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

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