The Masterchef Contestant Who Can MacGyver a Meal Out of Nothing in the Fridge
Name: Alejandra Schrader
Location: Los Angeles’ Playa Vista neighborhood
How many people regularly eat together? Two — me and my husband.
Avoidances? I’m a plant-based pescatarian. I am very mindful of my intake of refined sugars and flours. My husband is an omnivore, but sticks to my dietary plan at home to make it easier for us to share meals.
To say that Alejandra Schrader has a lot on her plate is an understatement. Born and raised in Venezuela, she’s a former architect and urban regional planner, has competed on MasterChef, occasionally acts in commercials, is an outspoken food policy and climate change advocate, and works as a private chef. Oh, and she’s also writing a cookbook about the Venezuelan food she makes on a daily basis.
We tracked her down to learn more about the dish she remembers most from her childhood in Venezuela, her clever zero-waste cooking tips, and how she views body size, diet, meal prep, and how it all connects.
Your schedule sounds packed. How does your day start?
I get up, take my dog out for a quick walk, then run to my kitchen to prep for the day. After I prep, I’m usually out the door with black coffee — that’s it. Since I have to cook all day, I learned that I don’t cook as well if I have a stomach full of food. If I do have breakfast, I have a little breakfast blend of oatmeal with chia seeds. But most Mondays through Fridays, that’s not the case. I spend the whole morning cooking — just not for me!
Is that just the reality of being a private chef?
Yes, I’m a private chef and I’m lucky to have an ongoing client where I serve lunch for 75 people every day, by 12:30 p.m. After that I audition for commercials or cooking shows, which I’m lucky to be able to go to after I serve lunch. Then I try to do the shopping for the next day so that’s out of the way. I’m also writing a cookbook. If I have deadlines, I head back to my home kitchen to do recipe testing or writing. Most days, by 2:30 I’ve already done like seven things.
But then do you still cook dinner?
My husband tells me that I’m a Macgyver in the kitchen. He opens the fridge and sees nothing. I kid you not, he’s always like, “Do you want me to order food? I checked and we don’t have anything.” And I say, “Just give me 15 minutes,” and I pull a meal out of nowhere.
Wait, how do you do that? Tell us your secrets!
I like to have staples like cooked garbanzos and quinoa that I can throw on salad or make a quick hummus. I always have julienned veggies, or mango already sliced. Prep work is what allows me to stick to my commitment of eating at home.
For me, it’s a pleasure. We sit down to dinner Venezuelan-style — not until 9 p.m. But we still make it a point to sit down, have dinner every night, and catch up on our day. It’s so rare for us to go out to dinner. We do that for special treat of course, but for the most part, I’m already in the kitchen.
You have talked a lot about food and health, publicly. How does cooking at home connect to health for you?
I’ve struggled with weight issues my whole life. At one point, I was over 400 pounds. My health depends so much on eating at home. I’ve literally done everything — every single diet, every single medical treatment — but the problem is, I’ve gained the weight back. Not all of it, but some. This is something that I’m really open about: Since I was very young, I’ve used food for comfort. On days that I’m extra stressed, I find myself eating more food. Yes, now that might mean jalapeño hummus with jicama sticks, but I’m still upping my calorie intake.
Listen, I was just at the World United Nations talking about food as the planet’s medicine. I think when they brought up that topic they meant for sustainability and the environment, but I brought an extra perspective. It’s also a medicine for our bodies. Ultimately, I’m trying to walk the walk and talk the talk, encouraging people to eat healthier and cook at home.
You also have strong feelings about food waste. How does that play into your cooking?
Yes, I am so adamant about not wasting food because I come from a place where so many people, including my mother and my own sister, go to a market and it’s completely empty.
That’s always at the front of my mind. Arepa are a main staple in Venezuela and they’re usually stuffed with shredded beef. I’m such a no-food waste advocate that in my version, I use the peels of plantains. If you boil them, they shred really nicely and you mix them in with a sofrito with onions, peppers, garlic, and spices. I fooled my husband; I fed him shredded plantain peels and he had no idea. And he’s a meat and potato guy from Pittsburgh.
What are some of your favorite things to cook at home?
There’s this “thrifty paella” that’s the marriage of everything I stand for and advocate for. It’s not a paella at all — it’s more of an “arroz con conches,” which literally means rice with shells. I’ve been making it more than ever before because about a year ago I became pescatarian. It’s made with a lot of bivalves like little clams, mussels, and oysters, but you can use other seafood too.
It’s a dish that’s very close to my heart because my mama used to make it when I was little, when I was growing up in Venezuela, when we didn’t have money — period. She would send me, my sister, and my cousins with a plastic bucket right onto the shore. We’d stick our hands into the sand — you can get clams that way. And my mom would soak them to get the sand out.
We always had white rice available. My mom would make a simple sofrito, throw in the bivalves, throw in the rice, and it just absorbs all the flavors. Plus, bivalves are also not as invasive or overfished as other seafood, making it environmentally-friendly, too. It just encapsulates everything I believe in.
What can you share about your upcoming cookbook?
It’s tied into the two things that matter to me most. The first is my humanitarian work — I’m an ambassador for Oxfam America, work closely with the Chefs Network for Global Goals, and I also work with the the EAT foundation. The second thing is my love for latin food. I’m bringing latin food to the table because we have so much to offer. I also want to show how the way we cook can impact environmental sustainability, and the food choices we make impact biodiversity. I encourage people to eat mostly plants, less red meat, and to avoid food waste. There are tons of little tips like using strawberry tops to make fruit summer drinks, potato peels to make hummus dippers, and plantain peels for shredded beef.
I grew up in Venezuela in a lower-class household with not a lot of equipment, so I try to use rudimentary tools to encourage people to cook more with what they have — it can be so delicious.
The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you about how they feed themselves and their families.We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. How do you overcome challenges to feed yourself? If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.