Zarela Martinez was born in the Sonoran border town of Agua Prieta, and learned to cook from her mother, Aida Gabilondo, who was herself a cookbook author.
In 1979, New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme discovered her at a New Orleans cooking class, and served as Martinez’ mentor. She opened a catering business called “El Paso” in 1983 in New York City and participated in many founding events of the modern American food resurgence. She also was a consulting chef and limited partner of New York’s new Café Marimba, the first New York City restaurant featuring fine dishes from an upscale Mexican home, with local ingredients.
In 1987, Chef Martinez opened Zarela, which became a favorite for 24 years. Great Chefs was producing their Great Chefs of the East series for The Discovery Channel in 1993, and taped Chef Zarela preparing a Poblanos Rellenos appetizer (episode #9) for the Great Chefs of the East series, and two dishes for their Great Chefs PBS television special, Mexican Madness. She started with a Seafood Stew and finished with a Drunken Chicken, which got the crew a little high after filming was over!
On February 13, 2011, Chef Zarela Martinez served her last dinner, citing a changing neighborhood, additional Mexican competition and to quote her, “the young people were not even born when I opened, and today, they would rather go to a Taco Truck instead of a real Mexican meal”.
Chef Martinez was one of the first chefs to present New Yorkers with serious interpretations of regional Mexican food. She has published several cookbooks, and prepared meals for President Ronald Reagan, Queen Elizabeth and Craig Claiborne for the Economic Summit in Williamsburg. In 2013, she was inducted into the James Beard Foundation Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America. Great Chefs congratulates Chef Zarela Martinez!