Dayanny De La Cruz fondly remembers her routine on her way home from school growing up in Nagua, Dominican Republic, which involved frequent pit stops at her grandmother’s house. There, Elvira, affectionately known as “Mama Vira,” would be in the kitchen baking fresh bread or cooking up rice and beans.
A 7-year-old Dayanny would hoist herself up on a stool to assist her grandmother or run outside to pick fresh herbs, spices or fruit and vegetables to be added to whatever Elvira was cooking.
De La Cruz has taken her communal family roots into her own home where “everything happens in the kitchen.” While the 47-year-old typically cooks for her husband and three children at home, on Sunday, she’ll welcome 60,000 to her second home at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami for Super Bowl LIV between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers.
In doing so, De La Cruz is the first female head chef to lead the culinary program at the NFL’s biggest game as the league celebrates its 100th season.
“[My grandmother] was a role model for me because she used to cook for everybody; she had open doors, not just for me,” De La Cruz said. “When I moved to the U.S. I felt it was time for me to chase that dream. … You have to find what grounds you, and for me it’s my kids and my family. My kitchen is my peace. That’s my sacred place.
“I have a huge family when I come into this kitchen though.”
On game day, De La Cruz will be responsible for the menus at 167 in-stadium suites, 25 concession stands and seven all-inclusive restaurants and clubs. The executive chef who works for Centerplate, the food and beverage partner of Hard Rock Stadium, will be supported by more than 2,500 employees, 5-10 mobile kitchens and more than 20 supporting executive chefs flown in for the big game.
The menu will feature a distinct Miami feel including Cubano sausage, fresh watermelon salads, ceviches, lobster tails, gourmet donuts and empanadas with more than 20,000 pounds of shrimp, 8,000 pounds of short ribs and 2,700 Maine lobster rolls needing to be prepared among the endless list of food items sold from standard concessions to high-end hospitality suites.
Many of the products have been sourced from South Florida farms including Lady Moon, Lambeth Groves and M&M Farms, while Centerplate has also partnered with prominent local restaurateurs and food and beverage brands including SuViche, Sushi Maki, Ladyfingrs, Café Versailles and Mojo Donuts.
De La Cruz, who plans to arrive at the stadium at 2:30 a.m. on game day, and her team will be feeding the players and staff of both teams, all fans in attendance as well as halftime performers Jennifer Lopez and Shakira.
“For me it’s about setting the stage for everything that is behind me,” De La Cruz said. “It’s about paving the way for every single person, not just women—if you work hard you can achieve a lot. It’s a country of opportunity.
“It’s about the people you surround yourself with, the team you have. I’m surrounded by amazing chefs. This is not just me. I’m just the lucky one to be taking the torch onto the field.”
The journey to Super Bowl LIV hasn’t been a smooth road for De La Cruz. After graduating from culinary school at Grand Rapids Community College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, De La Cruz landed her first job as executive chef at the Doubletree Hotel in Skokie, Illinois.
She was able to work at various major sporting events and venues including the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament in New York, the Kentucky Derby, multiple NBA All-Star Games and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Then life threw her a curveball. De La Cruz was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2011. Despite the rigors of examinations and three months of chemotherapy, De La Cruz never stopped working.
“Every morning I had something to look forward to,” she said. “That’s what you need to find: what is that thing that’s going to make you get up every morning? I’m very blessed I was able to get up each morning and have that.”
She underwent surgery on February 12, 2012 and has been cancer-free since. Three years ago, her son Joseph requested his mother take the morning off to come with him to a local tattoo shop—despite being of legal age and not needing a parent’s consent—where he had that date inscribed in Roman numerals on his chest.
“As you can imagine I was crying the whole time,” she said. “It’s important to celebrate life. Regardless of what comes and life throws at you, you have to find something that grounds you, whether it’s your passion or your family.”
For De La Cruz, her passion is certainly both her career and her family, and she’s excited to open her doors to the masses, welcoming a new family into her home for Super Bowl LIV.
“You create a very intimate relationship when you touch anything that deals with food and we want to create that with our fans and audience,” she said. “Hard Rock Stadium isn’t just about the food, we are creating world-class fare when it comes to food and beverage, culture, the arts, and everything that means Miami.”
NOTE: First appeared on Forbes SportsMoney