Claudia is a Colombian-born, Montana chef and home decorator. Claudia’s approach to food and decor is a mash-up of global inspirations using Montana-grown and -raised products, and creations from local, talented artisans. She cooks, teaches, and produces condiments and seasonings out of her colorful business, Claudia’s Mesa, which brings a slice of Latin America, the Caribbean and Mediterranean to Montana You can schedule a Mesa dinner, sign up for a class, buy her seasonings and condiments, find recipes, and read about her new creations at Claudia’s Mesa.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born and raised in Columbia, South America, on the Northern Caribbean coast. where Cuba and Jamaica, the next part of land would be where the Columbia Coast. I came to the US in 1974 to go to college. I studied sociology and International Relations, I never had any inkling about cooking except I love to cook for my friends and I love to eat. In college, I met Steve, my now husband of 37 years, we moved to Montana in 1998, in pursuit of a change of life and a better place to raise our 8 year old daughter.
When were first things when we moved to Montana. One of the things I did in Miami, I worked in a hotel. I wasn’t a cook or chef, I was in Human Resources as a corporate trainer. I spent a lot of my time in the kitchen.
My daughter was 10 years in the making, it took a long time to get pregnant. So it was hard to go back to work when she was born. I had brought in a nutritionist to the hotel, we offered free food, we had 650 sleeping rooms, we had an incredible cafeteria, but the food was free, so people started to gain weight. All the new employees, I could see, so we brought in a nutritionist. We had her look at the food we were eating, so we could eat healthier leaner food. After Gabby was born I thought it would be fun to work with Carol, she had a group of patients ranging from Weight management to cancer to diabetics etc. She assisted them through good nutrition and vitamins and etc
I cooked in a little restaurant in Coral Gables underneath her office. It was only open for dinner. I was only there in the mornings, I would bring my little basket with Gabby in it, and I started cooking there, and she would sell the meals to the clients in her office. It was like a homemade version of a lean cuisine. I can’t remember organic was a key word, everything I would get was from places like whole foods, etc. so we knew we were serving healthy food. Soon after I decided it was time to run my own show, after a hurricane we moved north to a suburb of Miami and I started cooking for various clients.
Pretty much the concept of a personal chef. I had clients. Miami is full of subdivision, most of them are in a gated subdivision. I had clients with the same needs. They had a little newspaper, I had about 4-5 people that I cooked for. That was the last thing I was doing before we moved here. In 1998 when we moved here, I think there was one private chef that I became friends with. She struggled because it was hard to charge what she needed to, it was trouble to justify the time spent, for the materials, cooking and shopping etc.
I ended up going to a flooring store because we needed new carpet, and I ended up staying there, and I still work there on a part-time basis. 15 years at this company. It’s fabulous because I think if you can cook you can also design. If you can make a plate beautiful you can also make a home beautiful as well. It’s all about textures and colors and accents I find analogies in cooking.
But in 2008 the economy started, all my accounts were dipping in construction were seized, and I thought it was maybe an opportunity to change hats and put my coat back on and see if I could continue my food business. One of the ways I started, in the construction world in order to get new builders, you go to a job site, you see 2x4s going up and you know there’s a new house or a business coming, you approach it, and find out how the builder is or who the owner is, and usually take a treat to enchant them. My manager suggested I take donuts, honestly, I never in my life ate donuts. My husband does, but I don’t.
I thought I want them to take them something to remember me by, and something that is part of me. So, I have this incredible salsa! We don’t eat salsa and chips in Columbia like the Mexicans eat salsa and chips. We put it a top steaks and eggs.
I put salsa on top of everything.
We do call them salsas, just like the tomato salsa you use for other things, besides a bag of chips. It’s a cilantro based product and it’s absolutely delicious with jalapeños and rice vinegar and garlic! I was doing this since 2000, I was bringing them my salsa and chips! All of theses guys would say, they would always say you need to package this. I already had too much on my plate but as my accounts were thinning, I went and got a manufacturers license and I started taking it to grocery stores, taking it to local grocery stores, like Town and Country and the Co-op, and a couple of little gourmet stores as well.
Then we had this wonderful oil and vinegar store here, and they had just opened, and they said they were going to start cooking classes, and so I said I would teach cooking classes. I enjoy showing people what I know and health has always been a part of my life since I was a little girl. So I taught cooking classes there for 5 years. I specialize in Latin American and Caribbean and also farm-to-table cuisine.
We started with the Farm to table here in Bozeman. Maybe it was 2006, unfortunately, it wasn’t sooner then that. I started going to Farmer’s Market and selling my products there as well. Then the original farm-to-table concepts and farm dinners, did not begin here till 2012 when we started going to farms and cooking for farms.
Eventually I started out of my flooring life, today I only work there 20 hours a week. Mainly because they’re like family and you never leave your family. There’s always a job there for me, I love them and they are family so I continue there. It’s kind of nice to have a steady paycheck. One of the things we learn in Montana, you need two jobs to make ends meet, right?
Absolutely at least two and you have to be flexible!
I think I am a real Montanan now I have my 2 jobs.
Moving from Columbia to Montana, that says a lot and that you’ve been here all these years.
I love it here, it’s such a beautiful place. At the cooking demo you attended, I don’t like putting my culture and traditions in people’s faces, and trying to change how people are, unless you are curious to learn, just like I am curious to learn about other cultures. I enjoy when other culture’s are interested to share.
It was hard to find ingredients that were tropical and sub-tropical countries like mine. Miami was easy because it’s right there by the Caribbean, but Montana’s pretty tough, so I looked into finding similar flavors that I could cross-over because I strongly believe since I was a little girl on supporting the farmers. Whether they were Columbian farmers or migrant farmers in Miami in a place called Homestead in the Orange groves, or regular farmers these days in Florida. I believe in supporting and there’s nothing more delicious then what is grown in the farms. Sometimes because of convenience we go to the grocery store.
I thought. “What can I do?” I made a list of my favorite foods.
Plantains, rice, and black beans and white beans. You name it I love beans, I love Pulses! It’s such an economic and delicious staple for so many people in the world.
Do you want to tell people what pulses are?
Pulses are legumes and they come in a pod, such as lentils and fav beans and chick peas, and navy beans, and black eyed peas, and split peas. They’re pulses. I don’t know where the name derives.
In Spanish we call them la legumbre… which is legumes. I have no idea why the word pulses. I was looking at things we ate there that I could crossover to here. We ate things like meat beans, rice, and plantains. There are these tubers called yucca, which I love. You don’t grow it here in United States. IDK why, I think it could grow here, it’s kind of like a mountainous food. Very similar to cassava. Tapioca flour comes from it. I made my list from all these different ingredients. So cross over for plantains, and Butternut squash grows in certain parts of Montana, in Missoula, the Flathead. I was investigating your site. I had no idea I could get sweet potatoes from Billings. One of your gardeners was growers was growing them in Billings (Amelia Shimetz was successful growing sweet potatoes by following some very basic steps in Episode 82)
We do grow beans here in Montana, pinto beans and but they are not organic certified, but they are grown. It’s very expensive to get certify produce or legumes as organic. So I eat them and I get them from a local online market called Market Day Food. I found a beautiful collection of lentils. It took me back to my childhood, when I was in the patio, helping, we had a family cook there. I helped her clean the rice. We had a lava tree with fragrant blossoms, and like a lime and a papaya tree. She would tell me stories of mermaids and pirates. And I would get all stores in the rice and lentils. I couldn’t understand why rice and lentils had pebbles and rocks. We ate what you call here green lentils. I found out here in Montana we had all these colors of lentils, we have orange ones and yellow ones and green ones, and there were these little tiny round ones called the Belugas.
I just fell in love with those little guys. That made me feel really well that I could eat a lot of lentils here. We eat a lot of chickpeas, we have a lot of people from Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey etc.I ate a lot of Mediterranean food and plant based protein like them. The products came from Conrad Montana,
We met in person. He came with a wonderful woman Mary Hensley who brings rices from the Philippines and she uses Timeless’ Processing plants to clean and package to sell Philippines gourmet stores like William Sonoma and Dean & Deluca, and she send back to the Philippines to help the female farmers.
I also found Farro which is an ancient grain that is very high in protein and it resembles rice. When I want to make a meal that uses 100% Montana food. I make believe that they taste similar but they are not identical. I feel great that I am supporting Montana lentils.
We have a cookbook. Unfortunately it is not coming out as soon as I would like. The cookbook world is competitive, I am not a known person. I am not in Cooking Channel, I am not on PBS, and they want to make sure if they invest money in me that someone is going to end up buying the book and they don’t want it to ended up being a $4.99 book on sale.
I met this wonderful young woman, Liz Carlisle. She was a country singer as well, she traveled around the country singing about the land and farmers, she became very disolussioned when she realized these family farms were losing to agribusiness, and chemical fertilizers. She came back home after she did an internship with Jon tester and decided to write her dissertation, on the Montana lentil growers and these 4 renegade farmers who told the US government we are not going to grow your wheat we are going to grow lentils.
Liz Carlisle’s book the Lentil Underground the story of these renegade farmers, the bank didn’t loan them money, about these four farmers, and their challenges and victories, and the new wave that have gone under the Timeless Umbrella. They are growing the ancient grains with then and for them. Through Liz who is a great story teller, and one of the warmest people I know and so talented. She told her agent from this company in NYC Jessica Pappon. She read my proposal, I’ll represent you this sounds wonderful, but everywhere she went got turned down. One of the main reasons is that I’m not famous enough so she sent me on a mission of creating a platform for me. So that people in California, that I met at the Heirloom Festival, if they see the book on the shelf, they will think that’s the woman who made that delicious lentil Tabouli we had, or the people in Miami will remember me.
Today you are on the Organic Gardener Podcast getting your word out.
I also received a grant from Sarah Calhoun and The Red Ants Pants Foundation so I can spread the word about the Montana Organic Lentils.
Many people grown in Montana haven’t tasted them. Foundation to give me money to travel and do demos, and prepare some delicious recipes. Look what you are growing. We are the number one grower you need to taste them. Many people who live in Montana have not tasted them. So I have traveling money and printing money so I can do demonstrations. I can show people in Montana and say look what you are growing. You need to taste them. If at all possible eat them once a month. Our consumption of lentils is 1/4 cup a year.
If we increase our lentil consumption but at least one cup a month of delicious lentil soup, stew or so many things I have created with lentils. Then:
#1. we will be healthier, if we give up meat once a week
#2. plus we will support the growers!
Did you say something about coming up with a meatless Mondays? Didn’t they it wa like 12-13 grams of protein in a serving?
A little guy, a quarter cup has 12 grams of protein and if you combine with 1/4 farro if you have a cup which will give you 19 grams of protein which is almost chicken or beef.
I have a really wonderful recipe for a lentil marinara. You can put it over pasta, or make a lasagna with it. You can start introducing kids to it, you know how kids are. They like tomato sauce and they like cheese and they like pasta and you make a beautiful cheese and macaroni with a lentil marinara.
I bought some of those lentils. I’m gonna try that with my husband. There was a lentil chili recipe too?
Also if you have zucchini or squash, you can cut them lengthwise, remove the pulp and the seeds, and mash it up with lentils and tomato sauce and bake them with some cheese and it’s delicious.
Are you gonna tell us about your spices? I loved the way you mixed your citrus with it.
Since I cook so much, I find it’s difficult to spread all the different containers of spices. I created 6 different varieties to use with different types of food, and I decided I want to share it, so I thought I need to sell it. So I made man and woman that work. Honoring the cowboys and cowgirls of America for example.
The ones that went into the Timeless Farmers bowl with the Citrusy Cowgirl vinegar. My Cowgirl Spice is basically:
dried tarragon, dried dill, dried basil, orange peel, brown sugar or honey, sesame seeds, and a little sea salt. You take a tablespoon of each of these ingredients put in a little mason jar then add 2 teaspoons of sea salt, shake it up. Then use it for this and use it for that!
I make tamales. Local pork I get them from a distributor from the Butte area. They are not authentic, I invented this recipe. I took a tablespoon of cinnamon, curry, chili powder, NW Hatch, tblspn cinnamon, and tablespoon of semi sweet chocolate for baking, and a tblspn of dried cilantro. Add 2 tblspns of sea salt. That goes really good on cili for example. If you are vegetarian just forget the pork. When I make my tamales, you could take some crushed tomatoes, and then 5-6 seeds, then I take a stick of cinnamon.
We have a brewery we have a called Bridger Brewery Company and they have a copy, rub that on the pork shoulder, then put a bunch of chilis, and put a beer, then cook for about 8 hours at about 200º.