“I grew up in a household filled with women,” shares Omi Hopper, the makeup artist turned social media chef behind Cooking Con Omi on Instagram. You may have seen the Riverside rising star competing for judges including chef Gordon Ramsay on Next Level Chef this spring, but behind the numerous national television appearances and over 300K followers, Hopper traces the thread of her cooking origins to
summers spent in Puerto Rico.
“My grandmother was a true matriarch – she was always the life of the party, and in the kitchen, it was a party; it was so much love, so much joy, dancing, singing,” Hopper continues. “I would always be that little girl in the corner just watching and wanting to be a part of it, but I wasn’t old enough yet.”
Though Hopper came to Rhode Island when she was 11, homesick for Puerto Rico, she returned every summer until she was 18. There, she helped her grandmother on the farm and started learning and writing down her recipes. “That was my cooking course right there,” says Hopper, along with the meals her mother prepared. “There was always something fresh for us to enjoy at dinner. I love doing that for my boys now.”
Fast forward to March of 2020 – the beginning of many great pandemic-spurred culinary stories. For Hopper’s family, the difficult time was compounded by her husband recovering from a recent knee replacement surgery, leaving Hopper the only one working. With her makeup studio on pause, she explains, “I remember having $35 to my name. That is what I used to go food shopping and then I went back home, I turned on my phone, and I said ‘Hola, mi gente! Do you want to cook with me?’ And that was how I started.”
Loyal followers will already be familiar with Hopper’s spirited trademark intro to the cooking instruction videos – in Spanish and English (and plenty of singing and dancing) – she started posting as often as she could. “Launching my brand wasn’t a strategic move by any means. It was gradual and so organic. I didn’t really think it was going to be a pivot change completely,” Hopper says, but the testimonials she was hearing from viewers kept her on the path. “It became very purposeful very quickly. It became larger than me.”
Hopper enrolled in the REACH program for small businesses in spring of 2020 to reopen her makeup studio, but that also set her on a path to Warren food incubator Hope & Main, applying for and being awarded a business adaptation grant, and launching her own retail product: Mi Sofrito Fresquecito, a traditional cooking base inspired by her grandmother’s recipe.
As Cooking Con Omi grew, national networks took notice. Hopper heard from Studio Ramsay in August of 2022, only months after turning down an offer from a different network when the interview didn’t feel right. In Next Level Chef, however, Hopper appreciated how real the whole experience was, and that she didn’t have to compromise.
“A lot of times, I forgot that there were cameras. It’s the real deal,” Hopper shares, explaining that every contestant gets 40 minutes to cook and 30 seconds to grab their ingredients from a platform. “There’s no one yelling cut, no pausing.”
Hopper admits that preparing food for Michelin Star chefs was intimidating, but her tunnel vision on the goal kept her focused, along with keeping in mind how she wanted to show up: “Am I gonna be my true authentic self? Am I going to represent for my people, for my family? What do I want to be remembered for?” She also brought her own style of cooking to the competition. “I don’t measure, I don’t have any special techniques, I do everything by memory, and did it work to my advantage? I really hope so!”
Though the show is sure to expand her audience, Cooking Con Omi’s mission of authenticity and dedication to tradition remain the same. Along with making everyday dishes, Hopper is perhaps best known for special occasion meals, like banana leaf-wrapped pastelles for Christmas that take more than a day to make, and many helping hands. “That’s what earned me the respect of mi gente, because it’s recipes that have been long forgotten or recipes that you don’t eat every day because they’re very special,” says Hopper. “Throughout the process, I show our culture, and I show how beautiful our food can be.” Catch Next Level Chef streaming on Hulu. @cooking_con_omi
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