Chef Thelma Portillo’s fresh, flavorful fare is as vibrant as the rich heritage and culinary adventures that have shaped her food philosophy. Leaning into her Guatemalan roots, borrowing from the Italian kitchens in which she’s trained, and always sourcing fresh, local ingredients as a foundation, Portillo builds dishes that nourish body and feed the soul.
Now the chef and entrepreneur behind The Wheel Kitchen in Tomball, Texas, Portillo traces her culinary influences back to her tropical upbringing in Guatemala City near the western coast. In her mother’s kitchen, where Thelma served as kitchen assistant from the time she could see over the counter, fresh was a given.
“My mom used to go to the nearby mercado, or farmers market, to buy all the ingredients for that day's lunch,” she recalls. “Vegetables, chicken, meats, herbs and spices—nothing was ever frozen or pre-made.”
In her early teens, a family friend who was a German pastry chef inspired young Thelma. “I experienced how he made dessert from scratch into a masterpiece and everyone was so happy, enjoying what he had created minutes before.”
After high school, Portillo joined relatives in Los Angeles, where she was fortunate to quickly find a job with a popular Italian restaurant. “That’s where I fell in love with the Italian cuisine,” she says.
Later on, Portillo had the extraordinary opportunity to stage, or intern, in authentic Italian kitchens in Italy, including under Michelin star chefs. This training deepened her appreciation and understanding of flavors and textures and how to use these elements to translate her pride and respect for the food into a dish, just as the Italians do.
“Learning a new culture through its kitchen tables is always enriching,” says Portillo. “The combination of flavor and passion in one dish makes a big difference.”
After completing her bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts at The Art Institute of California and taking on increasing responsibility in restaurants in LA and Vermont, Chef Portillo spent four years as executive chef of Pastaria in Monterey Park, California, where she managed production and recipe development of a commissary kitchen that supplied five area restaurants.
When a career opportunity for her husband relocated Portillo and her family to Houston, she spent time feeding her family and getting to know the local food scene before helping open Sorrento in Kingwood as its head chef. She developed the Italian menu, incorporating seasonal dishes and overseeing catering and private events, as well.
Looking to find a balance between her own career and time spent with her husband and their two sons, the chef launched Fressco Foods in 2013, offering fresh organic and vegan prepared foods. Portillo has researched vegan cooking extensively to masterfully ensure that dishes free of animal-based products are both nourishing and exciting to the palate. The first way to do that: buy local.
“I strongly believe in supporting our local farmers and producers,” says Chef Portillo, who appreciates that working directly with small producers ensures she knows how livestock and produce are raised or grown. “I know what I am putting on a dish, and what my customers are consuming. Besides, I’m helping another family put food on their table.”
Portillo’s farm-to-table fare is served at her Tomball café, The Wheel Kitchen, where beautiful ingredients are prepared simply to highlight their flavors. And now, she is available to bring her traditional and vegan menus to your home through Cookery.
Like many of us, Chef Portillo relishes in how food brings family and friends together: “The fondest memories are made when gathered around the table.” She looks forward to working one-on-one with Cookery customers to share her experience and knowledge of cuisine to your next gathering.
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