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Monti Carlo of IslandGirlCooks.com: “Keep learning, and don’t stop your hustle”

Keep learning, and don’t stop your hustle. While I was still waitressing and staging in kitchens, I got cast to host a digital show about baby food for Jessica Alba’s Honest Company. When the director talked about finding a chef to make the baby food, I offered to develop the recipes, and they said yes. […]

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Keep learning, and don’t stop your hustle. While I was still waitressing and staging in kitchens, I got cast to host a digital show about baby food for Jessica Alba’s Honest Company. When the director talked about finding a chef to make the baby food, I offered to develop the recipes, and they said yes. That’s when I taught myself how to create and write recipes.

During the shoot, I watched the camera guys and dissected the script. I decided to start making digital content. I didn’t have the money to hire a writer, a camera person, or an editor. So I taught myself how to write, shoot, and edit. Eventually, that led me to teach a class on creating food content for James Beard. Every step is an opportunity to get better and expand your brand’s footprint. Take it!


Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chef Monti Carlo.

After leaving a dysfunctional marriage and a disheartening radio career behind, Monti Carlo found herself facing homelessness. When Gordon Ramsay chose her to compete on MasterChef, her second act began. Monti placed Top 5 and is now an acclaimed Puerto Rican Chef and TV Host, with shows on Food Network, Cooking Channel, Tastemade, PBS, and FYI.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Thank you for having me, and thank you for making room for a Puerto Rican chef’s voice! I was born on the island to a teenaged mother, and my grandparents raised me. We lived in a remote beach town on a defunct dairy farm just a block from the ocean. My grandmother cooked simple, delicious, traditional Puerto Rican meals with ingredients straight from the farm or the local fishermen. Some of my first memories are of watching her at the stove.

Our farmhouse burned to the ground when I was five years old, and my brother and I went to live with my mother in San Juan. She was in a relationship with a very wealthy businessman, and we lived in a fancy condo overlooking the ocean. We ate at restaurants that served elaborate, complex dishes, but it was still Puerto Rico’s flavors on my lips.

When I was six years old, my mother separated from her boyfriend, and we moved to Texas. My mother could only find work as a house cleaner, and so times were tight. My twin brother and I were latchkey kids. I learned to speak English by watching PBS, Scooby-Doo, and Donahue. I missed Puerto Rico desperately. Every time my mother made a traditional island dish, it transported me back to my home. That is when my love affair with Puerto Rican food began.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Leap, and the net will appear.” -John Burroughs

That quote has always given me the courage to stop my “What if I fail?” self-talk and go for it. I followed those words in 2000 to jump head-first into a career in radio and comedy. I was in my mid 20’s and full of self-doubt. But I took a chance, dropped the money for broadcasting school, and began what ended up being a very lucrative career.

In 2010 I walked away from the life I had spent a decade building. “Leap, and the net will appear.” That quote gave me the strength to leave radio, get a divorce, and sell everything I owned to move to California with my two-year-old son. Unfortunately, getting hired as a single mom is easier said than done. Six months after landing in LA, we were facing homelessness.

Then I got the opportunity to audition for MasterChef. I was scared to death of leaving my son to shoot the show. I had a crippling fear of failing spectacularly and making a fool of myself on national TV. “Leap, and the net will appear.” Taking that leap of faith gave birth to my second act and transformed my life into everything I had always wanted.

How would your best friend describe you?

I asked my best friend, and she said, “Generous, kind, and thoughtful.” In her own words:

“Monti is the person who remembers your birthday, and knowing you are stuck at work surprises you with a homemade cake and your favorite wine. She is the friend that automatically offers to drive you to your first colonoscopy and will wait all the hours to take you home! Monti is also the friend who makes you homemade pasta just because you were hungry! Her smile is infectious, her eyes sparkle when you mention anything food, and she is always the first person I want to tell anything good or bad to.”

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much?

Passion. Determination. And the uncrushable belief that I can achieve anything I set my mind to.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

For me to do that, I have to give you some back story.

When I was 24 years old, after years of working in restaurants, I signed up for broadcasting school. It was a six-week course. On Day 1, my instructor asked what my dream was, and I said I wanted to host a Food Network show just like Emeril. On my way to school on Day 3, my car got t- boned by a dump truck.

I woke up from a coma to find that I had 19 broken ribs and a punctured lung. I checked myself out of the hospital as soon as I could stand and finished the last three weeks of school, picking broken glass from my scalp and popping Aleve like M&M’s.

In the 12 years that followed, I forgot about Food TV and became a radio host. I started a career in stand-up comedy. In the process, I moved across state lines seven times. I fell in love. I got married and had a son. I built a beautiful life for myself.

Things got turned upside down, as they sometimes do, and I got divorced. I quit comedy and radio. I spent my savings nursing my son back to health from a bout with MRSA. My best friend got murdered in cold blood, and I couldn’t afford to go to his funeral. I found myself in the darkest depression of my life. I was an unemployed, broke, single mom, and I was scared to death.

Somewhere in the fog that followed, I remembered my dream of hosting a show on Food Network. I thought, “It’s too late. I’m too old.” And then the true blessing of hitting rock bottom revealed itself: I had nothing left to lose.

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

When I got the opportunity to audition for Gordon Ramsay on MasterChef, I was 36 years old with no job prospects, no money, and nothing to my name left to sell.

I found myself in the ludicrous position where trying to win a world-renown cooking competition was the only way I was going to keep my kid and me off the street. I had no formal culinary training and no way to afford it, so I did what I had to do and taught myself.

I spent three months cooking non-stop in a tiny 400 square foot studio apartment. I’d take care of my 2-year-old son during the day and read cookbooks at night while he slept. I was on a 10 dollars a day food budget. I couldn’t afford the ingredients to practice advanced techniques, so I taught myself knife skills with dollar store veggies, which became soup the next day.

I learned how to make dressings and sauces. I could afford flour and eggs, so I taught myself how to make pasta and quick breads and every which way you could make an egg. I didn’t sleep for weeks and weeks on end.

I wasn’t the best cook in the MasterChef kitchen that year, by far. But I was determined to stay for as long as possible to collect the day rate producers gave us (50 dollars a day) and use it to pay my rent.

I made it to the Top 5.

I didn’t win the cookbook deal or the 250,000 dollars in prize money that I so desperately needed. But I did get my foot in the door. And when you’re stubborn AF, sometimes that’s all it takes. I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a Food TV personality full steam.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

Hitting rock bottom forced me to take the plunge. After researching homeless shelters for me and my two-year-old, I knew I had to do whatever it took to find a way out.

Competing in the MasterChef kitchen was the awakening I needed. I found the meaning of life on a cutting board: dream of a dish, gather the ingredients, prepare them, and make it real.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

How are things going with this new initiative?

The short answer is I hustled.

After leaving MasterChef, I knew I had to pursue my dream of hosting Food TV. I devoured cookbooks and experimented in my home kitchen non-stop. I worked in restaurant kitchens two days a week for free so that I could learn more. To help make ends meet, I waitressed double shifts five days a week. I was on my feet so much; I had to go up two shoe sizes to make room for the swelling. When people asked me what my real job was, I would say, “I’m going to be a Food Network star.”

I was obsessed with that show. I watched every episode of every season of Food Network Star. I filled two notebooks with the judges’ advice and ideas for what I would have done in every challenge. I defined what it was that I wanted to say in the food world. I started a blog with Puerto Rican recipes.

Two years after MasterChef, I got to host a special on FYI called “Make My Food Famous,” where home cooks competed to get their dishes on their favorite restaurant’s menu. I kept hustling. I started catering what I dubbed Cali-Rican cuisine: dishes that showed off Puerto Rico’s flavors developed with California technique. I started working as a line cook.

Three years after MasterChef, I landed the opportunity to host a digital series about baby food for Jessica Alba’s Honest Company. I asked the director if he needed help and landed my first scriptwriting and recipe development gig. I taught myself how to shoot and edit and started creating content. I started running a kitchen.

Four years after MasterChef, I got a call from Todd Weiser, the Senior Vice President of Programming and Development for Food Network. He wanted me to audition to host a show. I was in the middle of a waitressing shift. I felt so faint I had to sit on the floor. I had prepared for four years straight. I was ready, and I nailed it.

Before my show aired, Todd wanted to introduce me to the Food Network audience by having me on various shows. I ended up on Food Network Star. Not as a contestant as I had dreamed, but as a judge sitting next to Giada De Laurentiis, Bobby Flay, and Robert Irvine.

My first Food Network show debuted on Monday, April 10th, 2017. It only took me 17 years to make my dream come true.

Since that day, I’ve shot shows for multiple platforms, including PBS, Cooking Channel, Tastemade, and Studio Ramsay.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Without a doubt, it’s Gordon Ramsay. Nine years ago, I walked into a dusty warehouse in Los Angeles to cook for Gordon. I did not know it then, but it was a day that would change the course of my whole life.

I had a minimal understanding of who Gordon was: a famous chef that liked to yell. I had never seen the show. I had no idea it played in 192 countries. All I knew is that getting into the MasterChef kitchen was the only way to keep my son and me out of a shelter because they gave you a day rate of 50 dollars. The only way in was to get one of just eighteen aprons, slim chances considering my lack of experience and the skill level of the ninety-nine other hopefuls in that dirty warehouse.

I had no idea my elbows could tremble when I was scared enough. But when I finally got the chance to audition for Gordon, holy-ish was I scared enough. I couldn’t afford a new outfit, so I auditioned in my old maternity clothes. I covered the holes in my shirt with an apron, the hole in my right shoe with duct tape. I felt less-than.

One of the producers led me to the double doors that Gordon was sitting behind. She smiled gently at me and said, “You can do this,” as the doors opened. And then all the air rushed out of my lungs, and I started to cry.

Because I didn’t think I could.

I was wrong.

Gordon tried my dish, called it delicious, and said there was something to me. He gave me one of his 18 aprons and with it the chance to compete in the MasterChef Kitchen. I guarantee you’ve never seen someone so happy to put an apron on.

Even though I had made it past the first obstacle, I was still depressed and full of self-doubt. Gordon pulled me up by the bootstraps. He could care less what I was sad about; he wanted me to cook for my life. When I didn’t think I could do something, Gordon asked me to think of my son. He threw challenge after challenge my way and pushed me further than I ever thought I could go. I made lunch for 101 soldiers in a field so muddy it swallowed my shoes whole. I worked the line at a Michelin Star restaurant as Gordon yelled out so many orders he frothed at the mouth. I killed my first animal. It wasn’t anything crazy like a bunny; it was a jumbo prawn. But he looked like he had just walked off the set of “Little Mermaid,” his big eyes pleading with me not to do it. I cried as I made a risotto with his flesh and a broth with his bones.

Gordon forced me to look at what had been right in front of me the whole time: life goes on. The bad things that happen to you are not the things that define you. You define yourself. He taught me the essential recipe for success: Fall seven times. Get up eight.

It’s been almost ten years, and I still can’t watch the video of him handing me that apron without getting choked up. He saved my son and me. He taught me to believe in myself. The cookbook, commercials, TV Shows, the press, none of that would have happened without Gordon.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

I’ll never forget when I had to film a commercial for Kitchen Aid in New Orleans. I walked off the plane to find that a tropical storm was rolling into town. The director wanted to start shooting that hour to beat the bad weather and the floods that would follow.

The shoot was outside in the French Quarter. We filmed well into the night, with dozens of lights on that acted like magnets for thousands of mosquitos. Every time I opened my mouth to say a line, a mosquito would fly in! They covered me in bug spray every ten minutes and had a PA fanning me with poster board to keep the bugs off me. It was hilarious!

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?

There were many times I doubted myself. Especially on my way home after an 18 hour day, with feet so swollen it hurt to press on the gas pedal. I could only afford a one-bedroom. I slept on the couch so my son could have his own room. I was on government assistance. It was a challenging time. I thought that maybe all I would ever be was a forty-year-old waitress that had been on a reality show once.

I kept going for my son’s sake. I put post-it notes all over our tiny apartment with my goals written on them. They were a constant reminder for me to continue reaching. I invested in the tools that I needed. I didn’t turn a single opportunity down. Little by little, my brand continued to grow.

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

My little sister Marji and my twin brother Joel were my support system. They encouraged me when I doubted myself. They comforted me when I didn’t think I could keep going. My brother moved in with me for a bit after my divorce to watch over my son and me. My sister took care of my son so I could compete on MasterChef. After the show, when I couldn’t make ends meet, my brother loaned me money to pay my bills. He built websites for me so I could market myself and my recipes. My sister is a stylist, and she helped me with my wardrobe. I wouldn’t be here without their love, their grace, and their generosity.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

I think the most I’ve ever pushed myself out of my comfort zone was my first appearance on Home Shopping Network. I had never sold anything on TV, much less live TV. I was presenting the iconic Kitchen Aid stand mixer on its 100th anniversary. It was a “Today’s Special,” a segment that starts in the evening and goes on for 28 hours straight. That meant being peppy, remembering KitchenAid’s history and facts about the stand mixer for a marathon amount of time with no sleep.

I didn’t think about staying awake for 28 hours. Instead, I thought about the show in increments. I told myself, “Do your best for the next 45 minutes. We’ll cross the next bridge when we get to it.” Twelve hours in, I started losing my voice, and one of the hosts dropped six cough drops in a cup of hot water, mixed it until they melted, and had me chug it. It worked. I wrapped the 28 hours with thousands of sales.

I have mad respect for the HSN team. They are the hardest working people I have ever met. No doubt.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Expect more from yourself than anyone else does. I wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning seven days a week and work until 6 or 7 at night. I push myself harder than anyone else ever would. That alone has helped my brand grow faster than I ever expected.

Lean into your strengths while you work out your weaknesses. I’ll never forget my first shoot for Food Network. I had to do a cooking demo for a struggling restaurant owner, which meant cooking and teaching while simultaneously playing to the camera. I had never done anything like it, and I was incredibly nervous. To calm down, I started joking around with the restaurant owner while I cooked. We laughed, and the cameras disappeared. When I finished, everyone was quiet, and I wondered what I had done wrong. Todd walked up to me with a massive smile on his face. He said that very few people nail their demos in one take and that he was impressed.

It was then that I realized that ten years in radio and comedy, where you go live, engage with an audience, and get zero do-overs, gave me the chops I needed to make me stand out as a Food TV host. The skillset I had perfected in my old career gave me the foundation to launch myself into the world of food TV. I learned to lean into my strengths.

Keep learning, and don’t stop your hustle. While I was still waitressing and staging in kitchens, I got cast to host a digital show about baby food for Jessica Alba’s Honest Company. When the director talked about finding a chef to make the baby food, I offered to develop the recipes, and they said yes. That’s when I taught myself how to create and write recipes.

During the shoot, I watched the camera guys and dissected the script. I decided to start making digital content. I didn’t have the money to hire a writer, a camera person, or an editor. So I taught myself how to write, shoot, and edit. Eventually, that led me to teach a class on creating food content for James Beard. Every step is an opportunity to get better and expand your brand’s footprint. Take it!

Have a mentor. Learn as much as you can from people that have been there, done that. There are so many women in the food world that I look up to, like Barbara Fairchild, the former editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit, Dianne Jacob, the author of Will Write For Food, and Giovanna Huyke, the Julia Child of Puerto Rican food. They have given me invaluable advice, and I would not have gotten as far as I have without it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would bring dinner back.

Everything connects to the dinner table: the health of your family, your community, and that of the planet. Yet, so many of us skip the opportunity to break bread together. We ignore this moment to catch up, get nourished, and strengthen our relationships. Maybe it’s because we think we can’t cook, or that it’s too expensive, or that we don’t have the time.

⁠I want to show people how to make better decisions about what they put on their dinner table to reduce their carbon footprint. I want to teach them how to curb food waste. I want to inspire them to cook with easy, budget-friendly recipes. I want them to experience being mindful and present while they’re sitting with loved ones at a dinner table.

If I can accomplish these goals, our world will get a little greener. Our communities will get a little closer. We’ll spend time genuinely talking to each other again. Instead of focusing on the things that divide us, we can celebrate the things we all have in common, like a love of food, friendship, and laughter.

What do you want to be remembered for the most?

Being a great mother. Being a fighter. Giving Back.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My social media is @themonticarlo across platforms. You can find my recipes at islandgirlcooks.com and at themonticarlo.com.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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