When former Alinea Group chef Natalia Rosario was five, she spent a lot of time at El Conquistador Resort in Puerto Rico, where her dad served as the director. She became good friends with the daughter of the hotel’s executive chef, who was about the same age, and they would hide under the tablecloths in the hotel’s fanciest restaurant and try to tie people’s shoes together.
“Obviously we’d get caught all the time,” Rosario says. “I feel bad for my parents. I was kind of a disaster.”
To keep her out of trouble, the chef would sit her next to him in the kitchen, where she watched him cook and plate. Sometimes it was traumatic — Rosario cried the first time she saw a lobster killed — but it was mostly inspiring, leading her to come home and try livening up her mother’s leftovers with herbs.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to be a chef,” Rosario says. “There was a moment where I was looking into college, but this is my dream so I pursued it.”
That dream led her to the Alinea Group and the Food Network, where she can currently be seen competing on a new TV show. Ciao House features 10 chefs from across the U.S. living together in a Tuscan villa as they vie for the chance to tour Italy and train with top Italian chefs.
“We joke that we were brought to the show under false pretenses because at first they told us that it’s going to be kind of a point system and nobody’s going to get it eliminated and nobody’s going to go home, but there’s someone that’s going to be leaving the villa every single day until there’s a final winner,” Rosario says. “We didn’t know who the judges were. We absolutely knew nothing, not even where we were filming. It was all a big surprise.”
Rosario continued her culinary education when her family moved to Mexico City when she was 14 for her father’s job. She’d been dreaming of eating plenty of Taco Bell Burrito Supremes but instead wound up immersed in traditional Mexican fare and decided to stay there for culinary school. She set her sights on opening the next Pujol, chef Enrique Olvera’s Mexico City tasting menu restaurant, but knew she needed to go elsewhere to train. So she played around until she figured out Grant Achatz’s email and then sent him a message. Two days later, she got an email inviting her to come in to stage. After two days in the kitchen, she had a job offer.
She moved to Chicago a month later and spent six years at the Alinea Group, working at Next for nearly three years during which time it earned its first Michelin star. Michelin were reluctant to award the restaurant star status as Next morphed into a new concept every four months with new furnishings and a menu: “Every time there was a transition, it felt like going into a new restaurant with new recipes, new style, and new techniques,” Rosario says.
The experience was educational, but took its toll. Her toes started curling on top of each other and bleeding and her feet began pointing to the side instead of straight. The long hours spent standing had damaged a foot tendon so badly that she needed a transplant. She was unable to walk for eight months after the surgery and she still has no mobility in her toes. She can’t stand for long periods of time and that made it impossible to return to Alinea.
Working as a private chef as allowed Rosario to rebound. While her specialty is fusing Puerto Rican and Mexican cuisine, Rosario has plenty of experience with Italian fare which she’s bringing to Ciao House. Her mother studied Italian and dreamed of moving there to pursue her master’s. She received a scholarship in 1992 but turned it down because she was pregnant with Rosario. She passed on that passion, taking Rosario to Italian restaurants for birthday dinners and other special occasions.
“Thirty years later, being able to go to Italy, I said, ‘Mom, this is for you,’” Rosario says.
Rosario was asked to join Ciao House based on her previous experience on the Food Network’s Chopped Next Gen and Beat Bobby Flay.
“I didn’t want her to have any expectations,” Rosario says. “It was a huge learning process for me because I hadn’t been to Italy and everything that I knew is very Italian American, which obviously has nothing to do with how Italian food really is. I just took it day by day and trusted what I knew and the reasons why I was there.”
Ciao House airs 9 p.m. Sundays on the Food Network and Discovery+.