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Denise Roa

My parents met in Mexico City. My mother was from New York and my father was from Mexico City. My mother learned to cook Mexican food through a Diana Kennedy cookbook. When I was four years old, we moved to Key Biscayne, Florida. The kitchen in our home was a perfect square and my mother made balanced meals with proteins and vegetables. We waited for my father to come home from work and we would eat together as a family. I didn't excel in school because I was dyslexic but I excelled in soccer and spent most of my time on the pitch. I had a lot of energy and I had a lot of friends and we spent a lot of time in the ocean having a great time.

At eighteen, I was wild and we partied a lot in Miami. Everything revolved around soccer and food was present in the form of lobster and crab traps that we would pull from our boat rides around the island. I used to grill the lobster and baste it with butter and the crab would be paired with a tomato sauce, similar to marinara. We would eat in our bathing suits in the sun. It was a great, happy time.

I got my first job working as a caterer. I had to go to the port of Miami to buy vegetables and bring them back and prepare all the food for these catering events. I learned to love cooking. I was gaining momentum but when I was twenty one, I got a DUI and I had to stop driving around in the catering business and I was punished and forced to work with my dad who was a veterinarian. As horrible as it was, it ended up being a monumental turning point for me because I decided that I didn't like killing animals and I turned vegetarian during this time. My dad told me that I would have to clean cages at the vet until I got a degree. So, when Johnson & Wales opened a cooking school in Miami, I enrolled.

After getting my degree, I became the pastry chef at the Hilton in Torrey Pines. Not long after, my best friend and partner and I decided to open a restaurant. We opened La Trattoria in Santee. We were away ahead of our time and the economy tanked. In 2009, after a considerable struggle, we ran out of money. We couldn't sell or even give it away so we just closed the doors. It was very hurtful and I spent the next two years healing from the aftermath of the end of the business and our relationship.

Rancho la Puerta is a family owned business created by Deborah Szekely in Tecate, Baja California. It is an organic spa with vegetarian fare to heal the mind, spirit and soul. While I was healing, Señora Deborah called me and offered me the job. It seemed the right decision for me so I came back to Mexico to live, work and heal. We have six acres of organic vegetables and a giant dining plan for our guests who stay for seven days at a time by reservation only.

Rancho la Puerta is on the southern side of a very sacred mountain. Cuchumá. It is this mountain that helped designate Tecate as a Pueblo Mágico (Magic Town) in Mexico. Cuchumá became a sacred mountain because it was selected by the Kumeyaay creator god, Maiha. Inside the mountain is a spirit who is responsible for giving people their dreams. I stumbled upon Rancho la Puerta because I wanted to grow as a vegetarian cook. I was broken at the time and I felt like a failure. My biggest mistake was thinking my talent would overcome the location, location, location of my restaurant but that wasn't the case. I was mad at myself and coming to the ranch was my re-awakening. Being in the garden at sunset or being in the garden during the full moon. It is truly magical to watch a seed grow into a plant. After four years in the garden, I felt like a kid again.

I am evolving. From growing food, to cooking food, to finding nutrients and protein in foods that aren't meats. I am understanding how to create emotional intelligence through food along the path to enlightenment. We chefs destroy ourselves and then we spend time repairing ourselves as we learn to have balance. I would have loved to have wanted children but my career consumed me. My mentor, Chef Deborah Schneider, showed me how to be a great mother and a successful businesswoman and chef so I did know it was possible but I didn't have that ability for quite some time.