Marissa Leshnov/The New York Times

Rahanna Bisseret Martinez, a teenage chef who draws from her Black, Mexican and Haitian heritage, as well as her Northern California roots, in San Francisco, April 28, 2022. Martinez was a finalist on “Top Chef Junior” and has her own cookbook.

November 6, 2023

Rahanna Bisseret Martinez ’26 Honors Black and Mexican Heritage, Bay Area Cuisine Through Cookbook

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Most students arrive at Cornell just beginning to explore their career interests. But Rahanna Bisseret Martinez ’26, who is from Oakland, California, had already started on her path in culinary arts well before setting foot on campus. 

At age 13, Bisseret Martinez finished runner-up in the cooking competition show Top Chef Junior. She later participated as a contestant on the Food Network program Guy’s Grocery Games, and by her senior year of high school, she was working full-time at Michelin-star restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California — owned by famous restaurateur Alice Waters.

After Bisseret Martinez participated in Top Chef Junior, she honed her culinary skills in the professional kitchen through stages, or in-kitchen internships, at high-end restaurants worldwide — such as Gwen LA and Emeril’s — throughout 2018 and 2019. 

Bisseret Martinez also pursued opportunities with branded content, including partnering with toy company Mattel to participate in a cooking challenge on the official Barbie YouTube channel, but she felt particularly drawn to the restaurant setting. However, COVID-19 halted her in-person culinary pursuits.

“At a certain point, I really wanted to go back to cooking professionally in kitchens, and then COVID-19 hit,” Bisseret Martinez said. 

Bisseret Martinez began writing food essays and recipes in early 2020. After pitching her essays to various publications, editors at book publisher Penguin Random House approached Bisseret Martinez to write a cookbook. 

Bisseret Martinez decided to pursue this project throughout the pandemic. In May, Bisseret Martinez published her cookbook, Flavor+Us: Cooking For Everyone, after two years of writing and testing recipes.

Prior to accepting a publication offer from Penguin Random House, Bisseret Martinez sent her proposal to several different editors, taking into account the different offers and contracts. 

She emphasized the importance of creative authority over her work, which influenced her final choice to work with a newer imprint inside Penguin Random House called 4 Color Books, which collaborates with chefs, artists and writers of black, indigenous and other backgrounds of color to publish nonfiction works. Part of what led Bisseret Martinez to choose 4 Color was her connection to editor-in-chief Bryant Terry, a renowned chef and educator to whom she had first reached out in 2018.

“Bryant Terry is one of my biggest mentors. I immediately knew I really wanted to work with him, because I knew that he understood me as a person really well, and he understood my journey, my food style and my family,” Bisseret Martinez said.

Preparing a cookbook at the start of a global pandemic came with a unique set of challenges, Bisseret Martinez said. She noted that social distancing regulations made shopping for ingredients more difficult and recalled how team experiences like photoshoots needed to include safety precautions.

“We had photographers wearing masks, us eating all outside and [other similar precautions] to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” Bisseret Martinez said.

Despite the challenges, Bisseret Martinez described photography and illustration as one of the most rewarding aspects of production both creatively and professionally.

“I created a set list of the shots that I really wanted — the images of my neighborhood, my family. Getting to design it was really exciting,” Bisseret Martinez said. “I really wanted illustrations also in the book. Hiring an illustrator and interviewing people gave me a lot of business experience.”

A goal that Bisseret Martinez had in preparing Flavor+Us was to highlight the culinary experiences associated with her community, as well as her Black and Mexican heritage. She was inspired by the diversity of cuisines she was exposed to in her childhood. 

“We’d have mole, epis and all these cultural dishes from Haiti and Mexico. Growing up in California, you end up having friends from a lot of different backgrounds, having dinner at their houses and eating so many different types of recipes,” Bisseret Martinez said. “That felt so much like home to me. I really wanted to incorporate my idea of home into the book, because it was really important to me to celebrate my friends and my family.”

In preparing the food essays for Flavor+Us, Bisseret Martinez would begin with a focal point of inspiration — whether it be her grandmother’s hibiscus punch recipe or a specific story from culture or history — and expand upon its significance to her. 

The final product of Flavor+Us featured eight chapters, each commencing with a longer writing piece as a chapter opener and containing a collection of recipes with shorter essays. 

While creating the cookbook, Bisseret Martinez thought it was important that her recipes made sense to less experienced cooks, and that recipes influenced by cultures outside her own were appropriately represented. To help her test the recipes, she recruited Janelle Bitker — a senior editor for the food and wine department at the San Francisco Chronicle

“[Bitker] was definitely a big support when it came to the cultural significance of other dishes, the tastes, the way that I worded certain things,” Bisseret Martinez said. 

After the book was completed, Bisseret Martinez said she felt a sense of relief and pride. She also expressed excitement to observe how the book would continue to impact others’ cooking experiences.

“I had been working on [the book] for so long, [so] for it to be completed finally, I felt so accomplished,” Bisseret Martinez said. “It’s been such a cool experience to see the recipes that I made in other people’s kitchens and on different bookshelves.”

At Cornell, Bisseret Martinez is majoring in hotel administration at the School of Hotel Administration, which she described as a learning environment conducive to her interests in food, hospitality and service. 

On campus, she is the director of social media and graphics for Thread Magazine and the marketing director for Cornell’s chapter of the National Society of Minorities in Hospitality. With NSMH, Bisseret Martinez has taken action to promote diversity in the hotel school. 

“I think that there could be more actions done to make the hotel school more diverse. We’re hosting the national [NSMH] conference at Cornell University for the first time this year, so we’re having hundreds of people who all are in NSMH chapters around the US come to our campus,” Bisseret Martinez said. 

After enjoying the photography and design aspects of producing Flavor+Us, Bisseret Martinez joined Thread Magazine to continue exploring her creative interests.

“I knew I wanted to experience something other than hospitality and food — [though it] is super exciting, it can put you in a bubble sometimes. I wanted to be able to meet other people outside of my comfort zone,” Bisseret Martinez said. 

After graduation, Bisseret Martinez hopes to continue to pursue creatively stimulating projects and opportunities.

“I want to keep expanding my horizons and figuring out different aspects of the culinary world,” Bisseret Martinez said. “I hope that post-grad, I get to do something I’m excited about.”

For those who want to make a career out of their passions, Bisseret Martinez stressed the importance of becoming well-versed in the field and learning from mentors. 

“Definitely reach out to your mentors and people you’re inspired by,” Bisseret Martinez said. “Get to know the people in your industry, and just create whatever you can.”

Eric Lechpammer ’27 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].