HEALTH – Nutrition Chef, Instructor, and Entrepreneur Charmene Vega has been cooking for more than a quarter of a century, and is now the brainchild behind Mama Vega’s Products, a nationally recognized line of salsas, sauces, spreads and tamales.
But the road to Mama Vega’s Products was anything but traditional for Vega.
Vega got her start in the kitchen, at the age of 12, under the command of her mother, who is an Herbologist.
“I thought it was a real pain when my mother would make me cook because there was never a recipe,” says Vega. “You just had to make it, and it wasn’t your traditional stuff.”
Vega recalls some of her first forays in the kitchen.
“I had to go to the fish market, and it was called heads off and split, which means you had to tell them to take the heads off, split it, and take the guts out,” says Vega. “Then you had to take it home and scale it yourself.”
By her teenage years, Vega was fast becoming a master at nontraditional, fresh culinary dishes. Still, she didn’t immediately pursue a career in the kitchen. Vega opted for a career in special education instead.
Upon completing her studies, Vega relocated to California in the early 1980’s, and became a Special Education teacher at La Canada High School. She incorporated food into her classroom as a means to get work done.
Vega says after lunch many of her kids would not make it back to the classroom on time, forcing her to walk the schoolyard everyday to track down her students.
She began having chips, salsa and a movie in her classroom, in an effort to keep track of her students during lunch time.
“I had half the kids at school in my class room for lunch, but I could get my work done,” recalls Vega.
She soon began putting her salsas in mason jars and selling them to enthusiastic parents. Then a parent, who was also a food insurance broker, encouraged Vega to move fully into the food business.
She left education for the food industry in 1991 and honed her skills running the Kaiser Permanente restaurant in Lancaster for five years, where she created a customized menu according to dietary needs.
“I started creating my dishes a la carte, and then I would layer the food, depending on how the person wanted it,” she said.
Vega became popular at the hospital for creating custom menus on the fly.
“There was no real menu, it was whatever came into my head that day,” says Vega. “So they [patrons] got a surprise everyday and they really liked that.”
Vega was moved to creating sauces again, after the owner of Robeks Juice Lancaster, asked her to create a sauce to accompany his display at the weekly Farmers Market. Vega’s sauce sold out within the first hour, and she was quickly commanded to produce more. One thing led to another, and within one month, Vega had created 44 different sauces for Robeks.
“Every time I thought about something different, I created another sauce,” says Vega. “I started using foods that were in season at that time, because they are better for you nutritionally and because they are always the cheapest.”
Mama Vega is now a nationally recognized name in salsas, tamales, sauces and marinades. Her products are all natural and gluten free, with no preservatives, no additives, no hydrogenated oils, and no high fructose corn syrup. Additionally, her salsa is the only salsa in the nation recognized as a More Matters product.