14:43 PM

STC Culinary Arts alumna, food entrepreneur inspired by her abuela’s home cooking


South Texas College Culinary Arts alumna Cynthia Villarreal (left) and her daughter Ximena explain how their food venture Casa de mi Abuela has exploded in popularity across the region. Villarreal, who is currently the CEO of seafood restaurant Villa Del Mar,  credits STC with changing her life forever.

Cynthia Villarreal has fond childhood memories of eating her ‘abuela’s,’ or grandmother’s home cooking, so much so, that the South Texas College alumna went on to own Casa de mi Abuela, a successful food venture in honor of her beloved grandmother.

Villarreal and her 17-year-old daughter Ximena Martinez share the business which has grown greatly over the past two years.

“Cooking is in our blood; it’s a family affair, said Villarreal, who is also the chief executive officer of one of the Valley’s most prominent seafood restaurants - Villa del Mar. “I’ve grown up in the business, grown up watching family cook and following in their footsteps, so to have this opportunity and to share it with my daughter has been the most beautiful experience.”

Although Villarreal’s culinary journey started early in life, it wasn’t until her husband’s sudden passing in 2009, that she decided to pursue a college degree in the field, enrolling at STC and eventually graduating with an associate degree in Culinary Arts in 2012.

“Getting to where we are today hasn’t always been easy, but together, we’ve created something great that has supported and inspired our family, and it all started for me at STC.” 

-STC alumna and founder of Casa de mi Abuela Cynthia Villarreal

“I wanted a college education and to achieve a college degree that would make me more credible in the culinary world,” she said. “I wanted this to be an example for my daughter so she could see it’s never too late, and to be a professional in my craft. STC has helped make it all happen.”

The journey wasn’t always easy for Villarreal, who was a single mom, working and attending classes.

Doubts in herself and her abilities would sneak in every so often, but she credits former STC Culinary Arts instructor Chef Emma Crepes with helping her see the value in her skills.  

“I was nervous, intimidated even, because I didn’t know a lot of English, but Emma told me something that hit hard and has stuck with me ever since,” she said. “She told me ‘Food doesn’t have a language,’ this changed my life forever.”

With advice from Crepes and her other instructors, keeping in mind that food has a universal language, Villarreal went on to excel in the program.

Immediately after graduating from STC, Villarreal took a general manager role at Villa and created three of their most iconic salsas: El Ostion Endiablad, La Ranita Habanera and El Sirenito, but with her duties focused more on the administrative side of the restaurant, Villarreal needed to find an outlet that would allow her to practice her true passion: cooking.

“Cooking is what I want to be doing; creating dishes that can be enjoyed by many,” she said. “This is why La Casa de mi Abuela was created. It was supposed to be a small side project.”

Creating a line of ready-made stews that grew in popularity within the Rio Grande Valley community, Villarreal and Martinez took a few of their popular dishes such as Rajas Poblanas, Chicharron Prensado and Papas Picositas and entered them into H-E-B’s annual Quest for the Texas Best contest.

So, in 2021, La Casa de mi Abuela finished in the top 20 out of more than 1,200 entries in the contest, allowing theses stews to make it to the shelves of more than 20 local grocery stores across the Rio Grande Valley, including five H-E-Bs.

“We are so proud, yet humbled of how far we’ve come,” said Villarreal. “We created this product to help families with busy lifestyles still enjoy home cooking and to know they’re popular among our community and that we continue to grow is surreal.”

Villarreal and Martinez research, create and test every one of their products within their food manufacturing business, produce cooking shows on YouTube and are in the process of opening a store front and restaurant.

“Getting to where we are today hasn’t always been easy, but together, we’ve created something great that has supported and inspired our family, and it all started for me at STC,” said Villarreal. “There’s nowhere to go but up. It’s been a beautiful journey with my daughter, and we’re excited about what’s to come and to continue filling homes with the flavors of La Casa de mi Abuela.”

For more information on STC’s Culinary Arts program, visit www.southtexascollege.edu/academics/culinary-arts