Connect
To Top

Conversations with Chef Roberto Cruz

Today we’d like to introduce you to Chef Roberto Cruz.

Hi Chef Roberto, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
Ringing in the New Year 2020, Follow Your Bliss Catering Co. was a busy private chef service in Tampa Bay, Florida, with various international menus, including “garde manger” (cold foods), warm appetizers, entrees, and desserts. Melon carvings were also one of our specialties, a rare expertise I had learned from one of the many mentors along my two-decade culinary journey.

Then everything changed. With the onset of COVID-19, we (like every person in the United States and beyond, and certainly every food-service business) were confronted with an unknown future. Faced with fewer catering bookings, I launched Follow Your Bliss Catering Co.’s own lines of spices, natural salts, and spiced nuts, many of which I had been using in my catering recipes for years. If I couldn’t cook for a handful of locals for the foreseeable future, why not peddle my proprietary blends online for the masses of quarantined home chefs around the country?

I started with four spices, quickly increasing the line to seven. Then I added lines of natural salts and spiced nuts: More than twenty years of culinary education and creation distilled into three lines of products. They were an online hit from day one.

Two months later, my wife, Melissa, introduced me to Vine & Grind, a gourmet boutique in Treasure Island, Florida, owned by entrepreneur Jared Leal, which boasts his own signature olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Cherie, Jared’s mother and Vine & Grind’s co-owner, invited us to not just look around the corner store a block off the beach but to taste. It’s an evening I’ll never forget.

Sampling the creative fusions and infusions of their fruity ultra-premium olive oils and sweet-and-sour premium balsamics, my mind began to race with the possibilities. Each incarnation of oil and balsamic seemed better than the last and simply the best I’d ever tasted. Grabbing the notebook I carry to capture “inspirations”, I began scribbling potential pairings of my products with theirs.

That first night, I came up with a dozen or so combos. We all tried a few, and the excitement grew. Vine & Grind’s oils and balsamic vinegars were the perfect complements to my spices and salts. Originally intent on merely convincing Vine & Grind to carry my lines of spices and salts, suddenly the vision began to grow. Why not create a compilation of recipes that included both our products and theirs?

Bursting with excitement and gratitude that Vine & Grind had become the first storefront to feature Follow Your Bliss’ products, I vowed to begin creating this collaborative cookbook. An often scary and uncertain year later, “Foods With Benefits” is in your hands and hopefully in your kitchen.

These recipes are the union of two companies’ all-natural product lines that can help fortify your favorite dishes, boosting their nutritional, vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant content. Crack open “Foods With Benefits” and get cooking. Use the finest ingredients you can find and allow our spices and salts, and oils and balsamic vinegars to enhance them.

I love food for what it means to all of us: nourishment, mental “fuel”, deep emotions, lasting memories, and even genuine happiness. I also love that, if nothing else at times, I can be an integral part of a perfect meal and/or memory, whether to my family, clients, or my newfound readers.

On behalf of Follow Your Bliss Catering Co. and Vine & Grind Olive Oil and Vinegar Shop, we are honored to be at your table, sharing life and love through great food. – Chef Roberto Cruz, May 2021

The following is an article by my editor Nelson Williams from my book “Foods with Benefits”

“The Art of Cruz Control”

There’s no GPS to point you in the right direction should you desire to become an artist. If you possess the talent and the tenacity, you might just find your way. Chef Roberto Cruz found his. But it was no direct route.

He grew up in Cicero, Illinois, about twenty minutes outside of Chicago, at the feet of two generations of formidable women with bottomless hearts and overflowing recipe boxes. One of five boys, Roberto was the loner. While the rest played ball or roamed the neighborhood, he could be found holed up in his room with an encyclopedia or in the kitchen hovering behind his mother or one of his two “abuelas” (grandmothers).

Of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, Roberto was raised on authentic ethnic dishes like empanadas, “lechon” (roasted pig), and fajitas, with nary a chicken tender in sight. From the beginning, food meant family and friends more than mere sustenance to Roberto. Every meal served had hours of labor – of love – behind it.

Roberto was always mature for his age, but at fifteen he became a man upon the sudden arrival of his daughter, Erica. Days, he hustled in a deli and grocery store to support his newborn baby. Nights, he studied to earn his GED. On his own by seventeen, Roberto landed a job in the kitchen of the city’s biggest bakery. A year later, he was poached by a local chef and was perfecting the art of “saute” and sauces at a popular local Italian ristorante.

By age twenty, Roberto now had another mouth to feed: his son, Joseph’s. And money was running as thin as his capellini. So he swapped his chef’s ladle for a carpenter’s level and laid floors for six years. Like most trades, there was an art to it, but Roberto hungered for something more. More creative. With more control. Artistic control. So at 26, laid up with work-related injury and much too young and headstrong for a midlife crisis, he borrowed $80 from his rent money and applied to CHIC, the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (which would go on to become Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts), and was accepted. The school was as impressive as it sounds. Every minute of every day was food, and that was “perfecto” with Roberto. They had him at hearts of palm.

Two years later, in 2004, he became a bona fide chef, not just a cook with solid street cred. To follow were stints as a broiler chef at the House of Blues and as a “garde manger” (cold foods) chef at the Westin O’Hare. In 2012, Roberto met his true love and muse, Melissa. They quickly married and moved to Florida after falling in love with the state while on holiday. Flash forward seven years, and here is Roberto flexing his culinary muscles five days a week as a three meal-a-day private chef for five professional poker-playing bachelors living in a waterfront Tampa Bay mansion. In his spare time, with Melissa’s help, he helms the seven-year-old Follow Your Bliss Catering Co., which is a catchy name, if not a creed. Roberto also hawks his own proprietary Follow Your Bliss spice blends and natural salts, known by such tantalizing names as “Crack” and “Sex on the Beach”.

As if he didn’t have enough on his plate, Roberto has now cross-marketed with a foodie’s dream boutique a block off the beach in Treasure Island, Florida, by publishing his first cookbook. Entitled “Foods With Benefits,” it comprises forty-seven recipes marrying his own spices and salts with the olive oils and balsamic vinegars from Vine & Grind Olive Oil and Vinegar Shop, which was the first storefront to carry Roberto’s lines of products.

Chef Roberto Cruz is rarely at rest. He’s always conceiving, crafting, and creating. If he were a stock, it’d be a “buy”. Melissa never doubted. When Roberto served her his signature chocolate mousse on their first date, she proclaimed, “You’re going to be big one day!” That day is on the horizon, as inevitable as a Gulf Coast sunset.

Roberto already has eyes on future cookbooks featuring pastries, salads, sushi, and plating. “To share a meal is a blessing”, he says, “but to share my knowledge and recipes is truly a gift I did not see coming”.

Can’t decide which “gifts” here to try first? Roberto suggests Roasted Guacamole & Salty Sunshine Chips as an appetizer (“My spices and their oil feel like they’ve always been there”), Lechon as a main (“I wish I could serve it to my ancestors and see what they think”), and the Crack Carrot Cake with Cinnamon Pear Cream Cheese as a dessert (“Every layer introduces another flavor without being overpowering”).

Resist being discouraged if your versions don’t turn out perfectly on your initial try. “Don’t assume your first swing will be a home run”, Roberto says. “Even chefs, who have years of experience, need more than one attempt to ace new recipes”.

Chef Roberto Cruz’s final advice? Savor and share these works of culinary art with loved ones. The meals might end, but the memories can last a lifetime. – Nelson Williams

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
A smooth road? No. A direct path? Yes. It has been my experience that worthwhile changes are seldom easy. My first cook’s job was nearly 15 years before I became a chef. I was 17 and homeless at this time. Sleeping on the back steps of a Radio Shack at night (even during winter months) and sneaking into my mother’s apartment to bathe and iron clothes before work. The majority of this pay was sent to my daughter for child support. Doing my very best to keep my living situation secret from everyone as teenage parenthood was looked down upon more than I could stand already.

Culinary school (LCB Chicago CHIC) was another challenge. I had to keep my agoraphobia and P.T.S.D. in check while my doctors tried to alleviate my symptoms with the right combination of pharmaceuticals. Many of which are conducive to memory loss. To compensate, I had to take extra notes, put in extra days and conceal panic until I had to excuse myself. Eventually stopping all medications just before meeting my wife Melissa in 2012.

I feel strongly that if life and pursuit of Bliss has been smooth, you have been exceptionally blessed. My challenges have taught me to always return to your feet and reset. My competitive drive has been fortified with countless losses, disappointment, struggles, heartbreak and doubts of the outside world. I am truly grateful for everything that has given me the hunger to win, learn and grow blissfully. The life and abundance I experience every day is a manifestation of what my wife and I have focused on throughout these challenges. The end result.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
I specialize in evolving in a classically trained style of Private Chef Service and as a business in general. Focusing on the palate and the visual components of our food for both fine dining and buffet service alike.

We also make strong considerations toward the emotional and psychological aspects of our food. This separates us from others. I contribute my attachment and devotion to food to my families. Bringing conflict to a halt with a look or my personal favorite, a big meal. Emphasizing our unity and serving nothing but love to solidify the concept. Memories serve as a marking post for happiness and that “Oh yeah, that’s perfect” validation in my mind. I strongly believe we all have this memory of that one perfect meal and how it made us feel.

Here are some of the questions I ask my clientele prior to writing a menu:
What was your most memorable meal?
Who was the cook?
Your most favorite or unforgettable destination?
Why are they special?
What are you celebrating?

I’m proud of what Follow Your Bliss Catering been able to accomplish with our food, seasonings, carvings and demonstrations. We’ve made an impact on our local community and our country with products and services that promote great food, improved health, creativity backed by science and ultimately Bliss.

We’d be interested to hear your thoughts on luck and what role, if any, you feel it’s played for you?
None. Relentlessness wins hands down.

Pricing:

  • Private Chef – Fine Dining: Starting at $100 per guest
  • Private Chef- Buffet: Starting at $150
  • Foods With Benefits Cookbook by Chef Roberto Cruz: $35.00
  • Private Chef Melon Carving: Starting at $25.00 per hour
  • Signature Natural Spices and Salts: $8-10

Contact Info:


Image Credits
Jade and Debra Galura of Galura Photography

Suggest a Story: VoyageTampa is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

More in Local Stories