dining started 11 years ago when she was unexpectedly asked to cater an event for 170 people while she was living in Atlanta. Prior to this, she had only catered for small gatherings of friends and family in New York. Chef Fleetwood took this opportunity to showcase the potential of Puerto Rican cuisine by making it high-end for the event. “I knew I could get these people interested in Puerto Rican food by elevating it and making it pretty,” she said. “After that, I started doing things like adding caviar and 14-karat gold to my dishes and people started paying attention.”
Chef Fleetwood’s recognition in the culinary world led her to various cooking competition shows, although many of her appearances never made it to air. However, her authenticity and unfiltered personality never ceased to catch the attention of casting directors, ultimately leading her to be on “Five Star Kitchen: Britain’s Next Great Chef”. She was invited to be on the show in London with just a five-day notice, but she was eager to take the opportunity and bring Puerto Rican cuisine to the international stage.
“Representation of Puerto Rican food in the media was non-existent when I was growing up, and I think it continues to be nonexistent,” she said. “I want the whole world to start recognizing Puerto Rican culture, which is why it’s so cool I got the opportunity to be on this show in London. I live in Long Beach now, and you wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve talked to don’t know Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. People will know what a taco is before they know what an Alcapuria is. And Long Beach has such a large Puerto Rican population, but there’s no Puerto Rican food anywhere.”
Chef Fleetwood seized the opportunity to introduce Puerto Rican cuisine to a wider audience by agreeing to be on the Netflix show. “Being a part of this was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. “Not only did I get to represent my culture, but the chefs on that show made me feel proud of how far I’d come. Their talent is unbelievable. Like, these people have worked with Michelin star chefs and have worked in Four Seasons Hotels—they’re these really high-caliber chefs. And then there’s me. I never even went to culinary school and I am completely self-taught. On the outside looking in, I’m not someone who fits the mold of somebody that’s able to do this kind of high-end stuff. So it felt self-assuring to know that I could be on a show like this because I have what it takes and I busted my ass to get here.”
Chef Fleetwood hopes that her appearance on the show will spark curiosity and awareness about Puerto Rican food and culture. She also hopes to dismantle misconceptions and educate people about Puerto Rico as distinct from other Latin American cultures and cuisines.”There are a lot of differences between Mexican and Puerto Rican cuisine and I feel like for a long time we’ve just categorized everything that is Latin under one umbrella,” she said. “I want people to know Puerto Rico is unique in its own way. And if I could just get one person to understand that and want to try Puerto Rican food because of the show that’d be epic.”
One of the culinary creations that left an impact on the judges was a dish called “Caldo Santo,” a stew of coconut-based broth. This dish has a heavy African cuisine influence because it originated in Loíza, Puerto Rico—a town where many Yoruban (Nigerian) people settled in the 16th century and to this day continues to have a large population of Afro-Latinos. “Puerto Rican food is very heavily influenced by African culture,” Fleetwood said. “I think that’s what separates it from most Latin foods. Puerto Rican food has humble ingredients. It’s made delicious through love and the time that it takes to make it, but the ingredients aren’t necessarily expensive. So when I was trying to think of how to make Caldo Santo upscale, I decided to add a Black Sea bass and a king crab leg, and 14-karat gold and caviar. The judges were impressed. When the camera stopped rolling, one of the judges, Ravneet, came up to me and said ‘I never had any intention of going to Puerto Rico but now I’m going to look at flights and hotels.'”
Chef Fleetwood’s unwavering commitment to representing her roots and culinary heritage illuminates her path, inspiring other chefs to embrace their own cultural backgrounds through the transformative power of food. Her remarkable journey, from humble beginnings to the international culinary stage, serves as an inspiration of perseverance, reminding us that staying true to oneself can lead to the recognition and celebration of one’s talents.
“The biggest thing I’ve taken from all of this is to just stay true to myself. TV shows have rejected me because my menus only had Puerto Rican cuisine, but I never once thought to change my menu. And so when these people called me to be on the ‘Five Star Kitchen’ show, I gave them the exact same menu I had given to those people who rejected me. And guess what? They gave me a chance and they loved my food. My advice to anyone out there is to never take no for an answer. Never compromise who you are or what you have to offer.”
“Five Star Kitchen: Britain’s Next Great Chef” premieres in the U.S. on Netflix on July 14, 2023.