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A Blending of Cultures: Hispanic Heritage Month with Chef Gabriel Urunuela

 In celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15, 2021), we are recognizing some of Morrison Healthcare’s amazing chefs with Hispanic or Latinx heritage. By sharing their stories and culture, we can come together through food, family, and community. This is the final piece in a series of five blog posts.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to Hispanic and Latin culture. Just look at Chef Gabriel Urunuela.

He grew up in Ecuador, his mother was from El Salvador, and his father was from Spain.

“My upbringing was a mix of cultures,” said Chef Urunuela. “There were always different types of food in my home.”

And the food he loves represents that. He has a love for Spanish paella and El Salvadorian pupusas. Professionally, he has cooked Italian, French, Spanish cuisines, and everything in between. His love of food started as a child when he would see the French chefs with white hats in the hotel where his father worked.

“I really got started cooking when I was 16. Through the years, I would watch my parents cook every weekend for their friends. We didn’t have family in Ecuador, so our friends were our family.”

At 18, Urunuela told his father that he wanted to go to Spain to give culinary school a try. They were skeptical at first, but he was persistent. And that persistence has paid off. Cooking has led him on an exciting journey. After two years in Europe, he moved to Chicago, where he found a second home working in fine dining restaurants of all types.

Photo of Chef Gabriel Urunuela
Chef Gabriel Urunuela

Despite his success, there were challenges. Even though he went to an American high school in Ecuador, Urunuela found difficulties with language when he first arrived in the U.S. He went to community college to get a better understanding of English.

“Language was a barrier,” he said. “I knew that if I didn’t know and speak the language, I wouldn’t go anywhere. It is important to communicate with the team. It was quite a challenge at first.”

The hard work has paid off and his career continued to grow. In 2019, Urunuela got his first taste of healthcare dining at Morrison Living. He has since moved to hospital dining and now serves as the executive chef at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in a suburb of Chicago.

“I love the team. That’s the most important thing. We have a great team that supports me and understands the goal—which is our patients. We want our patients to have the best meal ever.”

He’s been in his current role for 7 months. He’s already putting his stamp on the food, particularly the retail operation where you can find a blend of flavors and cultures.

“I have the freedom to cook the type of food I want. I am creating my own recipes and making dishes from scratch.”

Dishes that pay homage to his upbringing with mixed cultures and flavors. But at its most basic level, cooking is simple for Urunuela.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you have, there will always be a plate of food on the table when you get home. It’s about taking care of the people we love.”

To get a taste of the flavors Chef Urunuela’s cooks with every day, give his recipe for Croquetas de Plátanos Rellenos a try:

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