What I Do: Mandy Estrella of Plantain Girl
Mandy Estrella didn’t grow up with pernil and plantains – it wasn’t until she married a Dominican man after culinary school that she fell in love with the cuisines of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. That passion prompted Estrella to launch Plantain Girl, a Caribbean catering service that's popped up at places like Crafty Chameleon, Six Mile Bridge Beer and, most recently, Anew. Here, Estrella talks education, sweet plantains and respecting another culture’s cuisine.
“I learned how to cook most things more so out of necessity when we moved back here, because the food wasn’t here. [My ex-husband] would constantly complain, ‘The food is not here – there’s nothing to eat.’ He knew how to cook some things, so I was able to take what I learned and start learning new things.”
“Oxtail was another thing you couldn’t find. We used to go to Soulard Market, and they had the whole tails. … You couldn't find them in a regular supermarket. It was so expensive, which was crazy because the reason these cultures adapted these foods is because it was so cheap.”
“I’m not trying to misappropriate someone’s food culture. I have to be very cautious of this. I didn’t know if people were going to perceive it correctly. I didn’t know if [Hispanic] people would be like, ‘You’re just trying to make money off our food.’ … As long as the food is correct, they’re just thrilled anyone is making it.”
“I went to work at a bank for a few years. It’s the only job I had outside of a restaurant, and it was the most boring experience of my life. I was just sitting there. I found myself bothering account holders at other people’s desks because I was so bored. … I just kept thinking, ‘I have to have a 401(k). I have to have insurance. I have to sit at a desk. That’s what everybody does.’ I lasted about two years, and then I said, ‘I can’t do it.’”
“Most of what I’ve been doing so far is one big giant test kitchen. … It’s trying to figure out in St. Louis: what do people want to eat, which foods do they know, which foods do they not understand – that they’re not even going to order. It’s trying different things I haven’t cooked before and getting the recipes correct, putting it in front of Hispanic people to try and say, ‘Yes, that’s correct,’ or ‘No, you probably needed to do this.’”
“Sweet plantains are always on the menu. Even if [customers] don’t want them, I make them because I just know if it’s not put in front of them, they aren’t going to request it. When you put it in front of them they go, ‘This is fantastic!’ I know – I know!”
“[A woman] contacted me about catering at her home for her husband’s birthday. They’re both Venezuelan, and all their friends are Venezuelan and Colombian. So we did that in her home. It went great, and then six days later, they were at our popup at Anew, eating. … I was like, ‘You probably still have leftovers in your fridge and you’re up here buying food again.’ And they ordered probably five times more food than they needed and took it home with them.”
“I usually have 23 independent thoughts in my brain at all times. It’s tough to keep it all straight.”
Catch Plantain Girl at The Cuban Café pop-ups, Nov. 10 to 12 and Nov. 16 to 18 at Anew in Grand Center.
Catherine Klene is managing editor, digital at Sauce Magazine.
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