Kassandra Gutierrez has been researching the restaurant industry since she was a kid growing up in Miami.
She poured over magazines, books and online articles -- eventually graduating from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Gutierrez is taking all she's learned over the past decade and giving the recipes she grew up on a little twist at her very first restaurant, Mima's Cuban Cantina.
Opening later this month in East Rutherford, Mima's pays homage to Gutierrez's Cuban roots but will also speak to her years of professional culinary experience, she says.
"Cuban food is pretty palatable, said the 29-year-old Paterson resident, who has lived in New Jersey for fives years. "But I believe in my food and my mission."
Gutierrez got a taste for her the trade in high school, competing with her school's culinary team across the state.
After that, Gutierrez couldn't see herself being anything else but a chef.
She gained real-life experience working in the kitchen at the Olive Garden, and honed her skills even more at CIA.
Gutierrez played a key role in getting a Venezuelan restaurant off the ground in Brooklyn. She worked as the White Maize manager, all while coming up with menu ideas and hiring staff.
The chef is certain she has what it takes to run a restaurant, this time, all by herself.
"The last thing I ever expected was to own my own restaurant -- due to the patience and attention it requires I always thought I’d work for someone else," said Gutierrez, who recently founded a personal chef and catering company The Malleable Palate.
"When the opportunity fell into my lap... I figured why not dive into my own?"
There are a few Cuban staples on the Mima's menu that Gutierrez wants to keep as authentic as possible.
Others, she said, will have a twist.
The Elena Ruth, similar to the Monte Cristo sandwich, is one Gutierrez crafted herself.
It's cream cheese, strawberry marmalade and turkey on Cuban bread. She's still playing around with it, but says it's quickly becoming one of her favorite creations.
She's looking forward to her own new beginning.
"I’m excited, I’m nervous but I’m pretty confident that [Mima's] will be well received by the public," the chef said.
"I’ve always loved cooking and there was never a doubt in my mind I’d do this."
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