Cooking Up a Storm with PRISE Director Greg Llacer
Updated: Jul 15, 2020
By: Esther Koh, PRISE, Harvard College '22 and Felicia Ho, PRISE, Harvard College '23
This past Wednesday, we had the pleasure of virtually sitting down with PRISE Director Greg to chat all about his cooking adventures, his go-to recipes, and how he shakes it up in the kitchen. Read on to learn more - we hope you’re not hungry!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you get interested in cooking? Who are your biggest inspirations?
A: When I was an undergraduate and majoring in English and Spanish, my primary advisor was a professor of English. One of my very first courses was Advanced Writing Composition. I didn’t know who she was until she walked into the classroom. It turned out she was a very well-known local food critic. I read her article every week! It was a conversational narrative and had lots of interesting information about food through restaurant reviews. She needed a ride to school, so I offered and soon we became pretty close. I was her editor for her food column and her novel. My whole education in food came from this very serendipitous relationship between she and I. After she passed away, the local news wrote a retrospective piece on her life as a food critic, and there were around three to four pages (read it here!) about our friendship together… My sister also played a big role in helping shape my love for food. She married someone who was a restaurateur and so they opened around six extremely successful places. When my niece was born, I would babysit her at their house on Sunday nights, and they would bring me a gourmet meal. These restaurants were French, French Polynesian, and their dishes were really delicious. Amazing meals in a styrofoam carton. That’s how I got paid - with food - and the whole experience was very influential for me.
Q: What have you been cooking up during quarantine?
A: I've been doing a variety of quick stuff, because, you know, with everything that's going on, I just need to do something. I have my go-to things that I love which I'll have add a little bit of twists to them. For instance, orange chicken is one of my favorite really fast meals to make. Trader Joe's has these bags of frozen orange chicken, but I augment that with Panda Express orange chicken sauce which you can get at the market. I love, love it because it is just perfectly crispy no matter how you cook it although it tastes the best by air frying it. So that's one of the things I do very fast, but I also like things that I start in the morning and let them cook all day like I do with my five bean chili with cheese sauce. The other night we had tortellini with a cheese sauce I just made up out of stuff I had in the fridge. I had this graded really really sharp cheddar cheese, but I also used feta cheese and some heavy cream and a little bit of water and then some spices. Cheese has to be in everything, although not in my pancakes. I just kind of made it up, and it actually turned out really good. I kind of tend to look around with what I've got. Anyway, so that's that's kind of how I'm surviving.
Q: What are your go-to recipes that you've always cooked and you can always depend upon tasting absolutely delicious?
A: I make a kick-ass spaghetti sauce. For the pasta, I always make my pasta at home because it’s actually pretty simple, just two parts flour, one part water, and an egg. Then you put it through an extruder or whatever system you have, but the pasta always tastes better when you make the pasta fresh. I would love to see, actually, if I can make spaghetti sauce blindfolded and make and have it taste as good as it is normally because I think I could. I tend to use a lot of spices in my spaghetti sauce, so as long as those are set out in front of me, I think I can do it. The other household recipe is definitely tacos. Uncooked flour tortillas are a staple in our house, and we tend to eat tacos a lot. We try and stay away from fancy stuff generally, but this Christmas one of our relatives sent us Omaha Steaks. In that case, it was nice to have these frozen stakes and be able to cook a real traditional meal with vegetables on the side, a salad, and a baked potato. All this being said, I think sometimes we gravitate too much to the things we have all the time.
The key is knowing when to change it up, not only with ingredients, but also with meals that you haven’t had in a while but you remember are good.
Q: Any recommendations for restaurants in Boston/Cambridge?
A: Because of my experiences with a restaurant critic advisor, we explored a lot. I don't think I'm quite as adventurous as I used to be, but the one thing I will tell you is that Boston has amazing ethnic foods. And if you look close, there are a zillion places: Mexican food in Medford of all places, amazing, amazing foods obviously in the North End for Italian food, and you can find some really great Brazilian food along with Eritrean or Ethiopian food. Even if you think of the burger place on Mass Ave with Mr. Bartley’s Burger, that's a cultural tradition that I think people kind of overlook as something that is kind of culturally specific about being in Cambridge and being in Harvard Square.
Q: What would your last meal on Earth be?
A: I’m going to say two meals, if you don’t mind. One meal would be fish tacos, because I’m from Southern California, and those were very much a staple. They’re something we ate frequently, and there was this restaurant actually just a stone’s throw from my house growing up called Rubio’s that was a fish taco place. The other thing that I would say I’m really drawn to is just a really good grilled cheese sandwich with maybe three different types of cheeses and perfectly melted. With a side cup of tomato soup, of course, that is just so thick you could stand a spoon in it. That sounds really, really good right now. I think these two dishes really define myself as well.
We hope to see you one day on Masterchef, Greg. Until then, keep us updated on your #notsponsored kitchen staples!