Taste Trends: Lumarie Rodríguez-Soto, F&B Director and Executive Chef, Waterloo Convention Center/OVG Hospitality
Growing up in a culinary family in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, Chef Lumarie Rodríguez-Soto initially avoided a career in the culinary arts. As a young woman, she tried pursuing other career paths, but her innate creativity and love for baking eventually led her back to the kitchen and then to culinary school at La Escuela Hotelera de Puerto Rico, where she honed her skills, grew her knowledge and perfected her craft.
“Almost everybody in my family—my grandma, my mom and my brother—works in a kitchen, [and] I saw the behind-the-scenes, non-glamorous side of the business, so I knew how hard it was,” she explains. “I went to college and earned my bachelor’s degree in advertising and graphic arts, and then my masters in human resources, but in the end, the kitchen was there waiting for me. I think my family was so passionate about cooking and business that they unconsciously pushed me into the profession.”
After seven years of owning and running a patisserie specializing in luxury wedding cakes that helped elevate her to one of the top three bakers on the island, Rodríguez-Soto moved to the small town of Waterloo, Iowa, in 2015 to develop a new bakery concept and become an active part of the local culinary community. Never one to shy from a challenge, she accepted the role of food and beverage director and executive chef of the Waterloo Convention Center earlier this year and has since been leveraging her passion, knowledge and expertise to deliver a unique gastronomic experience to surprise and delight guests attending meetings and events at the venue.
Besides being an American Culinary Federation certified executive pastry chef and board member of the ACF Southwest Chapter, the multi-award-winning chef is also a highly popular Latin American social media personality, with more than 75,000 followers and growing. Passionate about leading others into the profession she loves, Rodríguez-Soto works to promote the culinary arts locally and globally, and enjoys mentoring the next generation of aspiring chefs.
TSNN enjoyed sitting down with this passionate culinary veteran to hear what it’s like to be a Latina woman at the helm in a male-dominated profession, why it’s important for her to be a role model and mentor to other female chefs, how event planners facing tight budgets can still design delicious menus for their attendees, and why diversity is such an essential ingredient for the success of any venue kitchen.
Why did you choose to become a pastry chef?
For as long as I can remember, my mom had been making elaborate, multi-tiered cakes, and she wanted me to learn every recipe. One day, I decided to pour my creativity and knowledge into designing cakes myself, and little by little my interest in desserts grew, and I attended the same culinary school as my mother. I decided to choose the sweet way because you can be a lot more creative than “regular” food and still have a good-sized dessert. It’s more fun and challenging.
What do you like most about working in the convention industry specifically?
Organization. Everything is on a schedule in the convention industry. Looking back on my varied past experiences in kitchens, including 24-hour hotels and casinos, if a chef has good organization and communication skills, everything runs more smoothly. I also enjoy working with the different groups we host here at the building.
Additionally, having grown up in a Puerto Rican household, I’m happy that I can incorporate some of those traditional flavors into the dishes I prepare for convention center guests. From Serenata de Bacalo and Asopao de Camarones o Pollo to Passion Fruit Mojitos and Tembleque, guests will taste entrees, soups, drinks and desserts they may have never tried before.
What are the biggest and most exciting dessert trends you’re seeing at meetings and events right now?
Any dessert that incorporates either a surprise element (for example, a cake that cascades with M&M’s when you cut it) or a realistic appearance (a dessert that looks like a passion fruit but when you cut it open it's filled with passion fruit mousse inside) is trending right now. At the Waterloo Convention Center, we have been driving home the point that we are making desserts in-house now rather than pre-made products from a food purveyor, and that tends to be a big deal to meeting planners. When you have a pastry chef in-house, expectations are higher, and there is an excellent opportunity to wow guests who may not be expecting a fancy dessert at a meeting. Locally we don’t have a lot of businesses that are dessert-exclusive, so we try to create special on-trend dessert experiences.
Many event planners are working with tighter budgets post-pandemic, and food and beverage is one of the first areas to be cut back. What are your tips for overcoming this while still providing delicious treats for attendees?
The food market hasn’t been steady for the last year, and that’s presented some challenges. We have redone our menu, offering more creative and affordable options to our clients without sacrificing our quality or flavor. In fact, the “Chef’s Specialties” on the Waterloo menu are relatively affordable to produce and can create impressive dining experiences. However, I’m always willing to mix and match to find ways to work within a client’s budget.
I try my best to know what the client is looking for and suggest the best options for their events within budget constraints. I also take care to quote all my products, and I know which vendor has better prices and availability, although in most cases now, due to shortages, I need to have a headcount seven days prior to get enough product. Providing a great food experience—and making sure we follow the OVG Hospitality mission to “Feed All the Senses”—is the key to bringing people back or making them recommend our convention center to others as the best location to celebrate a special event here in Waterloo.
What makes hospitality a good industry for women to build a career, and what advice would you give to those considering a career in it?
The hospitality industry has a wide variety of segments to match various personalities and skill sets across the culinary spectrum, while also creating endless opportunities for professional growth. Women make up less than 30 percent of all executive chefs in the hospitality industry, and less than 20 percent are Hispanic or Latin. Given those statistics, I’m glad that OVG Hospitality, which manages operations and hospitality at the Waterloo Convention Center, offers so many opportunities for women to grow and take center stage.
Hospitality calls out to people who have passion, but you can’t let that passion overtake you. In this industry, women in particular must create a balance between their professional calling and their personal/family life. Once you set those boundaries up front, you can enjoy the journey. I would also say that you should never stop learning and looking for knowledge and new opportunities. My grandma always stressed the importance of customer service—that is what keeps people coming back, she would say.
What are some of the challenges of being a female chef in a male-dominated profession, and are you seeing more women moving into leadership roles like yourself?
I never felt that being a woman was an obstacle to achieving my goals in this or any other industry, which I think is mainly due to having my grandma and mom as such strong role models. I've always been focused on my goals, so I kept all distractions out of my vision. Yes, sometimes I had to work harder than others, run that extra three miles. The ratio of men to women is visibly changing now, however, in all my years in hospitality, I have never worked with a female F&B director. Every day we see more and more female executive chefs, sous chefs, pastry chefs and others taking the lead role in the kitchen and doing a great job. Women are in the industry, we have the cooking and management skills, and we’re ready for those leadership roles. I’m very proud that of my 75,000 followers on social media, most are women. I want to not only be a role model for my kids but also for other women, just as my mom and grandma were for me.
Are you seeing improvements in diversity in executive chef roles at convention centers, and if not, what needs to happen to create more racial equity in our industry?
I do see diversity growing in hospitality, but we have to better encourage and teach diverse individuals to love this industry. We’re simultaneously fighting a lack of diversity and passion. Being a chef is not as glamorous as people see on TV, in magazines or on the internet, so when people start working in the kitchen, they learn quickly how hard you have to work to be successful, how much you have to increase your knowledge, develop your skills and balance your talent in order to earn a higher position.
Being an executive chef is about much more than cooking—we need to lead, manage and mentor. I do think we need to see more bilingual executive chefs because it’s a huge advantage—you’ll have a larger pool of great job candidates to choose from because you can communicate with them, and you’ll also help Spanish-speaking employees feel more comfortable and empowered in the kitchen. You know diversity is taking hold when every box delivered by a vendor has instructions written in both English and Spanish!
Who or what has most inspired you throughout your career?
I’m from a Caribbean Island, where everything is inspiring. When I started my career, I had so many “influencers” in my life: my grandma, my mom, my brother, the ocean, the “salitre” (essentially, the wind coming from the ocean, mixed with water and salt), the cultural mix, etc. Our food, our taste is full of flavor and cultural infusion, which makes it unique. And you want to deliver all that love and passion in your food. At the convention center, I love watching the guests’ excitement every time they taste my food or desserts, the happiness on their faces. Plus, I’ve received support and mentoring from so many great people in this industry, who have always believed in me, even when I thought I wasn’t made for the profession.
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