Born in Panama of Nicaraguan parents, Ruth Alegria grew up in New York City. Her chef father cooked boeuf bourguignon at work, but at home, the family dined on Central American specialties like short rib stew with pumpkin, cilantro and yucca. With such a background, it’s hardly surprising that the bilingual Alegria charted her own unique culinary career. For the past 15 years, she has made her home in Mexico City, working to promote this capital’s culinary gems. Ruth also serves as Mexico’s country coordinator for the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and as Slow Food convivium leader for Mexico City’s Condesa/Roma neighborhoods.
How would you describe the type of work you do?
I do custom cultural and culinary tours of Mexico City. I say it’s having a good time with people who want to know about Mexican food. For the last couple of years, it’s been a lot of chefs, restaurant owners and others who are just mad for Mexican food.
You went from owning a Mexican restaurant in Princeton, New Jersey, to leading culinary tours in Mexico City. That’s a big leap of geography and profession.
My parents opened the first Mexican restaurant in New York City when I was a teenager. Before that, my dad had a Cuban restaurant and worked in French restaurants, so I grew up in the restaurant business. I started my own restaurant in Princeton in 1980. It was a very tough sell. We were the first Latin American restaurant of any kind there. Customers would ask for the recipes, and I got the idea to start doing classes. I had a traveling school—whoever wanted to hire me. I would go into New York to get the chilies and bring them back and we’d have a cooking class.
I got tired of the restaurant and sold it in 1996. I did a stint as a real estate broker, then there came an opportunity to have a café at the Princeton Y. We did quiches and panini, but customers started asking for Mexican items and wanted me to teach classes. In 2002, I married an artist friend who was a great Mexophile. I sold the café and we came to Mexico in January 2003 on what was supposed to be a multi-country trip. But we fell in love with Colonia Condesa, a Mexico City neighborhood reminiscent of the West Village. My husband said, “How long is that plane trip to South America? There’s so much more to explore in Mexico!”
Tell me about somebody who inspired your career or really influenced your professional choices.
My father, definitely. When I was five or six years old, he would take me to the French restaurant where he worked. He would pick up his pay and they would give me lunch—pan-fried hand-cut meat on toasted buttered bread with the edges trimmed. Years later I learned that it was filet mignon. My father realized I really loved to eat, and our outings revolved around food.
What are some of the lessons you learned in the restaurant kitchen that have helped you in your career?
Organization, time scheduling and finally, delegating —which I learned very late. You can’t do it all on your own. When I was growing up, we had a mom-and-pop restaurant and the family always helped out. When you no longer have those family ties, you have to count on other people. In Princeton, my first hire was a divinity student who loved good food. My second was a student with a Scottish background and a great sense of humor. But they both really wanted to learn about the food and they were dedicated.
What personal characteristics have helped you succeed?
You have to be crazy—crazy in terms of passion for what you’re doing. You’re going to dedicate so much time. You’re going to neglect your family. In my consulting business, I’ve had two really successful clients: el Público in Perth, Australia; and the other is a couple who have the Lucky Taco truck in Auckland. They didn’t have any culinary training but these people had a real passion for the food. They’re now packaging their own salsa and taco kits.
A lot of people are afraid to make leaps in life, like you have. What advice do you have for those who might be fearful of change?
When I left the restaurant, it was to try to get a life. I needed to get away from it. I didn’t care for real estate, so I went into consulting and thought I could just advise people in the world of food, which I loved. Find what you’re passionate about. If you don’t enjoy doing it, you’re in the wrong job, the wrong sphere.
Would you share a mistake you made in your professional life and what you learned from it?
Trying to get into real estate, something totally foreign to what I had always done. I couldn’t stand that it took so long to conclude a deal. I’m one of those people who want to see a result. When you cook, you have to plan, but you see results as you’re cooking. And you make a lot of people happy.
What do you do to keep fresh, to keep learning, to keep growing?
Networking is important in the food business. Without it, you feel isolated. I joined IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals), Les Dames d’Escoffier, Slow Food Mexico and Conservatorio de la Cultura Gastronómica Mexicana. Everything segues if you’re open to it. I’ve always hated that term “win-win.” But when you give to your community, you get so much back. It just makes you feel good.