Bárbara Santos-McAllister has fond memories of learning to make traditional Mexican dishes with her mother and two grandmothers while she was growing up in Mexico City.
Cooking was so ingrained in family life that she never thought of it as a career. But after moving to Manitou Springs, Santos-McAllister started sharing her family recipes with friends.
Those informal lessons have evolved into Cocina Corazón, through which Santos-McAllister demonstrates Mexican cooking techniques and teaches clients to prepare traditional Mexican dishes in their own kitchens.
She also offers chef-at-home service — cooking Mexican specialties in clients’ homes for six to 10 people — and caters Mexican buffets for 15 to 50 people.
“My main business is doing cooking classes in private homes,” she said. “You choose the menu and the time, you gather your people — family or friends. I take care of the shopping, ingredients and cookware, and I arrive at your home to show you the ropes.”
She works mostly out of her Manitou Springs home, but she rents the commercial kitchen at Community Congregational Church in Manitou to prepare for larger events.
Santos-McAllister majored in business administration, specializing in the hospitality industry, at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.
She did some training with chefs and worked with restaurants and hotels but spent most of her career after college in the fitness industry in Mexico, managing a chain of large fitness clubs and eventually becoming a regional director.
She met her future husband, Colin McAllister, in San Diego, and moved to Manitou Springs in 2012.
“When I came here, I had to switch careers,” she said. “I couldn’t find any jobs here. I didn’t know what to do and I was confused. And then I started cooking, because I couldn’t find the [authentic] food here.”
Santos-McAllister started inviting friends over for dinners.
“They would say, ‘I love this. How can I do this? Can you teach me?’” she said.
Late one night, the pieces fell into place. Santos-McAllister put her business and marketing background to work, and created Cocina Corazón.
Santos-McAllister realized she wanted to share her native dishes because “people think that the Mexican restaurants here are Mexican, and they’re not — it’s more Tex-Mex. It’s good, but it’s not Mexican. So part of what I do is try to teach people the differences so they can know the real, authentic Mexican food.
“I love to share my culture,” she said. “I think that people really appreciate the authentic Mexican cuisine.”
That cuisine has its roots in the plant-based diet of the Aztecs, she said. She uses unique cookware like the comal, a smooth disk-shaped griddle that is found in every Mexican home.
She uses the comal to char tomatillos, garlic, onions and serrano peppers to get a smoky flavor, then puts the vegetables in a blender and adds water, salt and fresh cilantro for a classic salsa verde. The comal also is used to make tortillas.
One of Santos-McAllister’s signature dishes is chiles en nogada, stuffed poblano chiles bathed in a walnut cream sauce, topped with pomegranate seeds and parsley.
The traditional dish requires a particular walnut that’s harvested only during a few weeks in late August and early September, but Santos-McAllister has developed variations with more easily obtainable ingredients.
“I find all my ingredients here,” she said. “There’s some Mexican markets here and in Denver where I can find everything.”
Santos-McAllister finds customers mostly through word of mouth but also relies on social media and her website.
“Because I have a marketing background, I know a little bit on how to do a successful SEO,” she said. “So I basically get my clients from the organic search. There was a wave of people” at the beginning of this year that she can’t explain but thinks it might have something to do with a Google algorithm change.
She’s also built up a following on Facebook and Instagram.
Through the internet, she has reached people from other states who have found her business and bought gift certificates for family members here.
“It’s a great way of bonding with families,” she said.
While her business started off slowly, she now has nearly 500 customers and has taught more than 100 classes.
Santos-McAllister also shares her love of Mexican cooking with community organizations through free classes. She’s offered them at fundraising auctions for Children’s Hospital Colorado and Discover Goodwill, among other organizations.
“I used to be in administration and the corporate [world], and my life was so different,” she said.
Cocina Corazón “was a true discovery — a reinvention of myself,” she said. “The way of the Mexicans is to put everything, all their emotions, into the food. It’s cooking from the heart. You cook with love, everybody falls in love. And I believe that’s true.”