It was an opportunity she never imagined taking in the first place, in a country that wasn’t her own. On her last day, she couldn’t imagine ever leaving.

The idea of a Trainee Program had never entered Maria Sanchez’s mind not so very long ago.  She had grown up in a traditional household in Mexico, where a love of cooking was passed down by her mother and grandmother.  “They were always in the kitchen,” she says, “and I loved being with them, watching them cook and laughing with them.”

It wasn’t until she had completed her studies at University that cooking became a potential career.  It dawned on her—wouldn’t it be a gift to share her love of ingeniously and thoughtfully prepared dishes?

“Life itself was the one who guided me into the kitchen,” she explains.  “I left home and lived alone, so I started cooking for myself and discovered it was something I could do.”

She found an opportunity to cook on a cruise ship, and for nine months she worked and sailed across the oceans, enjoying the sense of adventure and the opportunity to do what she loved.  When she returned home, she looked around for another opportunity, but nothing felt right. She wanted something that would help her grow and take her in new and different directions.

That’s when a friend told Maria about the Sociedad Mexicana de Gastronomía, an organization in Mexico that helps aspiring culinary professionals find opportunities abroad.  Maria sent her resume, never expecting that she would soon find herself in Miami, walking into a chic, highly-regarded restaurant called Le Zoo and into the arms of a warm and welcoming second family.

Or that she would find a mentor that would change her life in Le Zoo’s Chef Julian.

Julian is head chef at Le Zoo, an upscale French restaurant in Miami’s trend-setting Bal Harbour district.  Originally from Yorkshire, England, he began his career in the mid 1990s. A friend who was working at a hotel in Maine suggested Julian come to the States and work for the summer on a J-1 Cultural Exchange program visa.  That experience awoke a love of travel that led him to Italy, Spain, and France, eventually returning to the States in the early 2000s.  Today he steadfastly believes that the J-1 visa changed his life.  During his career, Chef Julian had met many capable interns and trainees, but he had never had charge of the professional development of another J-1 holder, until Maria.

Maria’s enthusiasm for the work caught Chef Julian’s attention from day one.  “Her potential was instantly recognizable,” he says.  “The way she presented herself, how she stood in her uniform, you knew she wanted to be there and you knew she wanted to work and learn.”

In Maria he saw a reflection of his own beginnings as a chef.

Chef Julian quickly gave Maria more and more responsibilities, and she always impressed him.  “She’s one of the best professionals I’ve ever worked with, she exceeded every expectation and has raised the bar for future trainees.”

Maria was nervous at first, but Miami surprised her. It was much more welcoming than she had expected, a big mix of cultures and people from many different Spanish speaking countries.  “I felt at home,” Maria explains, “even though it was the U.S., it felt very familiar.”

“We were always laughing, it was wonderful, like a dream job, I never had a bad day – I always wanted to go in to work.”

Thanks to her passion for the culinary arts, and the skills she learned from Chef Julian, Maria plans to open her own restaurant in a few years, either in her hometown or in the town where she went to University.

“I love Mexico, and I missed my family,” Maria says.  “But I cried every day my last week at work,” Maria says.  “I knew I would miss Chef Julian and all my friends.”  The last day was very hard:  the surprise party, the gift of an American cookbook, the plate signed by everyone at Le Zoo.

The photo you see above captures Maria’s goodbye to Chef Julian, and her tears of both sadness and appreciation.

But what the photo doesn’t capture is the future Maria is prepared for thanks to the J-1 Cultural Exchange Program visa and Chef Julian.

“We gave Maria a going away gift, but she gave me one,” Chef Julian says, “she said ‘thank you for believing in me’.”

Author: Theo Kitchen