Chef Ana Lebrón turned heads when she and her team took home a gold medal at last year’s IKA Culinary Olympics in Stuttgart, Germany.
By Amelia Levin
“This win is not from Ana Lebrón,” she told the media at the time. “It belongs to the country that saw me born and allowed me to channel my interest in the highest-level professional cuisine. It belongs to all Dominicans who once believed in my talent. It also belongs to my teachers in the restaurants of the world.”
As the first chef from the Dominican Republic to achieve such victory, the journey to gold was a tough one, but Chef Lebrón — who is also the founder and current president of ACF Chapter República Dominicana — has never shied away from a challenge. And over the course of her life and career, she has had to overcome a few.
The Making of a Fierce Competitor
Though Chef Lebrón has clocked more than 25 years in the culinary profession, her love of cooking goes back even further — to when she was a child, making pasta in her Italian grandmother’s kitchen.
“Every time my grandma was making gnocchi, I liked to be with her — it was like playing with clay,” she recalls. “Throughout the years, as I grew up, whenever there was a party [or] during the holidays, I was always in the kitchen. But I knew if I wanted to work in this field professionally, I would have to learn it by the book.”
Chef Lebrón went on to receive her hospitality bachelor’s degree in 1989 from Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra, a Dominican Republic-based Cornell University affiliate program. She then interned and worked in the kitchens of five-star hotels (including for chains such as Sheraton and Sofitel) in Brussels, Germany, and Milan.
It was in Italy where she met her husband, and together they moved back to the Dominican Republic. She officially opened her catering and private chef business, Linea Gourmet, in 2002. Sadly, her husband passed around that time, when her daughter was just three years old, which meant she had to navigate raising a child as a single mother while running her own business.
In typical Chef Lebrón fashion, that challenge didn’t slow her down. She went on to build a substantial client base over the last 12 years, including high-profile companies like Microsoft and World Bank. She has also served as a consulting chef for foodservice brands, including a rice company, and has worked with the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism. In addition, Chef Lebrón has written and spoken extensively about gastronomy and the culinary arts.
Getting to Gold
Over the course of her career, Chef Lebrón traveled regularly to ACF events in the U.S., where she met board members and other active chefs who would help her in her career.
“I wasn’t shy — I told the current ACF president I was interested in starting an ACF chapter in the Dominican Republic to increase our knowledge and skills here, and promised to commit myself to that,” Lebrón says. “I did everything the ACF asked me to do, and didn’t sleep on it — I moved quickly.” The chapter, founded in 2015, now has 15 members.
In 2012, competing became her bread and butter. She recruited and trained a group of young chefs in the Dominican Republic who would go on to take top honors at an international culinary competition in Costa Rica two years in a row and, later, earn that gold medal at the Culinary Olympics.
Chef Lebrón credits four highly acclaimed ACF chefs who mentored her and her team for the past eight years, and for helping establish the Dominican Republic chapter: Chefs Louis Perrote, CEC, AAC; Victor Sommo; Stafford DeCambra, CEC, CCE, CCA, AAC; and George Castañeda, CEC. She points to Chef Castañeda for helping bring her gold-winning team to Germany. “Normally, it takes at least two years to practice for the competition, but we put together our program in just three months,” Chef Lebrón says, nothing she stepped away from other responsibilities so she could devote all her time to practice. “We were just repeating and repeating and remaking dishes all the time until we mastered the techniques.”
One of the team’s most successful dishes on the competition menu was a modern interpretation of sancocho, a traditional beef and root vegetable stew, in this case made as a clarified broth with seven types of meats, along with pumpkin, rice, corn, root vegetables and plantain chips. For the salad, Chef Lebrón and her team prepared a colorful terrine of hearts of palm and avocado, served with celery ribbons, baby greens, toasted macadamia nuts and citrus olive oil.
For the fish course, Chef Lebrón took inspiration from an ancestral fish-and-coconut dish, preparing poached red snapper, Caribbean shrimp roulade, charred pepper with Dominican farm cheese, chenchén (Dominican cracked-corn pilaf) and a coconut-cilantro shrimp sauce. The meat dish was Brangus beef tenderloin with veal mousseline, wild mushrooms and deconstructed mondongo (beef tripe and vegetable soup), with tongue wrapped in brioche alongside a tomato ragout and artichokes with wild oregano hollandaise. Dessert was a play on coconut cremoux with gelled mango, chinola (passionfruit) ganache, citrus sorbet and candy made with guava, white chocolate and fresh mango, to represent the various fruits of the region.
“When we came back, we were planning to host a big party to celebrate with our colleagues, and invite the media, but within two weeks, COVID-19 happened and everything closed,” she says. Like so many chefs in the industry, Chef Lebrón had to pivot her business model quickly to pay her staff and the bills, through new tactics like preparing lunch boxes for Microsoft employees who were now working from home. Times are still tough, of course, but Chef Lebrón says she refuses to stay idle.
Instead, she’s been keeping busy by preparing for the next competition — she also is the only Certified Judge in the Dominican Republic for worldwide competitions sanctioned by the World Association of Chefs’ Societies and the ACF — as well as remaining in close contact with her chapter members and finding ways to educate the community.
She has also been working with the local government and tourism department to raise funds to support ACF certification for cooks in the area, which would help them find jobs and elevate their careers. In the meantime, she has established a training program for local chefs, tackling everything from ServSafe, COVID-19 safety protocols, and nutrition, through small, socially distanced, masked gatherings in large banquet spaces. Chapter members have also gotten together to prepare meals for residents of a local nursing home.
“I have to keep busy, or I’ll go crazy,” she says. “People who like to compete … want to [compete] all the time, so that’s what I have been doing, and we are having fun. We are focused on presenting the gastronomy of our country. One of my ideas is to present Dominican Republic cuisine in one bite.”
Having passed the practical portion of the Certified Executive Chef exam, Chef Lebrón also hopes to travel to the U.S. to complete the written portion of the exam when it’s safe to do so.
Ever-cheerful, Chef Lebrón says she’s “trying to stay calm and positive” even as the future remains uncertain. After all, that’s the Dominican way.