Alejandra Schrader in and around Mar Vista. She’s done cooking demonstrations at Market and at the along with her fellow MasterChef contestant Tracy Kontos.
Schrader, who lives in Playa del Rey, made it to the Top 9 of the FOX reality show for serving raw pork to judges Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich.
She's now on a nationwide whirlwind press tour, but found time to speak with Mar Vista Patch by telephone from Maryland about her elimination, her time on the show and where she goes from here.
Mar Vista Patch: You were eliminated for serving raw pork. Have you been afraid to cook pork ever since?
Alejandra Schrader: No. Absolutely not. In real life you don’t have all those different variables that you have in the MasterChef kitchen and you’re not under the same pressure. I’ll definitely be cooking pork again but for sure won’t trust thermometers any more when I’m cooking!
Patch: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve taken away from being on the show?
AS: As cliché as it might sound, staying true to myself and reiterating that is key. Because you can get lost -- whether it’s the reality show or the competition. I learned it’s about being true to myself personally and continuing to cook the food that I believe in. Being able to go through the show and have my style of cooking validated has opened so many doors for me. I don’t take it for granted. It’s been a huge trampoline into the culinary world.
Patch: What was your favorite moment on the show?
AS: There are so many! But my first audition, Gordon [Ramsay] said, "The most amazing thing is how good you are and you’re not even trained.” That gave me goose bumps.
Patch: How intimidating was it having your food judged by Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich?
AS: I’m not going to lie, the first time I got in front of the judges I froze. I was star struck. And I’m not shy. I’m an extroverted, people person, but it was very intimidating. There are cameras and lights everywhere and all these [chefs] you’ve seen on TV for years. Every time one of the judges came to my station, I started shaking.
Patch: Your fellow contestants called you Mamacita, and were genuinely upset when you were eliminated. How did you get the nickname Mamacita?
AS: That may have come by default. At this stage of the competition – the top 10 - I was one of the oldest at 37, but also it may be cultural. I’m from Venezuela. I can’t help it, I’m a hugger and a kisser and I like to build friendships and be affectionate. Although I can’t tell you how many times they all spelled Mamacita the wrong way.
Patch: Unlike other reality shows, which are notorious for sniping and backbiting and fighting contestants, you all seem to be very close. Was that really the case?
AS: I can’t speak for other shows or the [first season] of MasterChef, but I have a feeling that we were closer – and are still closer – than on other reality shows. It’s a comfort thing. We were living an experience that was very stressful, not speaking to our families, so we became each other’s family and those bonds don’t go away. I’ve made great friendships and I have a business partnership with Tracy [Kontos].
Patch: Yes, we’ve seen you and Tracy doing cooking demonstrations together and promoting your joint catering business, Cucina Cocina. How did that partnership come about?
AS: Even from the beginning when I met Tracy I felt a connection with her. We made it [to the Top 10 together] and that friendship and bond grew stronger. The common denominator we have is that we both came from corporate America and had a more formal approach to life.
We’re also a little older. She’s 33 and I’m 37 and the level of maturity we have was more in tune than with other people. Also, I don’t use butter or cream in my dishes and I love to cook with fresh, local produce and am a huge supporter of sustainable farming. Tracy’s the same. We knew this was something we both believed in.
By the time the show wrapped, Tracy called me saying she didn’t know what she was going to do next and was contemplating a move [from her home in Florida] to New York or LA. I just said, “Come out to LA and let’s do this,” and a week later she drove across the country and moved to Venice so we could start this business.
The best part of our partnership is that we had the MasterChef experience together and we both have strong culinary skills. I’d be up working and posting something on Twitter or Facebook at 3 a.m. and she’d be the only one also up that late responding. That also told me about her work ethic.
Patch: I hear you’re being mentored by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger who run the famous Border Grill restaurants, and Feniger runs LA’s popular STREET restaurant. How did that mentorship come about?
AS: After the show wrapped I sought out a mentorship. Because of my corporate background, that’s what I used to do, so I took the same approach. I emailed Mary Sue and she said she’d be glad to meet with me. The next step was to bring Tracy and Susan into the equation. [Susan and Mary Sue] were really excited to be our mentors. Mary Sue is reviewing our business plan and we’re working with her and Susan to help spread the word about their work with Share Our Strength– a non-profit to end hunger in America. Hopefully we will have a symbiotic relationship.
Patch: You’re finally embarking on a cooking career full time, but you used to be an architect and an urban planner. What made you change careers?
AS: I come from a culture in Venezuela where a degree sets you up in society and we have a public education system. Culinary school was not seen as a reputable career path and I came from a family of engineers and developers so that’s what I pursued. I was just really lucky to be picked [for MasterChef] and have those judges validate my cooking skills. I say, almost as a joke, that it took 13 years of endless nights of studying and an overpriced education and student loans, along with a lifetime of cooking at home with my mother and grandmother to get to this point in my life.
I still don’t call myself a chef. MasterChef put me on the fast track. The more I work in this field, I’m humble enough to know others have worked hard for years, starting as dishwashers and becoming line cooks. It’s not fair to them that I pick up this title [MasterChef].
Patch: So if you don’t call yourself a chef, what do you call yourself? A cook?
AS: No. I call myself Alejandra! ‘MasterChef’ is just a title, but I feel have the determination and the heart to be a chef.
Patch: The Westside community has embraced you. What do you love about living and working here?
AS: We have amazing farmer’s markets that provide us with the kinds of food that I want to eat. We’re more in tune with sustainability, with supporting local farmers and the slow food movement. Being in that environment, I feel fortunate due to the availability of resources and produce that allows me to lead the lifestyle that I want to live.
Patch: Now that you’re out of the competition, who do you hope will win MasterChef?
AJ: I have to say I have my biases. Obviously I’ve partnered with Tracy because of her skills and because of her approach to food. But I’m also rooting for Adrien [Nieto]. He’s a fellow Latino, also from an immigrant family and he’s struggled to make a living here. He’s also won two mystery box challenges and he’s got such a big heart.
Patch: Where will you be next Monday night to watch the Top 8 battle it out on MasterChef?
AJ: I’ll be in D.C. with my brothers-in-law. We’ll all be here watching the show.