Dr. Lisa Folden

Ciji Castro: A Culinary Phoenix Rising from the Ashes of Adversity


by Myra Stacey

Ciji Castro’s life story is not just about culinary success; it’s a profound narrative of overcoming adversity, finding strength in vulnerability, and the redemptive power of following one’s passion. Her journey, marked by trauma and triumph, is a beacon of hope and resilience. The common thread is her resistance to having her voice stifled. Tell her to shush and she’ll scream. 

“My voice is my superpower”~ Ciji Castro

Childhood: Navigating a Labyrinth of Adversity and Survival

Ciji’s childhood was a complex mix of trauma and survival. She describes it as “complicated,” a testament to the challenges she faced. At times, she felt those around her trying to stifle her voice coming from a culture renowned for keeping secrets. She kept trying to communicate what was happening to her until someone, anyone, listened. That someone was her mother. The first time Ciji confided to her mother about the ongoing abuses she was enduring, her mother immediately took action, a defining moment for Ciji that underscores the importance of advocacy and resiliency. Despite the darkness surrounding her life, Ciji’s spirit remains unbroken. Her mother’s unwavering support is a constant source of strength. Even now, years later, her mother’s presence in her therapy sessions is a testament to their enduring bond and commitment to healing.

A Defining Assignment: The Catalyst for Change

Ciji Castro, a determined and insightful student, found herself in a law class that would unknowingly change the trajectory of her life. The assignment was seemingly simple yet unconventional: write a letter to the governor. The expected topic? A request for soda machines in the school hallways. For Ciji, this was more than a class exercise; it was an opportunity. She seized the chance to voice her struggles rather than adhere to the trivial nature of the assignment. Her boldness and determination led to a significant encounter with state agents and a realization that persistence in the face of adversity can lead to change, even if it’s not the change she was hoping for.

Haunted by a life riddled with unaddressed grievances and feeling let down by the systems meant to protect her, Ciji saw this assignment as a chance to break her silence. She poured her heart and soul into this letter. Then, one day, Ciji’s name echoed through the school’s intercom, summoning her to the principal’s office. What awaited her there was beyond her wildest expectations.

Three State Department agents sat with her extensive case file in hand, a tangible testament to her lifelong fight for survival. The file was thick, each page a chapter of her life that she had hoped would lead to justice and free her from all that haunted her. The agents, representatives of Governor Jeb Bush, had come not just because they read her letter but to listen, understand, and acknowledge her plight.

As they delved into the details of her case, Ciji felt a mix of emotions. Here was the attention her case desperately needed, yet the reality was bittersweet. The state attorney’s office had made too many errors; the outcome she yearned for seemed improbable. But at that moment, something pivotal happened. Governor Bush’s response to her letter, his decision to send these agents, was an acknowledgment of her voice, pain, and right to be heard.

This experience became a turning point for Ciji. It taught her a valuable lesson: Don’t retreat into silence when faced with rejection or indifference. Instead, find another path, another ear, another way to make your voice heard. From that day forward, Ciji adopted a tenacious, pitbull-like approach to life. She learned that sometimes, the act of persisting, of continually seeking to be heard, can be just as important as the outcome.

Pictured: Chef Marcus Samuelsson and Ciji Castro.

Lisa Folden

Pictured from left to right: Chef Geoffrey Zakarian, Ciji Castro, Margaret Zakarian.

Ciji Castro with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.

Culinary Journey: From Observer to Creator

Ciji Castro’s journey to discovering her calling as a chef is intertwined with cherished family memories and moments of revelation. Her mother, embodying the grace and creativity of Martha Stewart, was the first to introduce her to the wonders of cooking. The kitchen was her mother’s realm, a place of creativity and warmth, where compound butter took the shape of art, and the dinner table transformed into a canvas of new and exciting flavors.

A pivotal moment in Ciji’s culinary awakening occurred with the arrival of a special cookbook – “The French Laundry” by Thomas Keller. The day that book entered their home marked a significant shift. Ciji recalls the sparkle in her mother’s eyes as she opened the box and leafed through its pages. This wasn’t just another cookbook; it was a symbol of culinary mastery and passion.

At this stage, Ciji hadn’t envisioned a future for herself in the culinary world. Her role was more of an enthusiastic observer, a connoisseur of exotic cuisines, cultures and flavors. She reveled in the joy of tasting new dishes, an adventure always encouraged by her parents – her mother and her adopted father. Their support in exploring diverse flavors and cuisines laid the groundwork for what would eventually become a profound passion for cooking.

Embarking on a Culinary Adventure: From Spectator to Creator

Her true culinary journey began about 15 years ago, a chapter that unfolded with meeting her husband. Growing up, her mother’s meticulousness about cleanliness in the kitchen meant her involvement was limited. It was when she stepped into her husband’s kitchen she found her own space to experiment and learn.

She vividly recalls the first dish she ever cooked for him: spaghetti and meatballs. Before that, her cooking experience was pretty much confined to boiling white rice. However, Ciji had a college roommate, Danielle Christensen (Bretschneider), who was from an Italian family. She was a “fantastic cook” and they complemented each other perfectly – Ciji took on the cleaning, much like her mother, and Danielle brought the flavors of her heritage into their shared kitchen and taught her how to make meatballs. Red sauce was still a mystery to her, even though Danielle tried to explain how “easy” it was on multiple occasions.  However, while working as a barista, next door was an Italian restaurant where a cook, Paulie, made the most delicious red sauce. Eager to impress her boyfriend, who had a fondness for Italian cuisine, Ciji persuaded this cook to teach her how to make his sauce recipe – in the name of love and as a trade-off for a few iced Venti caramel macchiatos.

Armed with Paulie’s recipe, Ciji set out to create a culinary masterpiece. It was a bold endeavor, considering her lack of  experience with cooking. But the end result? Her husband says “she absolutely nailed it,” and that meal  left her with more than just a sense of accomplishment and a hunger to learn more – she ended up with a scar on her arm from a rogue meatball, a lasting reminder of her first foray into serious cooking.

Paulie’s sauce, simple yet profound, with tomatoes as the star, became a legend in her family. Over time, she’s added her own touch to it, using homegrown San Marzano tomatoes and infusing it with herbs from her garden, but at its core, it remains Paulie’s sauce – a blend of whole peeled plum tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, onion, salt, pepper, and just a pinch of sugar. That experience was more than just cooking a meal; it was the moment Ciji experienced the art of cooking and giving the gift of love and a meal to someone special. She proudly served up something delicious, an accomplishment that made her soon-to-be husband supremely happy. He requests her sauce for his birthday meal every year and her passion for cooking and serving is a passion that has only grown since then.

Education and Career: A Road Not Taken

Ciji’s academic pursuit in criminal justice and counterterrorism was deeply personal, driven by her traumatic past and the desire to be a beacon of hope for others. The tragic events of 9/11 further shaped her career path toward counterterrorism. However, life had other plans. Meeting her husband presented a crossroads, leading her to choose a life of love and family over a love of law enforcement and her desire to become a special agent with the FBI that would require her to move away. This decision, though difficult, opened the door to a different kind of fulfillment.

Domestic Gourmet: A Culinary Dream Realized

One of the biggest hurdles for her has been carving a niche for herself in an industry that often leans heavily on formal culinary education and traditional pathways, neither of which she had when she started Domestic Gourmet.

Ciji’s approach to cooking is mainly self-taught with occasional shadowing and masterclasses with her chef friends. However, this unconventional path presented challenges, especially in a field that often values experience or formal training. “I’m not your typical chef with a culinary school background,” she explained.  “My education in cooking has been a personal journey, driven by desire and curiosity.”

Another challenge Ciji faced was the prevalent use of beauty and sex appeal in marketing within digital content creation, especially on social media platforms. “In this industry, there’s often a certain image or standard that’s promoted,” she reflected. “While I am a sensual and beautiful woman, it doesn’t always align with the conventional beauty standards set by the industry.”

Initially, Ciji focused on showcasing her culinary creations, letting her portfolio speak for itself. “In the beginning, I had to rely heavily on my portfolio and the impressive partnerships I was able to secure, of which, I attribute to my training from the NYPD for my Hostage Negotiations Certification through my university,” she said. “It’s all about serving my clients first, followed by my authenticity and the dishes I create.”

However, as her audience grew, they desired to see more of Ciji, to connect with the person behind the food. “Social media is a personal space,” she noted. “People wanted to see the individual behind the food, to engage with me personally.” This shift was a turning point for Ciji. “There are many who appreciate my culinary skills and who I am. They connect with my authenticity and my story.”

Ciji’s journey highlights the importance of self-confidence and staying true to oneself in the face of industry norms and expectations. Her ability to adapt and embrace her unique identity has been key to her success and connection with her audience.

Ciji’s future has exciting prospects, including meeting culinary icons and expanding her brand. Her culinary inspirations, Julia Child and Anthony Bourdain, reflect her journey from a novice in the kitchen to a culinary storyteller and influencer. Her favorite cuisine is Indian, with its complex flavors and textures, mirrors her own life’s journey – intricate, challenging, and richly rewarding.

Celebrating Milestones and Charting the Future with Domestic Gourmet

During our conversation, Ciji Castro shared some of her venture’s remarkable milestones. “In just two years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and learning from some of the world’s finest chefs,” Ciji began with pride. “These experiences have been enlightening and led to friendships and mentorships that I cherish deeply.”

“Collaborating with luxury hotel brands like the Four Seasons and the Ritz Carlton has been a dream come true,” she shared. “But one of the most thrilling experiences was our Michelin Guide tour, an idea my husband and I conceived for our 10th wedding anniversary.”

This tour led Ciji to taste the creations of culinary legends like Daniel Boulud, Joël Robuchon, and Guy Savoy. She recalled her first encounter with Joël Robuchon’s cuisine, notably his signature lobster gelee with caviar. “This dish was an experience,” she said. “It was challenging at first, but by the second and third bite, I was completely taken by its complexity and brilliance. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and into ecstasy.”

These experiences have opened doors to exclusive culinary events. “I was invited to the Michelin Guide Ceremony of Florida (only one of the three media outlets invited from Tampa), various exclusive supper clubs and dinner parties,” Ciji noted. “These invitations are a testament to the impact of my work.”

Looking ahead, Ciji shared her excitement about plans and projects. “I’m meeting culinary giants like Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, Marcus Samuelsson, and Jeffrey Zakarian,” she said enthusiastically. “Some people watch sports and root for their favorite all-star athletes. Restaurants and Chefs are my all-stars and teams, and I’m thrilled to continue meeting and learning from them.”

Ciji also mentioned the launch of a new product line of natural and organic Latin American cooking staples, expected to launch in 2024. Sign up for her newsletter to not only receive more information on that but she’ll also be offering exclusive insights and offers to high-end restaurants and luxury hotels. “This newsletter is a way to share insider tips and exclusive opportunities with my audience,” she explained.

When asked about her favorite cuisine, Ciji’s answer was clear: Indian food. “The complexity and journey of flavors in Indian cuisine are what I love the most,” she said. “It reminds me of the adventure of tasting Joël Robuchon’s dishes, expecting one thing and receiving something surprisingly better.”

Influential figures like Julia Child and Anthony Bourdain have deeply impacted Ciji’s culinary journey. “Julia Child represents my beginnings in the kitchen and my continued journey in my culinary career, while Anthony Bourdain embodies the spirit of Domestic Gourmet and what I aspire to achieve with my personal connection to the people behind the food and relaying this information on a wave of journalistic storytelling. My hope is to transport my dear listener to where I am, bringing them on the journey with me,” she reflected.

Given a chance to dine with any three people, Ciji’s choices were Anthony Bourdain, Julia Child, and Eric Ripert. “Each of them has influenced my culinary path in unique ways, Julia for reinventing herself at a later age, proving it’s never too late to pursue a desire to be a chef, Anthony for his connection and being able to straddle the line of fine dining and home cooking proving that both experiences can be otherworldly, and Chef Ripert for throwing himself into his craft and using it as a way to escape and survive hardship much, in a way, like I have. I’d love to learn from him. ” she concluded, ” a dinner with them would be ethereal but I’d also have to include my husband. He’s my best friend and the love of my life, I wouldn’t want to go without him.”

Personal Life and Balance

Outside her culinary endeavors, Ciji finds solace in swimming and beach outings, activities that offer a sense of peace and connection with nature. Balancing a demanding career with family life is a continuous learning process, made possible by her husband’s unwavering support and partnership.

A Story of Resilience and Redemption

Ciji Castro’s life story is a powerful narrative of overcoming adversity, embracing change, and finding redemption through passion and perseverance. Her journey from a troubled childhood to a thriving culinary entrepreneur is inspiring; it’s a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the transformative power of following one’s heart.

Joël Robuchon’s signature Ossetra Caviar over a King Crab geleé dotted with cauliflower purée and a pin drop of fennel cream.

Lisa Folden

Lourdes Plasencia and Ciji Castro, mother and daughter.

Ciji Castro and her daughter.

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