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Stirring up excitement for organic cuisine leads Latina chef to new heights

Chef Denise Portillo shows it takes talent, perseverance and vision to overcome challenges on the way to creating a Bella (beautiful) business.
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Denise Portillo believes in doing what you love even if it comes with challenges – lots of them. It was that sentiment that spurred this single Latina mother to enter the male dominated world of professional chefs, embark on a mission to change the way Latinos eat and rebuild her business after suffering a devastating setback.
Born in Hollywood, California, Denise grew up developing her “hobbies” — creating eye-catching table settings and pairing the right flowers to produce floral masterpieces, but it was her passion for cooking, influenced by her paternal abuela from whom she learned French and California cuisine, that really stirred her creative juices.
“I must have been around 8 when I first began to love cooking,” Portillo shared. “Holidays were always a thrill at my grandmother’s house. All of the wonderful dishes, from appetizers to desserts were handmade, as well as, the floral arrangements on the table to the hand-stitched and starched linen.”
Denise knew that to turn her cooking from hobby into professional passion she would need formal training. Yet even before graduating with a degree from the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles, Denise was looking for an outlet to fuse all her hobbies, plus her newly minted cooking skills, into one creative endeavor. Her solution was to create her own business — a catering company. She dubbed it Il Bella Events.
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“I originally did not want to cater but during culinary school, I wanted to try something that was a challenge to me and attempt to have a “restaurant-on-wheels,” so to speak,” Denise said. “I created my catering company, which was just supposed to be a one-time shot. To my amazement, it was a wonderful experience and because of it I opened the Bella Cafè.”
It wasn’t long before Denise’s food creations and attention to enhancing the dining experience for customers at both her catering company and restaurant attracted local food critics’ attention. Championing what she calls “international organic cuisine,” Denise uses only natural whole products in her dishes: whole unsalted butter, kosher salt and pepper and fresh herbs.

Believing that the human body is able to break down organic foods much easier than those that are over-processed, Denise attributes her organic cooking with helping people feel full rather than the customary sensation of feeling stuffed from overeating.
However, organic cooking doesn’t mean bland or uninspired dishes. This is where Denise relies on her family and Latino heritage. To create her innovative menus, she asks her family’s advice on what they would like to eat at a restaurant that serves a California cuisine. She spices up their suggestions by devising recipes that use spicy chilies and puts new twists on old favorites.
“My favorite dish to make would be empanadas,” Denise said. “There are so many interesting ingredients that you can prepare inside of a pastry and accompany them with amazing sauces.”
Denise’s cooking style has garnered her attention from all corners. Recently, she was named Culinary Woman of the Year by the National Latina Business Women’s Association of Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, though, her success has not come without unforeseen challenges.
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II Bella Café
In 2009, Bella Cafè was vandalized not just once but twice in less than a two-month period. The restaurant, located in Whittier, California, was completely destroyed, including the kitchen, which affected business for her catering company. Any other business owner would have given up but her passion to cook for others outweighed any thoughts of throwing in the proverbial towel.
Since rebuilding Bella Cafè, Denise’s focus on creating an unique and healthy experience for diners — one that builds upon smell, taste, sight — has resulted in phenomenal success for this Latina chef. These days, Denise juggles her duties at her two businesses, along with, parenthood, working with the Whittier Conservatory and Young Adults in Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles and sharing her talents through nutritious cooking demonstrations at her restaurant and special events. All in all, Denise foresees a bright future ahead.
“I see myself as opening up four more Bella Cafès; having a warehouse kitchen dedicated to our catering company; becoming a spokesperson for a major appliance company and food company — and going on vacation!”
Chef Denise Portillo shares thoughts on cooking and creating a restaurant business:
LL: How can families on tight budgets eat healthy?
DP: A family can achieve the same quality of food on a slim budget by purchasing their fruits and vegetables from a farmers market. They can make it a family outing weekly and purchase the necessary “whole products” that they need to create wholesome meals.
LL: How can people specifically make Mexican food healthy?
DP: Healthy Mexican food can be achieved by not deep-frying all your food or perhaps using extra virgin olive oil instead of canola oil or baking some of the meals.
LL: In your opinion, what is the single most essential ingredient every cook should have in his or her pantry?
DP: Bay leaf! That is such and amazing dry herb that adds true flavor to all dishes! It gives the entrée an earthy flavor.
LL: For somebody who also might want to open up a restaurant, what advice would you share?
DP: First and foremost, make sure you absolutely love what you do! That is the golden recipe to everything; without that it would be like being in a relationship you only give half of yourself.
It is important that you know what your getting into and understand that dedication and self-discipline are something you must have in order to achieve your goal. Also, get as much training as you can and intern at a variety of restaurants, not just the kind that you are interested in opening but all of them to attain as much information as possible.

Green Goddess Pozole
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Pork tenderloin
2 cans of hominy
1 whole white onion
5 cloves of garlic
2 bay leaves
3lbs or fresh tomatillos or canned tomatillos
2 serrano chilies deseeded
1/3 bunch of cilantro
Wash and cut pork tenderloin into 1 inch pieces. Sauté in olive oil, with ½ of your chopped onion, 5 garlic, 2 bay leaves allow to simmer for 1 ½ hours then in a colander strain broth with a cheesecloth and separate the meat into another bowl. Bring broth in a new pot adding tomatillos and serrano deseeded chilies and boil. Pour liquid into blender adding cilantro. Blend well season salt and pepper to taste. Cook pork tenderloin, onion mixture, hominy and tomatillo blend to pot simmer for another 45 minutes. Serve with a garnish of cilantro.
Recipe Created By Chef Portillo ©2010 Denise Portillo, Inc.

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