Photo courtesy of FOX Broadcasting
I had the pleasure of sitting down to chat with Daniel Pontes-Macedo, “The Lion Chef”, a Cabo Verdean-American from Somerville, MA, just Northwest of Boston, as he was in the midst of competition with top chefs around the country through Chef Gordon Ramsey’s hit show MasterChef on FOX. Daniel’s amazing hair may have something to do with his nickname but as we spoke, I saw the fire and passion for his culinary work and the sheer drive for his craft and I say much respect to you, Daniel. I saw him on FOX and felt really proud when I heard him talking about bringing his Cabo Verdean culture to his dishes and I knew I had to contact him to chat about his culture, his take on food and life.
I wanted to first thank you on behalf of The Black Forks and Natural Creola! I am a musician and foodie of Cabo Verdean decent and saw you on MasterChef during the first challenge and loved that you were honoring your parents and heritage. Thanks for speaking with me today!
A pleasure, Michelle! Thanks for chatting with me.
I loved hearing many of your peers on the show harking back to something traditional in their family and you have certainly done the same. As you know, In Cabo Verde, we have a term called “sodade” which is a sense of longing. How do you feel that longing comes through your creations?
I started cooking for my brother when he was diagnosed with cancer. I saw the power of what food could do. When I was making dishes for him I saw a difference of him staying in bed to having energy to face the day. I made him things with love with the freshest foods. He ended up losing his battle and everything I do in my kitchen now is in honor of “sodade”.
As a musician myself, I was happy to hear that you are one as well. We are a creative people by nature. When do you see your music side funneling into your dishes? Do you set a sort of playlist in your mind when preparing a dish?
I find a lot of overlap in food and music. You feel the energy, you feel the audience and being on MasterChef was lot like that. Being in a band helped a lot with that crossover, being able to handle the pressure, channel your energy and develop a mindset to succeed.
I started cooking for my brother when he was diagnosed with cancer. I saw the power of what food could do. When I was making dishes for him I saw a difference of him staying in bed to having energy to face the day.
Growing up in a Cabo Verdean household, I have great memories of food and music being a key player in every gathering. The smell of pastels, bacalha and chickpeas, mandioca (yucca), and linguica are still some of my favorite memory triggers. What are some of your favorites? Transport me back to a time growing up. What is cooking in the kitchen and what music is being played?
Whenever I was feeling homesick back in college in Florida, I would start cooking all the foods of my childhood: tuna with rice, canja, etc. I would put on Cape Verdean music and start cooking…Back in the day, you know, my grandma’s (Vovo) house was like daycare. I have vivid memories of playing in the quiintal (backyard) with my cousins, being excited about her doce de leite. Music was always part of that…it just takes me back.
James-Beard award winning Chef Aarón Sánchez said you had a strong personality with “a lot of gravitas”. Do you feel you thrive on those traits in the kitchen?
You are playing a game…this is a competition. When someone needed to step up, I did. There is a difference between leading and feeling like you have to lead.
We Cabo Verdeans come from agricultural backgrounds and make the most of what fresh produce, fish, and fruit that we have on our respective islands. Which island/islands were your parents from and how do shop for local produce now that you are in Somerville?
My parents were Fogo. My mother came to America when she was 14 and I got to go to Cabo Verde once when I was 15. I saw Cesaria (a legendary Cabo Verdean singer) at the airport. I was so excited and star struck. I thought it was really cool. Much respect, you know?
I am really fortunate to live in a great part of Somerville near Union Square where I can walk to farmer’s markets! My fiance’ signed us up for a farm share which we pick up every Wednesday and it is great way to discover new vegetables as well, like kohlrabi. Cambridge and Somerville are great. I can get seafood straight from the dock from the seafood market…just really great stuff.
With your time as a substitute teacher, do you feel your teaching comes out while rooting for other contestants? I heard you encouragingly say “pay attention” to two of your competitors during a challenge from Chef Ramsey.
Haha…yes, I did. You know, we really wanted to see each other at our best. And you know, we also really wanted to push each other so we could meet each other in competition at our best.
How do you set the scene in your own kitchen now? Does music play a role or do you focus solely on the dish with no distraction?
I love having music in the background. It brings back memories for that are really special. It is not a distraction for me. It is my heart.
I wanted to send blessings to you, your fiance’ and your new baby! How do you foresee sharing your love of cooking with your son?
My son is eating solid foods now and those food are made by me. I am not going to feed him something I would not eat myself. I see cooking as a gift you can give to your child and I look forward to sharing that with him.
Ok – last question…every Cabo Verdean asks this each other. This is a funny debate in our culture for our special dish…Do you call it Cachupa or manchupa?
Oh, definitely Cachupa!
I want to wish “The Lion Chef” an official congrats on his recent marriage! I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for you!