Patricia Santiváñez used cooking to make friends in a new country. Now it’s her favorite pastime.
Fusing flavors from many Latin American countries comes naturally to the globe-trotting Patricia Santiváñez. A native of Peru, Santiváñez bounced around Latin America as she grew up, a life steeped in cultural diversity and culinary bliss. So it’s no surprise that she now owns an interpreter business and fulfills her meal-making passion by hosting feasts brimming with Latin American cuisine.
Her interpreting career began with urgency. In 1995, at age 46, Santiváñez was forced to uproot her life, move away from her husband and teenage daughter in Mexico City, and relocate to the Lake Hills area of Bellevue. Her daughter, Leonora Cabrera, wouldn’t move for another few years.
Santiváñez had to move to the United States to keep her green card. Though her mother is a U.S. citizen, Santiváñez was born at a time when children born outside of the U.S. were not automatically considered citizens. As a child and young adult, Santiváñez lived in various cities around the country, including Miami and Sacramento. She went to college and worked odd jobs.
Later, she relocated to the Eastside with very little money and moved in with her mother. At the time, Spanish translation was Santiváñez’s most marketable skill. She found work as a medical interpreter with the Department of Social and Health Services. Soon, medical professionals were requesting her specifically. She started her own practice and now has between 50 and 60 independent contractors working as medical interpreters for her Bellevue-based company, Patricia Santiváñez & Associates.
“That’s how I pay the mortgage,” she said. “I love interpreting because it is one way to allow the LEP (limited-English person) to have parity in medical situations where they are so vulnerable. (I interpret) not as an advocate, but to eliminate the language barrier.”
Santiváñez runs her business out of the home she purchased from her mother. It boasts a sweeping view of Lake Sammamish and the Olympic Mountains. Her two dogs, Panfilo and Lola, keep her company. While Santiváñez enjoys the solitude of living alone and managing her home-based business, she also craves a social life. Cooking and entertaining are her preferred methods of stirring up a social scene.
That cooking hobby has deep roots. Santiváñez’s Peruvian father, Jose Santiváñez, and American mother, Gloria Bronco, met at Cornell University during World War II. Santiváñez was born in Peru, but her six-person family zig-zagged the Western Hemisphere when she was a child. Her father was a veterinarian who specialized in large animals and was thus in high demand. His work took the family to different areas around Peru and Mexico, as well as to the United States.
“Our parents believed that exposure to different cultures and experiences could only enrich our lives — and they were right,” Santiváñez said.
Living in different countries introduced Santiváñez to a variety of tastes and flavors. She can detect flavor nuances that aid in her cooking. For example, she believes Peruvian food is similar to that of French fare, but with a twist of spiciness.
“I started cooking when I was young, 8 or 9 or 10,” she said. “I would cook for my father. I was the only one who could make the breakfast he liked.”
The breakfasts were nothing earth-shattering, she said: “Breakfast was eggs. Some kind of eggs.” But it was the father-daughter memory that sticks in her head. Santiváñez was the second of four children, and attention for her was hard to come by. Cooking was her gift. It made her stand out.
Her late husband, Jorge Cabrera, also was a fan of her food. Though they were forced to live in separate countries, they continued to have a fulfilling long-distance relationship, she said. His love of her food was particularly endearing to her.
“He loved everything I made,” she said. “Except my rice — he never liked my rice. But he, more than anyone, encouraged me to pursue my culinary passion.”
Today, cooking continues to fulfill Santiváñez.
“When I moved here I had zero friends,” she said. Luckily, when one can both cook and throw a party, meeting new people doesn’t take long. Soon Santiváñez’s home was filled with new faces that enjoyed her food and urged her to continue cooking. To this day, her pals make themselves at home by raiding the refrigerator in search of homemade goodies.
Santiváñez’s only formal cooking training came four years ago, when she attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Tukwila. “I regret that I didn’t take any cooking classes in Mexico while I could,” she said. “I guess I thought I was too busy.”
As her social circle grew, so did her dinner parties.
“I’ve had 40 or 50 people here for dinner,” she said of her home.
Over the last 20 years, various home remodels have allowed her to accommodate more and more guests. Now, her 2,400-square-foot abode is an ode to the art of entertaining.
In February, a room in her daylight basement was filled with six tables and set for 36 people. Typically this space looks like a regular living room with couches and end tables. Before each event, she asks a friend to help move the furniture around to accommodate her guests.
She has a basement kitchen that would be the envy of a small restaurant, with a double oven and commercial refrigerator. She also has a commercial freezer in another storage room. It’s an item she “couldn’t do without.” A large molcajete, a mortar and pestle Santiváñez considers a must-have for any chef making Latino fare, sits in a kitchen corner.
She hosts dinner parties about once every other month. Each features a regional or national menu; Peruvian cuisine was served at March’s event. Santiváñez hires people to help with serving and in the kitchen, but nevertheless is exhausted after feeding tens of people.
“On Sunday, I’m wiped,” she said. “I can’t do anything.”
As Santiváñez’s parties became more popular, she found she had to request a small donation to cover the cost of the food and help offset the price of assistants. The donations don’t cover the cost of her labor, Santiváñez says. It is a labor of love.
A knee replacement three years ago slowed her down, but she continues to entertain.
“There is no way I could ever do this as a job,” Santiváñez said. “It will always be a hobby. But I love it. I have a passion for cooking. It keeps me going.”
Learn more about Santiváñez’s regular dinner event at meetup.com/Bellevues-Latina-Bistro-Meetup.
This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of 425 Business.