"That's alright, I'm not a fan of beans, so none for me," the man said while walking down the food line.
The Irish woman behind the table, with a spoon full of beans in hand, looked at him skeptically, before shaking her head with a slight smile. She reached down the table and grabbed a tortilla chip, then dipped it into the sauce in the beans, assuring the man that he had never tried her recipe.
Handing the chip to the hungry Cornell conference visitor, she waited eagerly for his response. After a quick snap, a few chews and a quick swallow, the man began to nod happily.
"Wow, you're good," he said, and asked Mary Anne Grady Flores, owner of La Cocina Latina Catering, for a serving of her beans.
"Another customer sold," she said, laughing. With a swipe of her rag around the edge of the compostable paper plate, she handed the plate off to another happy customer.
For the past 13 years, Grady Flores has been serving up Caribbean, Central and South American style cuisine to members of the Ithaca community via her catering company, La Cocina Latina. While she now works mostly on the two college campuses, Grady Flores came up with the idea to cook and serve these types of dishes while attending Latin Night at Common Ground in the late-‘90s.
"It caught on very nicely. People would come out to have dinner, and it happened at the same time as the Latin dancing," she said. "Then, what I did was ask people for their e-mails, and I'd send out e-mails about events, and then we did fundraisers for different causes, and it just grew from there."
Grady Flores attributes her love for the cuisine to her past Guatemalan mother-in-law, Maria Elena, who taught her the basics of Latin cuisine more than 30 years ago.
"She taught me really good Latino recipes, and people would taste my cooking after would just say ‘Wow,'" she said. "I remember she used to make lengua, which is tongue. I didn't know what I was eating at the time, but it was out of this world delicious."
Grady Flores may come from a pure Irish background, but she has had no difficulty working with Latin food or in the Latin community. She grew up in the Bronx, around many Latin communities, and even lived in Puerto Rico for a few years when she was young. Further, her children are half Irish and half Guatemalan.
"Because of my background, I always knew how these dishes were supposed to taste, I just didn't know how to make it that way," she said. "I didn't know the herbs and spices, but now I do."
After 13 years of living in Ithaca, Grady Flores has managed to pull together recipes and teachings from countless Puerto Rican and Guatemalan friends to construct the recipes that she now serves via La Cocina Latina.
Keeping her Ithaca audience in mind, Grady Flores keeps her meals vegan, except for the meat, and clearly marks anything that has non-vegan ingredients. A common meal served by Grady Flores consists traditional rice; beans that are made with a Puerto Rican sofrito, with herbs from New York City; salad with homemade dressing made from cilantro, garlic, lime and salt; Caribbean chicken slow cooked with spices; Pork that is marinated in garlic, among other things, and finally rum cake and tembleque, which is a coconut custard. For higher end events, she will serve a slow roasted salmon with a cilantro pesto.
Also, Grady Flores has chosen to serve with only compostable materials and buy as many of her ingredients as possible local.
"My concern is with our carbon footprint, so I buy my beans from Cayuga Pure Organics, and as many ingredients from the Farmer's Market as I can," she said. "It's important that we build a local economy, and a dependency on one another in that community."
At the Cornell conference Grady Flores catered for in late April, more than just the beans were raved about. One man in particular, who started off with a modest helping of each selection, came back for seconds with a huge smile.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you were from Sierra Leone, which is where I'm from," the man said. "This rice is as good as what they serve there."
Grady Flores may not be Latin, nor from Sierra Leone, but you'd never guess it after taking a taste of her traditional dishes.
"I felt a need, back when I was at Common Ground, to touch people's emotional needs of connection with family through my food," she said. "I'm so happy that I get to do that now, and especially when I do it among friends."
Anyone interested in La Cocina Latina catering may contact Grady Flores at (607) 273-7437.