Chef Ronaldo Linares authored a cookbook of healthy Cuban classics. (Photo by Kelly Campbell Photography)

Chef Ronaldo Linares authored a cookbook of healthy Cuban classics. (Photo by Kelly Campbell Photography)

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Some of Ronaldo Linares’s earliest memories are in a kitchen.

He remembers at age 5 standing on a milk crate, peeling potatoes at his parents’ restaurant and nightclub in Medellin, Colombia. To keep him out of trouble, they also put him in charge of boiling and hand-grinding corn for arepas.

“During that time, I was like, ‘This sucks,’” recalled Linares, now the executive chef at his parents’ Cuban restaurant in Somerville, New Jersey.

But those experiences and memories instilled in him a love of food. The cookbook author and contestant on Food Network’s “Chopped” has come a long way since the days he helped make the corn patties popular in his native Colombia.

The 36-year-old father of two honed his culinary skills when he was a cook in the Marines. Linares had to stick to a strict menu, but as he proved himself in the kitchen, he was allowed to cook Cuban shredded beef, garlic chicken and other dishes he learned to make watching his parents.

Chef Ronaldo Linares puts the finishing touches on a dish at a culinary festival in Los Angeles.

Chef Ronaldo Linares puts the finishing touches on a dish at a food and wine festival in Los Angeles. (Photo by Ana Maria Photography)

His passion for healthy eating comes from an earlier time in his life.

Linares gained a lot of weight after his parents moved the family to the United States. Wanting to assimilate into the American teen culture as fast as he could, Linares ate a lot of hamburgers and pizzas. His parents’ diet was also pretty bad.

Theirs is an experience shared by many U.S. Hispanic and Latino immigrant families, Linares said. As adults work for their families in the United States and abroad, eating healthy takes a backseat, he said.

“This is why I’m big on Latino health and us getting back to our culinary ways,” said Linares, who has a Cuban father and a Colombian mother.

After his freshman year of high school — and after repeatedly striking out with the girls at school — Linares decided to lose weight. He started exercising regularly and asked his parents to cook the healthy meals they ate when living in Colombia.

In the military, the nutrition and fitness habits he acquired deepened his commitment to healthy eating and exercise.

Yet Linares said he understands why Hispanics and Latinos with diabetes may find it hard to follow doctor’s dietary orders to keep their condition under control.

“As a Latino,” he said, “I’m not going to follow a doctor-recommended diet that’s telling me to eat boiled chicken, celery sticks or peanut butter because that’s not my culture.”

With that in mind, Linares tinkered with some of his favorite Cuban recipes. The result was Sabores de Cuba, a recipe collection of Cuban classic dishes with a healthy, diabetes-friendly twist.

The picadillo recipe, for example, is made with turkey instead of beef. To make pork marinated in mojo, he uses shoulder instead of tenderloin. And for the Cuban sandwich, he uses low-fat turkey, low-fat Swiss cheese and multigrain bread.

Latin Americans can eat healthy meals that include the familiar smells and flavors from their native lands, said Linares, who savors the memories of his family meals in Colombia. He can still taste the herb-roasted chicken, red beans and arepas that were staples of the gatherings.

“It was an awesome time.”

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