Denisse Oller is an advocate, spokesperson and champion of the Latino experience. Through her professional work as a journalist, chef and community leader, Ms. Oller supports educational initiatives that are at the forefront of the Latino community.
Over the past 20 years, Ms. Oller received widespread recognition for her work as a journalist, including positions as News Anchor at Telemundo and Univision. During this time, she received five Emmys and nine nominations; five A.C.E. Awards; two Gracie Awards and the Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in investigative reporting. She was also named by Hispanic Business Magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential Hispanic Personalities in the United States. Ms. Oller continues her work in journalism as a guest broadcaster on Univision radio.
As one of the prominent Food and Nutrition Experts for AARP’s on-line Spanish language food channel at www.aarp.org/espanol/cocina, Ms. Oller hosts a monthly web-based cooking program and is a featured writer for AARP/VIVA. Her work with AARP enables Ms. Oller to reinvent Latino cuisine, bringing healthy eating choices to thousands of families. Ms. Oller is also working on her first cookbook, and teaches recreational classes at The Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.
Outside of the kitchen, Ms. Oller is the Executive Director for The Joseph A. Unanue Institute for Latin Studies at Seton Hall University. The goal of the institute is to inspire, educate and empower Seton Hall students to become the next generation of Latino leaders.
What place in Puerto Rico has your most fondest memories?
When I get off the plane in Puerto Rico, the very first thing I do is go visit Old San Juan. The place is an architectural and visual gem, with its churches, forts, alleyways, narrow streets, the Governor’s residence, and views of the sea. As a child my parents would always take me to Old San Juan on weekends. I loved it. I yearned for my weekly pastry from La Mallorquina, or a piragua (shaved ice with fruit syrup) to cool off during the hot days of our almost year-long summer season. I could spend hours looking at the sea. The good old days. I remember them fondly.
Five years ago, with tears in your eyes, you said goodbye to your TV audience at Univision, and started on a new journey. What did you lose, and what did you gain as a result of that decision?
Tough, tough question. I lost the routine, the stability, the rhythm of a 9 to 5, well, in this case a 2:30 to 11:30 p.m. job. I lost the daily feedback of our audience and the working routine with my colleagues. Most of all, I missed covering breaking news.
In turn, I gained my freedom. My creative freedom, my freedom from living by a set of rules, written in a contract that tied me down with a lists of do’s and mostly don’ts, that extended to my off time. After more than 20 years of being in a business that rewarded loyalty and discouraged self-expression and creativity, I was out of a gilded cage, ready to see what else was out there.
It was not an easy transition—there were lots of adjustments to be made- but, for the first time in my life I was able to run my life—to experiment—to see what works and doesn’t work and where I can go with my skills, abilities and knowledge. I have a great food business at www.denisseoller.com, I am a top collaborator for AARP, and I work as executive director of the Latino Institute at Seton Hall University, plus I am spokesperson for several entities whose message of health and fitness and empowerment I embrace. I make a great living and I decide when to go on vacations and for how long!
Certainly leaving Univision was a bold move in your career; you followed your heart in order to pursue your other passions. What would you say to people who want to follow their dreams?
It is very tough. Extremely so, especially in these rough economic times. First thing to do, is to plan ahead—thoroughly—have plan A, B, C. Have savings for more than a year, two/three is even safer. Study as much as you can about your next move. Surround yourself with the best people possible—a very loyal team. And when you are ready—go for it!
Today, you also have the mission of empowering Latino and Latina students at The Joseph A. Unanue Institute. Do you see this new generation of US-born Latinos identifying with their Latin roots? And if you do, what do you think of their way of understanding their Latinidad?
I am so impressed by what I see every day. These young kids, second or third generation Latinos, are so identified with their parents and grandparents and their heritage and their culture and roots, and of course, their language. And yet, they are Americans, and proudly so. That is the beauty and wonder of dealing with this generation. They are young, determined to study, to work, to forge ahead. They are part of the fabric of this great country, while celebrating their sense of identity. I am so proud of them, of their Latinidad.
You’ve interviewed many world leaders, including former US Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in addition to prominent artists and writers, such as Isabel Allende and Mario Vargas Llosa. Did you ever discuss their culinary preferences?
Not really, except with the legendary Spanish actress/singer Sara Montiel. I asked if she cooked ever, and she replied that she would prepare “huevos con puntilla” (fried eggs with lace) for Marlon Brando. By huevos con puntilla, she meant she would fry the eggs at a certain temperature so the whites would crisp and curl, thus the lace. Marlon Brando loved it!
New York is a melting pot of races and cultures, and it seems that a lot of non-Latin people are falling in love with our cuisine. High-end restaurants are on the rise, for instance, Richard Sandoval just opened Raymi, his first Peruvian restaurant. What do you make of the growing popularity of Latino American cuisine in this city?
God bless. Keep it coming. About time. Our food is rich in history, tradition, variety and abundance of many varieties of meat, fowl, grains and vegetables!!!! We are a world unto ourselves, from others to learn and share. I trained at Le Bernardin and I was a witness of how much Chef Ripert loves and gets inspiration from the Caribbean and South America. It is about time we become an integral part of the global food landscape.
Do you think there is such a thing as a Latin-American cuisine? How does Puerto Rican cuisine fit into this rubric?
Of course there is a Latin American cuisine. Imagine an orchestra called Latin America—we all have something to contribute to the great symphony with the best we have. Our diversity, our cuisines, our preparations, our traditions are unparalleled. And our beverages, from horchatas to aguas frescas, are just as varied and distinct as our food. This is a universe just now being discovered.
Puerto Rican food is so rich; our influences so varied, from the Amerindians, Africans, Spanish/European, and the U.S. It is a treasure. So many chefs, including uber chef Eric Ripert find so much inspiration from the Island. If he does, need I say more?
For several years, you’ve been an advocate for healthy eating. HBO’s new series “The Weight of the Nation” addresses the obesity issue in the US as an epidemic. It’s definitely a serious issue that US society has to deal with. What do you think might be the best way to transform bad eating habits into healthy ones, and still have the pleasure of eating?
Look, the main cause of the obesity epidemic is excess calories. This is due to unhealthy eating habits and insufficient physical activity. We have to understand not only the causes of obesity among Latinos, like propensity to diabetes, but also the culture, history and environment that cause us to eat the way we do, in order to educate ourselves and make us aware of every single choice we make.
If you have the opportunity to invite to your home the person who you admire the most in the world, what would you cook for him or her?
Hey—this has been one tough question after another—and I am cheating a little, here. The man I admired the most, Chef Maximo Tejada, died three months ago from an asthma attack. He is the chef I most admired for his knowledge, experience, artistry, and generosity. Anything I cook nowadays I think of him and whether it has his sign of approval.
What’s the Puerto Rican dish that you can’t live without?
Toughest question of all. Arroz con gandules, pasteles navideños –like Grandma used to make them, and serenata de bacalao—are my absolute favorite—do or die. So can I make it three instead of one????