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This Venezuelan Chef and Winner of 'Chopped' Sought Political Asylum to Pursue Her Entrepreneurial Dreams

She expresses her heritage through cooking in the U.S. and seeks to support other women immigrants who aspire to become business owners.

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In the Women Entrepreneur series My Worst Moment, female founders provide a firsthand account of the most difficult, gut-wrenching, almost-made-them-give-up experience they’ve had while building their business -- and how they recovered.

Kathryn Sheldon

Adriana Urbina has been working in restaurants since she was 15. By 18, she had already studied at a culinary school in her home country of Venezuela and headed to Spain to continue her studies, where she landed an apprenticeship under Martín Berasategui, a celebrated Basque chef, after cold-emailing him. By 19, she’d secured a yearlong stint at a Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant, Rouge Tomate, and at 20, she returned to Venezuela for a year to regroup and plan more travels.

During that time, the political situation in Venezuela took a turn. If she wanted to live abroad, Urbina realized she would have to seek political asylum with no option of returning home. She made the sacrifice, and in the past five years, she’s earned the title of executive chef at New York’s De Maria, launched her own pop-up dining company, Tepuy Dining, and competed on the Food Network’s cooking show Chopped -- and won.

What follows is a firsthand account of this person's experience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“When the political situation in Venezuela worsened, things got very dangerous and didn’t feel safe. I realized that my quality of life would not be the same if I stayed, because it became hard to even find basic products, and I knew that I couldn’t thrive there. But I started looking into all of the amazing restaurants in New York and felt inspired by the opportunity.

Deciding to take political asylum was a difficult decision. I feel incredibly close to Venezuela as my home, and I was making the decision to not be able to go back. My sister was also living in New York, so it helped to know I would have some family there, even though I was leaving others behind. But I still was very sad to leave, nervous for the future and afraid of not knowing when I was going to see my family again.

After moving to New York in 2013, I worked at Atera, French Louie and a few other restaurants. At the same time, I launched Tepuy Dining, my pop-up dinner service, which has been an incredible opportunity to be creative with dishes from my own heritage.

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A few years ago, the team from De Maria started attending my pop-ups. When they were looking for a new chef, they thought of me, and I joined the team this past spring. There, my cooking brings me back to Venezuela every day. So many of my dishes hold stories of my childhood and family within them.

Being a female executive chef certainly poses challenges. Cooks are sometimes resistant to being in a kitchen where there’s a woman at the helm. There have been moments when people have talked down to me or thought that I am not capable, because I am an immigrant, or because I’m a woman (or both). It’s satisfying to prove them wrong, but it can be tiresome to consistently face stereotypes and doubt. With that said, my team respects me greatly, and we work well as a collective unit.

I think it’s especially important for women in the culinary world to look out for one another and help find opportunities for one another. One of my long-term goals is to help other women chefs, especially immigrants, start their own pop-ups or other culinary businesses. When I started Tepuy, I wished I had someone to help guide me through the process, and I want to be that for others.

My experiences have taught me to be patient. I know how to move fast in the kitchen and solve problems quickly, but when it comes to immigration, it’s also important to know how to wait.

There is a lot unknown for the future of Venezuela, and it’s unsettling to not know when all of my family will be together again. But I wouldn’t change anything about my decision to move. This experience has made me stronger as a person, and I feel incredibly lucky to do what I love every day and cook from my heart. Being able to be creative and give others a memorable dining experience is a gift.”

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