She has sautéed with Alain Sailhac at LeCirque and parboiled with Jacques Pepin at the French Culinary Institute. She has broiled, baked and braised for thousands of hungry customers at some of the top restaurants in the world.
But now she's here. Zoraida Rivera is cooking in Jim Thorpe.
The Broadway Grille & Pub in Jim Thorpe recently hired Rivera as its new executive chef, and she's already cooking up a storm, changing the menu and infecting the staff and customers with her passion for cooking and food.
So, how did a woman with such a rich history in New York's culinary scene end up in the tiny town of Jim Thorpe?
Born into a highly creative family in Puerto Rico, Rivera always dreamed of cooking.
"I think I was born with a skillet in my hand," she said, laughing.
As a child, she collected recipe books and cooked for her family.
"My mom was a horrible cook, so I have no idea where this passion came from. Certainly not from her," she says, rolling her eyes.
After attending college in the states and getting her bachelor's degree in communications, she moved back to Puerto Rico to work for Viacom. Meanwhile, her passion for food tugged at her heart. She had no idea one could attend culinary school to become a chef, because she didn't even know such a school existed. But when she found out, the proverbial light bulb went off. That was it. She quit Viacom, packed her bags, and headed to New York City.
After getting a job as a grocery store cashier, she attended the acclaimed French Culinary Institute at night. In the early days, her evening and weekend cooking and banquet gigs were supplemented by day jobs including a stint as a Spanish and history teacher so she could make ends meet in Manhattan. Eventually, she ditched the day jobs and moved further up the culinary ladder, working in big name places and under mentors from LeCirque, Lutèce, Water's Edge, Windows on the World and Le Parker Meridien.
After the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11, Rivera decided to move to quiet eastern Pennsylvania. While living in Bushkill, she spent days exploring the back roads of her new home state and eventually stumbled upon Jim Thorpe.
"I fell in love with the town immediately. I couldn't believe it. I said 'this is where I've got to live.' I wanted to be able to walk down the street for a newspaper or a cup of coffee, just like New York, and not have to hop in a car. It was the perfect little spot."
Months later, she bought a house in the historic district of town.
After several executive chef positions in Pocono restaurants, she eventually settled into a corporate job with a huge food service and facility management company, where she managed multimillion dollar accounts.
"I enjoyed it and probably could have stayed there comfortably forever," she said.
But that wasn't to be.
A few months ago, her old friend Pat Cleary, the Broadway Grille's general manager, lured her into the kitchen, just to try things out. She came in to do some prep work and check out the operation. Suddenly, the old fire in her soul was burning again.
"I was shocked. I thought 'Wow, I haven't felt this way in a long time. This is where I'm supposed to be. Not at a desk, not ordering, not budgeting. Just cooking. This is what I've been missing'."
She decided to take the leap back into the kitchen.
It was a long, well thought-out decision.
"Every time I came here to the Broadway Grille, I felt really good. I started thinking about what I could do here. I said I'd have to be crazy not to take a chance. I don't want to be 80 years old with regrets, wondering 'What if?'
"I kept thinking what my mentor, Jacques Pepin, drilled into my head. He said 'stick to the basics, return to the basics.' I had gotten away from the basics for so long. It was such a joy to come back to just cooking."
And she's cooking up a storm already at the Broadway Grille. She and the other kitchen staff are busy making their own creamy mozzarella that they infuse with herbs and other flavorings. They're curing wild salmon. They're making their own sausage, because they can't find the exact flavors required for the dishes.
"I'm strong-minded and strong-willed in the kitchen," Rivera explains. "At the end of the day, things have to be done right. It's an art. If it's just a job, it shows. Cooks have to cook with love."
Rivera's passion has transformed the Broadway Grille's new menu, which debuted over Memorial Day weekend.
"We've kept some of the favorites on our menu, but I've added quite a few new dishes, many of which will change seasonally," Rivera said.
"The new menu features tastes of places I've visited all over the world, such as a hibachi parrillada, which is an Argentinian-style mixed grill for two people. It's loaded with many kinds of meat and a chimichurri sauce."
Other new menu highlights include a Z Maki sushi roll, martini ceviche mixto, salmon gravlax, chicken mango kebabs, vegetable curry, a new Mediterranean salad and antipasti, several new pasta dishes and entrées, new chicken wing sauces and a few new burgers.
"And, we've even added lobster to the menu, which will be available seasonally. It'll be alive when it's delivered here, so you can bet it's fresh!" Rivera said.
"We're also adding a few new sandwiches, wraps and cheese boards for late night dining at the bar after the kitchen has closed, which I know customers have asked for."
The kitchen staff is excited to work with her, and Cleary is thrilled to have her on board.
"She's so talented, and she's got such great energy. It really is contagious. We've been growing by leaps and bounds since we opened, but Zoraida's definitely going to take this place to a whole new level. It's really exciting."
Rivera's got big dreams for the Broadway Grille.
"I want to put this place on the map. I want to be on the TV shows, in the magazines. I want it to be a destination restaurant."
With an attitude, passion and talent like that, she can certainly make it happen.