Black-Latina Chef and Business Owner Talks About Her Dyslexia and Math Challenges
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“Math dyslexia” can’t stop this chef and business owner

By the time Raquel Fleetwood was diagnosed with a learning disability at age 8, she had already discovered her passion: cooking. By 16, inspired by her Black-Latina roots, she was selling cheese flans in NYC. Each gig that followed built her confidence more and more. 

Now, Raquel is the owner and chef of a catering company that delivers 75,000 meals in an average year. Listen to hear how Raquel turned her love of food into a career. Learn her secret for managing challenges with math, spoken language, and organization as an adult. And get her advice on how to make your strengths shine when you have learning differences.

Listen in. Then:

Episode transcript

Eleni: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a podcast that explores the unique and often unexpected career paths of people with learning and thinking differences. My name is Eleni Matheou, and I'm a user researcher here at Understood. That means I spend a lot of time thinking about how we find jobs we love that reflect how we learn and who we are. I'll be your host.

I absolutely love food. So I'm really excited for our next guest. Raquel Fleetwood is a chef and caterer in Los Angeles who draws culinary inspiration from her Black and Puerto Rican roots. In a typical year, her company delivers 75,000 catered meals a year. She has dyslexia and other learning differences. She also struggles with things like spoken language, math, and organization. So Raquel, welcome to the show.

Raquel: Thanks for having me.

Eleni: Of course. So, yeah, I'm really excited to talk about food, and I'm really looking forward to hearing how you made that your career. So tell us a little bit about your job.

Raquel: I'm the owner and chef of Catered By Raquel in Long Beach, California. And I am a full-time mom.

Eleni: Four kids and a business.

Raquel: Four kids and a business.

Eleni: So, you're a chef and a caterer. Have you always loved cooking? And what do you love about it?

Raquel: I've always loved cooking. My mom worked a lot when I was growing up; she was back in school to get her PhD. And I grew up on the Upper West Side of New York with a mother that didn't cook. So she would always order in; everything was takeout, which is, I guess, good for some people, but I remember figuring out at a super early age that if I learned how to cook, I could make anything I wanted. So I remember being 4 and trying to work my way into my grandmother's kitchen. And she eventually got tired of kicking me out, and they gave me a stool so I could reach the counter.

Eleni: How very New York of your mother to order takeout every day.

Raquel: Oh my gosh. She's like, I'm the best chef ever. Here's my phone numbers. These are all the numbers.

Eleni: Yeah. And when you snuck into the kitchen, was there anything in particular that you liked about being in the kitchen or that you liked cooking — any favorite meals?

Raquel: I just, I've always been attracted to it. My mom has stories of when I was a kid; she would put on "Sesame Street" and she would come in and Julia Child would be on the TV. So I always referred to Julia Child as my Big Bird. Cooking is where I met my zen, my peace, my love. It's a place where my nervousness, my anxiety, it doesn't play a role anywhere. And you know, I have trouble with numbers and math. And math and numbers, when it comes to food, it always makes sense. I'm grateful to have honed in on my talent super young.

Eleni: Yeah, super young, 3 or 4.

Raquel: Super young. Yep. My whole life.

Eleni: Yeah. So, Raquel, you grew up in New York City, and, you know, you were diagnosed with dyslexia when you were 8. Do you want to talk a little bit about what it was like going to school in New York? Talk a little bit about struggles in school and, you know, anything that you want to share about that.

Raquel: Yeah. I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, 93rd between Central Park West and Columbus. I lived in the same building for 27 years. So, I remember vividly starting the process of being tested. And, you know, my mom's a psychologist, so I think things might've been a little bit easier for me than some, because she was super, sometimes overly understanding of the whole thing. And in school I always had one friend. I was never the popular one. I'm an only child. And I have four kids, which is kind of ironic. I was never the one to play first, and I'm still not. So I think that growing up, it translated into who I am now, where I only have a couple of, like, really close friends. I can't really deal with too many personalities at once. And I kind of flew under the radar at school.

You know, I graduated high school. I did what I had to do. Bare-bones, bare minimum. I was supposed to go to culinary school and I didn't, because my mom said she didn't want me to go to culinary school because if I went and graduated and I decided I didn't want to cook, then I wouldn't have something to have like a backup as. So I actually went to school for early childhood development and failed miserably.

I took a math class like four times. And then just left. I missed out on an associate's degree for one class, because I just, I couldn't do it anymore. And I've always had issues, like, if I'm not interested in something, I really don't care. It's real easy for me to just look at a sparkly thing in the room and go somewhere else. So, I think I figured out actually later in life that there was a connection between having a learning disability and still being confident. I know sometimes that's where it affects people, in their confidence. But I think through food, through cooking, it kept me confident.

Eleni: You were able to find something that you were really good at and then gain your confidence through that rather than focusing on the things that maybe were a little bit more challenging in school.

Raquel: Exactly.

Eleni: Yeah. It's interesting. I mean, it's so rare to hear that people find their passion at the age of 3 or 4. I barely have memories from that age, you know? And you know, it sounded like you were pretty clear about what you wanted to study but then kind of pivoted into this other direction. How did you eventually find your way back to the food industry?

Raquel: It took a while. I had gotten a gig at, like, 16 in New York selling my cheese flans to a restaurant that I worked for.

Eleni: What is a cheese flan?

Raquel: It's a traditional Puerto Rican flan dish — tastes more like a hybrid between a flan and a cheesecake. So I was pumping out cheese flans out my mom's oven. Thought I was something.

And then I went to college. Didn't graduate. Wound up being in retail for, like, 10 years. I was a retail manager. I didn't like it, per se, but I was good at it because the methodical folding and making sure the stuff is perfect and square and even, and all the visual displays, that was the best part. The people were just not my thing.

And even to this day with the cooking, sometimes I'm like, "You know, I wish I could just cook for nobody." Because it's always the people aspect of it all that throws me off a little. But then I wound up meeting my husband. We had our first child, and I was approached about catering our — this was 10 years ago now — catering our Christmas party for our subdivision we lived in. And I was like, "OK." She was like, "It's 160 people," and I'm, you know, "Fake it till you make it. Sure, why not?" And came in there and made it all look really pretty, and the food tasted really good. And I was able to do that for a couple of years, and I also was getting jobs. The word was kind of getting out. So I had jobs here and there.

And then when I moved to California, my husband worked for a company that catered their lunch every day. So they were like, "Oh, well, does your wife cater? And does she want to cater for us once a week?" And I was like, "Sure, why not?" So it was like a mad dash to cook for 200 people.

Eleni: Wow.

Raquel: Pregnant at the time, with two other kids and no childcare. So it was a lot of fun.

Eleni: Wow. That sounds intense.

Raquel: And then from there, they gave me the full program. So I was their corporate chef for three years, before the pandemic.

Eleni: Wow. So when the neighbor approached you, you had never actually done catering before. They just knew you were a good cook and they asked you to do it.

Raquel: I did it when my mom's friends and stuff would have parties; I would do it for them. And again, the artistic part of me, it was always really good at making stuff look pretty. And that, definitely, it helped tailor my craft.

Eleni: Yeah.

Raquel: So I had experience here and there, but it was never for anyone I didn't know.

Eleni: It was a little bit more of a hobby.

Raquel: Yes.

Eleni: And then it evolved into something a little bit more serious.

Raquel: I had worked in kitchens younger, as a teenager, but it was never my thing. I definitely have a tough skin and stuff, but the demand working, you know, 15, 16 hours straight, to then double — I just, it's not me.

Eleni: Yeah.

Raquel: So the catering was a really great way for me to be able to cook and still have a life, essentially.

Eleni: Yeah. And it's important to have balance, especially when you have four kids.

Raquel: And they're little — we've got a 9, 7, 4, and 1. So, yeah, it's exciting. I just need them to get older so they can help with the company. I'm like, "Come wash these dishes."

Eleni: I'm sure they will be super cute doing it. That's great. So I personally definitely prefer to cook than bake, and a big part of it is I just cannot follow a recipe. Like, I always want to change it a little bit and mix it up.

Raquel: Yeah, not with baking.

Eleni: Yeah. So for me, cooking is a little bit more of a creative outlet. Is it similar for you?

Raquel: Yeah, I think baking is definitely more of a science. We can mess it up, but it's not my forte, baking. I still do it. And I still mess around with the recipes. And that's the biggest thing with cooking. I always tell people, "Don't be afraid to make mistakes, because it can either come out absolutely disgusting or you could make something that you really like, so why not try, you know?"

Eleni: Yeah. Do you think that in terms of baking and following a recipe, do you think any struggles with reading have anything to do with that at all?

Raquel: No. And again, the only numbers that make sense to me and my head are food measurements. So cups, quarters, converting grams. That just — it's so easy. But if you ask me to, like, do a simple math problem, I had to hire tutors to do homework when my second and third grader, and they learn math all kinds of different now. So I, you know, it still plays a big role. And my sense of direction is terrible. I can't go to the corner store without my GPS. My husband makes fun of me all the time. But yeah, cooking and numbers, like, I'm able to convert the recipes in my head really quick. It makes sense. I can see it in my brain, and in my brain it makes sense. Whereas with other numbers and, you know, applying math to things, when I see it in my brain, it just, there's no translation to it. It's just numbers. I can't apply it to anything.

Eleni: That's so interesting. So what kind of food do you like to cook, and what influences some of the cuisine that you serve or your recipes?

Raquel: Yeah. Right now we do just about anything. So we're known for doing custom menus. So, recently we had a Filipino repast, and they wanted me to do all traditional Filipino food. And I think the best thing about being a chef in 2022 is that if you know food, you can figure out how to cook the recipe. And, you know, once I'm able to look at recipes, I can make sense of it and be like, that's too much salt, or that needs more, or that's not enough garlic. So, I'm able to do basically whatever the client wants. And I am a foodie myself, growing up on the Upper West Side, being of mixed race, you know, having that Upper West Side melting pot really helped develop my palate.

Eleni: And that's so cool that you can just kind of look at recipes and then bring your own —

Raquel: Yeah, I can taste stuff, too, and I can tell you what's in it. So if I taste something, for the most part I can replicate the recipe.

Eleni: I love it. So you just mentioned being mixed race, and we talked about it a little bit in the introduction. Do you want to share a little bit about how your ethnic background has had an influence on your cooking and your career? And then also maybe how it's played a part in other parts of your identity? And even how your learning differences have been perceived.

Raquel: I love the question. I was raised by my Puerto Rican side. So, even though I am half Black, I do identify as Latina, and I'm fluent in Spanish. It's like my thing. We got married in Puerto Rico.

Eleni: Oh, lovely.

Raquel: And I feel like I was able to discover my Black side through food. So, yeah, when I moved to Atlanta, like, really being able to discover my roots. Their food was, like, amazing. I gained, like, 35 pounds —

Eleni: Worth it!

Raquel: Because I was eating mac and cheese, all the yumminess, fried chicken. But definitely felt more in touch with my dad's side through food, and have memories. Every now and then, I would go to one of his family members' house for Thanksgiving and like smelling the collard greens. So, like, even to this day, the smell of collard greens reminds me of his side. So really identifying who I am through food. There's a, such a push on my part, I feel like, to be able to expose people to what Puerto Rican food is, which is a mixture between the African slaves that they brought over, the Spanish, and then the Natives, they're called Taíno Indians. So it's more African-forward than what a Mexican dish would be.

Eleni: That's amazing.

Raquel: Yeah.

Eleni: So, given that you love the cooking aspects but not so much the customer-client side, do you think that you'll stay in catering? Or are you thinking about other ways to incorporate cooking into your life or another business?

Raquel: We're thinking about it. It's not as easy as it was pre-pandemic. I think that the food costs are astronomical. The same brisket that cost me, like, $36 before the pandemic now cost me $100. So, the increase in food prices and people just not understanding. And they're, like, "Well, this is too expensive." And I'm like, "I can't make any money to be able to pay a storefront."

And you know, it's not that I don't like the client. It's more that the confrontation or the idea of confrontation and having to work my way through it, which I'm actually really good at, even though inside I'm, like, screaming, it's the anticipation and the anxiety of having to deal with people. Because they're spending a lot of money and it's warranted, but I don't want to deal with it. So I think me and my husband were talking more about possibly going more toward the TV food side.

Eleni: That's interesting.

Raquel: Yeah. So we'll see.

Eleni: Well, earlier in the conversation, you said that while you struggled at school, you were able to have cooking as something that you were able to focus on and really enjoy. You mentioned struggle with math but it doesn't really come up in terms of recipes and things. Are there any struggles that come up that are related to your differences at work?

Raquel: With cooking? Oh yeah. The organization part of it. You're supposed to be super neat. And my brain was just firing. It's firing, and I want to do like a million things at once, so then I look around and, like, the kitchen's on the floor. So, like, I've hired people specifically to clean up after me because you know, my brain’s just like, ah, like, “I can't, I can't do it.” I tried. I've done well sometimes, but it's not fun. That's a bit of a struggle, the organization part of it. You know, sometimes, you know, the ability for me to organize my thoughts definitely comes through on the cooking side.

Eleni: Yeah. How do you think that relates to your differences, or do you think it relates to your differences?

Raquel: Oh, I totally think it does. I think now, you know, at 40 years old, I know myself, so it doesn't bother me. It used to bother me. My saying was "I get on my own nerves." But now I know to step back. And I also think that it's really important, if you have a learning disability or not, owning a business, to surround yourself with people that balance you out, that can take up for your weakness. So, I tell people, "I don't need a five-star chef. I just need somebody that's organized, that can clean, that doesn't mind doing dishes, all that stuff." I've been able to kind of balance myself out with my staff. And I tell them the organization on my end is shot, and I'll have to sit there with a pen and paper because even the phone gets annoying. And I write everything down so that I can see my list of things, because if I leave it up to my brain, it's going to jumble it all up and mess it up. 

But again, you know, I also think that being learning disabled, when you immerse yourself in a day-to-day activity that causes you to have those issues and figure it out, the more it happens, the less it bothers you, the less anxiety there is behind it. Because you know that you fixed it before, and you fix it every time, so this time shouldn't be any different.

Eleni: And, you know, you've mentioned being a mother and having four kids. Are there any challenges that come up related to learning differences when you're parenting?

Raquel: Sometimes my patience. That's why I had to hire a tutor for my second and third grader, because I couldn't do it. And then my oldest daughter, who's 9, just got diagnosed with dyslexia.

Eleni: Oh, wow.

Raquel: So we have her in a special program to get her caught up. And I do think that me having it and letting her know — I'm being very vocal about it. I can't stress enough, especially being in the Black and Latino community, how that was seen as, like, a handicap. And it's not.

The main thing as a parent with a child that has a learning disability is to make sure that you figure out what they were put here for. Hone in on it and run with it because it's about building that confidence as a kid.

My daughter, she's super into science and drawing and art. She wants to be an animal scientist. So stuff like that, just really trying to make sure they're doing something on a daily basis that makes them feel good about themselves. And I feel like it counteracts the other stuff.

Eleni: And you mentioned in the Black and Latinx community, there are some perceptions of differences being handicaps, I think is the word that you used. Do you want to talk a little bit more about what your view is on that? How stigma comes up, and how you have handled that within your own community or family?

Raquel: I think it's just kind of embedded in who we are, because we're coming from generations where there was no exposure to this. People didn't know; you were just special. You know what I mean? So now that they're able to actually break it down and specifically tell you, it's kind of lightening the load. But I think that again, within the Black and Latino community, because there's so much more exposure to this stuff, I do feel like it's getting better. But it takes people to talk about it to see that you can still be super successful and be OK.

Eleni: That's great. Do you have any advice for people that are thinking about starting a business that perhaps was previously a hobby or a passion, especially if they have some sort of learning difference?

Raquel: You know, I think that if you have someone — I got lucky enough, my husband is in marketing. So I guess I did it with my marriage too. So I kind of filled in where I lacked. And just really making sure that you have someone that backs you that maybe knows more about business than you do, if you don't know anything about it, and to do it. Because if you don't try, you already failed. You know what I mean? Like, the worst that happens is you fall on your behind and you're still better off. You're more experienced than had you not tried at all. 

I have my days here with four kids and I want to pull my hair out, and I get in my car and I go to my kitchen and I blast my music and I mind my business, and it's the best feeling ever. I really appreciate it, because I know that a lot of chefs don't get to experience that. And I always used to say growing up, that, when I died, I would go to Heaven and be in the kitchen by myself with music playing.

Eleni: And you can do it while you're alive.

Raquel: And I didn't have to die to do it!

Eleni: Thanks so much for being on the show, Raquel. It was so great having you.

Raquel: Thank you so much for having me.

Eleni: This has been "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard today, tell someone about it. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Go to u.org/thatjob to share your thoughts and to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash that job.

Do you have a learning difference and a job you're passionate about? Email us at thatjob@understood.org. If you'd like to tell us how you got THAT job, we'd love to hear from you. As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one, to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference, and we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" was created by Andrew Lee and is produced by Gretchen Vierstra and Justin D. Wright, who also wrote our theme song. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors. Thanks again for listening.

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    leads user research for Understood. She helps Understood to center its work on the lived experiences and voices of people who learn and think differently.

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