7 Questions with NYC-based Chef and Eco-Sustainable Entrepreneur Mariana Lopera

Mariana Lopera

Mariana Lopera has always had a talent for business and a passion for the culinary world, and the combination of the two has led to her success. Throughout her career, she has mastered a wide range of cuisines, including Colombian, Spanish, Japanese, French, Italian, American, and contemporary. She has developed her own style by learning to make these various flavor profiles and perfecting these techniques. Mariana is more than a great chef; she is a culinary entrepreneur uniquely equipped to manage culinary establishments as a businesswoman and chef.

In 2020, Mariana opened her restaurant, La Graciela Cafe, in Colombia. Her mission was to create a restaurant that uses as many high-quality, local ingredients and purveyors as possible to create the food of her homeland through a creative lens. She prioritized environmental sustainability while remaining profit-oriented. She began researching and implementing environmentally responsible and sustainable practices, making her more aware of the staggering amount of used grain breweries waste each year.

Mariana researched and spoke with other brewers and scientists about the problem. She concluded that discarded grains are safe for humans to consume. Circular Foods, which she founded, now uses flour and whole grain to make pasta, breadcrumbs, arepas, tortillas, bread, cookies, pralines, and granola.

"There are numerous factors that distinguish me from others in my industry. People can develop exceptional technical skills if they devote significant time to training and practice. Passion, dedication, hard work, and a never-say-die attitude are qualities that cannot be taught. I've never been so taken with something as the restaurant industry. Not only am I dedicated to my success, but also to the success of the industry as a whole. The culinary industry is far too significant. Whatever it takes, I will always do it," she said.

1. What do you usually eat for breakfast?

Avocado toast!

2. What is your best dish?

This year, I created a dish centered on using spent grain. The dish's base was mixed beans topped with crunchy spent grain, herbs, and a homemade tamale stuffed with pulled shiitake mushrooms. The tamale was also made from leftover grain. It was incredible.

3. What's the best career advice you've ever received?

Give your all in everything you do. Of course, when the chef is present, but more importantly when they are not. The key to success is self-motivation.

4. What energizes you about your work?

Of course, cooking is a beautiful, enjoyable, and delicious process. Nothing beats delivering a beautiful plate to a customer and seeing their face light up with delight. However, nothing energizes me more than the rush of a crowded service. When the tickets keep coming in, and you're firing 20 dishes at once, and your body goes into autopilot, that's when I feel the most energized.

5. What Colombian dish do you recommend everyone try?

Colombian arepas are a traditional bread-like vessel that Colombians eat with every meal. It has been passed down from generation to generation and is an essential part of Colombian culture. Arepas can also be topped with anything from traditional queso blanco to a hearty steak.

6. When was the last time you felt starstruck?

When I was in San Francisco a few years ago, I ran into Dominique Crenn at the Mission. I believe she is an extremely talented chef.

7. If you could snap your fingers and fix one thing about the world, what would it be?

There are far too many people in the world who do not have access to food on a daily basis. If I could fix one thing, it would be world hunger.

8. What is the best thing about living in NYC?

There are so many different cultures in such a small area. There are only a few places in the world where you can fully immerse yourself in so many different cultures at the same time. You can walk through Chinatown and find dozens of versatile, authentic Chinese restaurants before heading to one of Little Italy's best trattorias. Then, if you go a bit further uptown, you'll be in what feels like the heart of modern-day Korea. This is also close to one of my favorite Spanish restaurants in town. Here, you can find and explore anything.

As a sous chef at the well-known New York City restaurant Altro Paradiso, Mariana Lopera is still honing her craft and working to elevate the culinary arts with each service.