JoAnna Martitnez can trace her curiosity for cuisine back to when she was in grade school and watched cooking shows in the waiting room of her eye doctor.

“They would play travel cooking channels on the TV, and Vienna was my favorite,” the 29-year-old Edinburg native said. “The plating, style, technique — I wanted to do that one day. I wanted to make food look enticing, pretty and cool like that.”

Then in middle school, her parents began to struggle to support their family of five, and the way she decided to help out was by cooking dinner.

Now, Martinez is going on her fourth year as an instructor of South Texas College’s Culinary Arts Department, and four months ago, took on the position of director of the Rio Grande Valley’s Texas Chef Association chapter — becoming the youngest, and first woman to hold that title.

“The culinary world is mainly male driven, but it is my whole passion,” Martinez said. “It is male-driven, but why not push the limits and say that as women, we can do this too.

“I can carry 50 pounds of flour or sugar just like man.”

Martinez earned her associates of applied science in culinary arts from STC, and a certificate in culinary arts from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin. Now, she is back as a student in STC, pursuing her bachelors in technology management.

TCA’s mission is to promote the field of culinary arts and connect clinicians across the state. With 14 chapters, the association provides members with seminars and professional advancement opportunities in the food service industry.

Martinez said that as director, she wants to bring together culinary professionals and students.

“My vision, and what I really want for our chapter to do, is to connect with the younger generation. They are the ones who are going to shape the Valley,” she said. “It is exciting to see them when they are new to culinary, and then to see them opening their own bakeries, it is a great feeling.”

She added: “It is about bridging the gap between culinarians and students. Students are so excited, but are just nervous to get their feet wet.”

The Valley’s TCA takes part in various events across the area, hosting educational demonstrations and seminars throughout the year. The chapter, which is made up of around 25 culinarians and 30 high school and college students, also meets monthly to connect as chefs and aspiring chefs.

Before returning to STC, Martinez has worked kitchens all across the Valley. Starting as a chef at Cimarron Country Club in Mission, she also spent five years working at the Olive Garden in McAllen.

Most recently, she took part in the planning and opening of Zoe’s Kitchen in McAllen,

As a culinary instructor for STC, Martinez also teaches dual enrollment cooking courses at local high schools. Previously teaching at Donna North High School, and starting this semester at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Early College in San Juan.

With a pristine kitchen classroom STC installed two years ago at PSJA Early College, boasting ladles of all sizes hanging over shiney steel countertops, and shelves stocked with assortments of pots and pans, this is the first time it is being used.

PSJA Early College culinary arts instructor Joanna Martinez in her instructional new kitchen on Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Pharr. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

Martinez teaches an assortment of courses, including beverage management, dining room service, and the fundamentals of baking. This semester at PSJA Early College, her course is sanitation and safety in the kitchen.

“It is a lot of work and I do get tired, but the reward is just so exciting to see,” Martinez said.

Martinez attended South Texas Business, Education & Technology Academy in Edinburg for high school, and said though her plan for most of her time there was to join the computer science field, her teachers noticed her excitement for food and encouraged her to pursue culinary arts.

“In any project, I was the one who suggested topics like the history of Dr. Pepper, and what makes marshmallows so fluffy and sticky,” she said. “My computer science and design teacher told me, ‘You know what, you are always talking about food. Technology is not your calling, you need to get into culinary.”

Baked into Martinez’s passion for cooking is how food can bring people together. For her, it was her way of showing her parents she loved them.

At family barbecues, Martinez was always the one standing beside her father at the grill.

“I see how it brings together my family, and that is what the Texas Chefs Association is there to do for the Valley,” she said. “We are about helping the community, we want to reach out there and tell them that we as chefs are here for them.”