Score one for Tampa, and Puerto Ricans everywhere, chef Rosana Rivera said while reflecting on her victory.
Rivera, who co-founded Xilo at the Hall on Franklin with partner Ricardo Castro, kept a secret for months after traveling to the Food Network’s New York television studios. She could finally celebrate her appearance on the competition series Beat Bobby Flay.
The show was originally scheduled to air in October but was postponed. It aired Thursday.
The show pits two professional chefs against each other, Rivera versus Castro in this case, with the winner taking on celebrity chef Bobby Flay. Flay wins about 70 percent of the time.
“And I won!” Rivera said. “We really just wanted to represent Tampa and Puerto Rico on TV.”
Regardless of who made it past the first round, Rivera and Castro, Puerto Rico natives who have been in Tampa more than a decade, knew exactly what dish they’d cook against Flay. It’s one they make at Xilo. It uses Rivera’s grandmother’s dough recipe, and her mother’s filling.
“It’s something every Puerto Rican family makes,” Rivera said, beaming. “Bobby Flay got beat by empanadas! It’s something we could both make with our eyes closed."
After the victory, Rivera and Castro, who previously operated the late Piquant in Hyde Park Village and West Tampa, salsa danced backstage to celebrate.
“You can’t take away that Bobby Flay is an Iron Chef,” Castro said. “He’s a beast. And you can tell he really wants to win.”
The couple prepped for the series by binge-watching hours of Food Network competition shows, something they don’t normally do.
“We might watch a first episode here and there, because of curiosity, and we do admire a lot of people, particularly on the Food Network," Castro said. “But when I see somebody doing something wrong on a competition, I want to say something. I start to feel like I’m back at work.”
They spend more time together watching food documentaries like Street Food, Rotten and an all-time favorite, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which they’ve screened for their restaurant staff in the past as inspiration.
As far as having to compete against each other on Beat Bobby Flay, both chefs agreed they can be naturally competitive in the kitchen. Rivera describes herself as a “Type A personality" who always wants the last say in culinary matters, while Castro has led teams and won medals in national American Culinary Federation championships. But when it comes to the day to day, “We’re not trying to outdo each other,” Rivera said. “He loves my food and I love his food.”
Castro does stress the importance of food and cooking in a strong relationship, even for those not working in the industry.
“You can learn so many details about a person from what they eat,” Castro said. “Food is memories. I could talk to somebody right now about that cake they ate when they were 4 years old. I’m 45. I can still remember the cake my mom made when I was little. You can learn a whole history of someone from how they eat.”
The couple opened Xilo at the Tampa Heights food hall in 2018, focusing on Mexican-style street food. They also signed a lease on a space in Clearwater that they plan on using to expand their catering business and food brand. Castro said the space can also serve as a “ghost kitchen” for future deliveries through Uber Eats and other apps.
If your cable subscription includes Food Network, you can watch the episode on demand at watch.foodnetwork.com.