A year after she started her own catering company and met with award-winning chef Andrew Zimmern for his new show, the MSNBC limited series What’s Eating America, Sandra Felicidad Cervera Gallardo, a Mexican immigrant and Glendale resident, confessed she didn't have a natural draw to cooking for most of her life. “I sincerely didn’t like cooking," Cervera Gallardo says.
Though she avoided the stove early in life, Cervera Gallardo, owner of Felicidad Catering, reluctantly was pulled into the cooking world due to one thing — the demand for her food (more on that later). This enthusiasm is what brought Zimmern to her table in fall 2019 when he was filming the fourth episode of his five-episode series.
What’s Eating America seeks to examine some of the biggest issues currently facing the United States through the angle of food. Zimmern travels across the country speaking to activists, those suffering from addiction, and agricultural workers about voting, climate change, and immigration.
The episode, "A Seat at the Table," which premieres this Sunday, March 8, follows Zimmern through southern battleground states where he speaks to voting activists, politicians, and reformed felons about voting rights in the U.S., among other things. Zimmern spoke with Abril Gallardo, Cervera Gallardo’s daughter and employee of the activist organization Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), about the current political climate.
It was through Gallardo that Zimmern first arrived at their west Valley home. During his visit, Zimmern sat down with Cervera Gallardo to learn how to make her chicken tinga quesadillas, which are her most requested item.
The tinga inside the quesadillas is a traditional Mexican dish that is made with either shredded chicken or beef cooked in a spicy chipotle sauce. On the day of Zimmern’s visit, she prepared 100 tinga quesadillas for him and his production team.
Today, a heap of shredded chicken, which has been marinating in a pot of Cervera Gallardo’s signature chipotle sauce, sits beside a tubful of masa balls and a silver tortilla maker. Cervera Gallardo creaks open the tortilla-maker to extract a freshly made tortilla. Then she quietly creases the edges and gently lays a quesadilla in the ripping-hot oil, only for it to emerge with a sizzling brown crust. The crispy exterior of the quesadillas gives way to a heavenly combination of spicy, savory tinga, and a trove of stretchy mozzarella cheese.
Fortunately, the quesadillas only serve as an introduction to the large array of traditional Mexican food Cervera Gallardo makes for her company.
Despite Cervera Gallardo’s initial distaste for cooking, she explained that the ability to cook comes from something beyond books and culinary school. “It’s something that you carry in your blood because no one knew that they were going to cook, and I would have never imagined that I would cook,” she says.
In her birthplace of Mexico City, Cervera Gallardo was constantly surrounded by people involved in the food industry. Her father owned a pulqueria where he sold pulque — a traditional Mexican alcoholic drink derived from the fermented sap of agave plants. Next door, her mother sold fried fish to many hungry (and tipsy) customers strolling over from the pulqueria.
Many years later, in a small southern Arizona town, Cervera Gallardo would begin to acquire a taste for preparing food. In 2001, Cervera Gallardo and her family migrated to Somerton, Arizona, where her husband got a job harvesting cabbages
“Curiously enough, Somerton is where I started cooking,” Cervera Gallardo says, a smile growing on her face.
Every day, Cervera Gallardo would get up at 4 a.m. and make burritos for her husband before he went to work. During lunchtime, her husband would share some of his burritos with coworkers. They liked her food so much, she started making daily burrito lunches for them as well.
Cervera Gallardo says she likes to cook to the best of her ability because she feels good seeing other people enjoying her food. After Cervera Gallardo moved to Glendale, she began getting numerous requests from her church and activist organizations, such as LUCHA, to cook food for them. The day after our conversation, Cervera Gallardo catered an event for Democratic Senate candidate and former astronaut Mark Kelly.
“I like to cook as if I’m cooking for my family because if my kids like my food then other people will like it, too,” Cervera Gallardo said. “I get happiness from cooking and if the food is good enough then it will bring happiness to my guests’ stomachs, too.”
This happiness, along with her name, contributed to her decision to name the company Felicidad Catering. Cervera Gallardo founded her company primarily due to financial restraints that were facing her family at the time.
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“I couldn’t just stay in my little house,” Cervera Gallardo says. “I needed to help support my family in some way.”
It has now been a little over a year since Cervera Gallardo started her catering company. On the day of the series premiere of What’s Eating America, Cervera Gallardo organized a cookout at her house so guests could watch the premiere episode. Unfortunately, her interview had been scheduled to air during a later episode, but Zimmern himself called her daughter to let her know about the postponement.
"A Seat at the Table" will air on What’s Eating America at 9 p.m. EST on March 8 via MSNBC.
Cervera Gallardo is already planning another cookout.