Television cooking shows, with their globe-trotting superstar chefs, are no longer humble small-studio affairs. But there is one glamorous-in-its-own way program that gleefully bucks the trend. It is filmed in the cramped apartment kitchen in Jackson Heights, Queens, and airs on public access. Its star is a trim, sassy drag queen named Soraya Sobreidad who preaches the gospel of healthy Puerto Rican cuisine.
At a taping the other day for “Soraya Sobreidad’s ‘FIERCE’ Cooking Show,” Ms. Sobreidad, who had woken that morning as Jaime Montalvo Jr., 53, a loan specialist with a goatee and graying hair, strutted about the frame in high heels and zebra-striped jacket.
“This is the super sexy, super fabulous, and super desirable Soraya Sobreidad,” she said to the camera, brushing a stray strand of hair (black, the day’s wig color) away from her face. “Welcome to my kitchen. Welcome to my show.”
With that, the diva began demonstrating a recipe for gluten-free empanadas.
Actual viewership is unknown because neither Nielsen nor Time Warner Cable, the biggest provider of the city’s public-access channels, reports local ratings. But the show, which began online in 2008, is available in more than a million households via Queens Public Television, which began broadcasting it 14 months ago, and Manhattan Neighborhood Network, which picked it up in December. Mr. Montalvo proudly points to the more than 96,000 views the show’s Youtube videos have racked up and says he receives fan mail every week.
To Soraya’s fans, the show may be a campy good time, but Mr. Montalvo says that Soraya and her healthy cooking methods changed his life.
Growing up Puerto Rican, Mr. Montalvo says, meant a steady diet of rice and beans, fried steak, pernil and mayonnaise sandwiches, and flan. As a younger man he weighed 220 pounds.
When he was 30, diabetes started appearing in family members. Mr. Montalvo knew something had to change, but he did not want to end his affair with Puerto Rican cuisine. It was around then that he had a vision that called itself Soraya Sobreidad (the last name is a playful variant on the Spanish word for sobriety, sobriedad).
Soraya inspired Mr. Montalvo to quit smoking. She helped him develop a set of alternative ingredients in his cooking, substituting whole grains for white flour and turkey for beef, eliminating sugars, adding flaxseed meal to the masa-based dough for pasteles.
Mr. Montalvo lost 90 pounds. He did not start to fully embody Soraya and dress in drag, though, until 2008, when she gave him the idea to start the show. As a gay man, Mr. Montalvo said, it took him time to embrace “this feminine energy.”
Today, Mr.-Montalvo-as-Soraya seems entirely at home in front of the camera, an inexpensive Flip camcorder operated by his upstairs neighbor, Rebecca Ulloa.
Episodes are emphatically unscripted adventures in which he muses on the importance of “looking fierce” for your man, teaching recipes like “Soraya Sobreidad’s Papi Lickin’ Spicy Chicken Wings!” and “Diva Delicious Red and Sexy Beans!” while tossing wisecracks at Ms. Ulloa.
During a recent filming, Mr. Montalvo paused to berate Ms. Ulloa for talking too much and drawing attention away from Soraya. On the wall, a Felix the Cat clock wagged its tail. The apartment was filled with cheetah-skin printed carpets and pillows. “We’re going to stick to Soraya’s mission,” Mr. Montalvo said, “which is low fat, high fiber, and as healthy as possible.”
“God bless Betty Crocker,” he said, displaying a box of gluten-free Bisquick. Ms. Ulloa zoomed in. “Keep the focus on Soraya,” Mr. Montalvo snapped. Today’s empanadas would be made with turkey, Mr. Montalvo announced, with flaxseed meal added to the gluten-free flour to boost fiber content and applesauce filling in for oil and eggs.
Mr. Montalvo prepared the dough – yellow and pocked with flaxseeds – and started to knead.
“Honey,” he said to the camera. “When you’re a woman, and you have a man, or if you’re a woman and you’re partner is another women – doesn’t matter – you should look good all the time, honey. Right?”
“It’s hard,” interjected Ms. Ulluoa.
“I don’t want to hear it,” said Mr. Montalvo, who had spent the morning gluing on eyelashes, shaving, and slipping into tight leggings. “If anyone knows it’s hard, Soraya knows it’s hard, honey.”
The pan erupted in a sizzle as Mr. Montalvo dropped in the first empanada. “There’s a party going on in Soraya’s kitchen!” he cried. Soon the finished empanadas glistened on a plate. Grease marks were minimal. Mr. Montalvo tossed on bell peppers and blueberries and asked Ms. Ulloa to take the first bite. She gave him the camera.
“It’s hot now,” he cautioned as she bit in. “It’s hot like Soraya. Be careful.”
Ms. Ulloa enjoyed the patty. “There’s no difference,” she said. “I feel like I’m in Puerto Rico on the beach. Like I just bought this from …”
“Go ahead, keep going,” Mr. Montalvo urged.
“There’s no difference, Soraya,” Ms. Ulloa said again, with a full mouth.
“Keep flattering me,” Mr. Montalvo said. “I live for this.”
The Soraya Sobreidad show airs in Manhattan on the third Sunday of each month on MNN4. In Queens, it airs at least four times a month on QPTV, on channels 34, 79, and 56. It does not have a consistent slot, but viewers can consult their channel line up.