When Maricel Presilla came to the United States in 1970 from Cuba as a teenager, she had no idea that food would become her profession. Her rise to prominence in the world of food happened, she says, "organically." "Endlessly curious," she grew up surrounded by excellent cooks (although, she says, her mother wasn't one of them). An interest morphed into a full blown career, and with the publication of Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America and the Spanish Caribbean (Norton), Presilla has scored a major coup in the crowded cookbook category with her "pan-American table" featuring authentic recipes and her personal interpretations of traditional recipes. She calls Gran Cocina -- a comprehensive collection from all of the Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries in the Americas, starting, as she says in the book's introduction, at the Rio Grande -- her "first real cookbook," explaining that "I never started out to write a huge book, but I like to finish what I start."

Presilla knew Latin America and after traveling there extensively began to realize how diverse yet how similar the cultures of the different countries are to each other. "I started to look for threads. What is Latin America? I went at the question systematically. I looked at connections, staple plants, for example." She created categories before the recipes. She chose, she says, exemplary recipes for a particular technique. She worked on the book for over a year and a half but in reality, "it was a lifetime in the making."

Her mother was not a star in the kitchen, but Presilla's father was a great cook, as were her mother's sisters, and she spent a lot of time with them. In large families, she notes, preparations for meals involve a lot of people. "Making tamales, blood sausages, cracklings, pig -- it's almost a ritual." In June and July, Presilla remembers, land crabs would come." I would go with my father to catch them. I grew up cooking larger than life foods, essentially. That was the thing that attracted me, large meals, for holidays, for a lot of people."

Her memories revolved around food, and while living in New York City, where she settled in 1976, she spent the next dozen years living dual lives, pursuing a PhD in medieval Spanish history at New York University, and at the same time cooking professionally. Presilla got to know the Catalan chef Montse Guillen who had come to do a festival at NYU and Guillen introduced Presilla to the Peruvian chef Felipe Rojas, who became her mentor. Rojas was the chef-owner of The Ballroom, New York City's first upscale authentic tapas bar. Presilla was working on her dissertation when she went to meet him. "I was in the kitchen and he said, 'Well if you are staying here for more than ten minutes, then put on an apron,' and he let me cook -- I made my flan, which is in the book, and it sold, and that was it." Rojas told Presilla to come and train on her day off at the university, and she did. He took her to all the stations to learn everything in the restaurant and when he realized she could write, asked her to help him write his recipes.

Presilla saw herself as a researcher; she was enjoying food for pleasure, she was teaching. "I had a very busy life," she says. "I turned a hobby into a profession, methodically -- I learned about the restaurant business, and also went to cooking school to refine my skills. I took pastry. But I never thought it would be for anything besides my own pleasure." Then at The Ballroom, she was asked to talk to a reporter writing an article on Caribbean food. Presilla realized how much she knew about the history behind the food and ended up writing the recipes. "It only happens in America," she says. "Immediately after the article things began to happen -- I got deals, offers to consult. And my life changed. I worked for Campbell's, then I had a radio program, and I continued to work with food and got paid to do it. It was unbelievable." She was still working as a history professor, teaching at Rutgers. "I created courses on food and history. I made a conscious decision that I would do culinary history and food. Nothing was abrupt, I let life happen and I made choices based on what I liked the best. When I left the university, I was kind of sad because I loved teaching. But I realized with food I could teach also." Presilla began doing a lot of public speaking about food. "I was doing everything that I loved," she says. "My teaching, my research, my love for food; I really like people, all that came together and it's become a seamless exercise for me."

Presilla also paints and "loves design." Her father was an artist and a classmate's suggestion to do a children's book with her father's illustrations resulted in a Christmas book for children: Feliz Nochebuena, Feliz Navidad. A book on the Cuna Indians followed: Mola (blouses that depict the lives of the Cuna) and another on embroideries and food and festivals: Life Around the Lake. "Those were fun and effortless," she says. "And I got very involved at the same time with cacao, chocolate, which was very dear to me because my paternal family was cacao farmers." Her book on chocolate was published in 2000, The New Taste of Chocolate, (and updated in 2009) and according to Presilla, was the first chocolate book to discuss varieties of cacao and to include percentages in the recipes.

About Gran Cocina Latina, Presilla says, "I had a rich background that I brought to this book, a number of experiences. I treated the book almost as a log, it is a journey into food, and it had been a long time in the making. I opened restaurants in between, so it's not that I've been writing the book for 30 years but the book in a way mirrors my own life." Gran Cocina "had to represent my own evolving identity as a cook. There are recipes that are exactly what I learned. But there are other larger than life recipes that needed to be interpreted and made at home." Presilla adapted certain things like the recipe for yucca bread: "As a child in Cuba, I saw it made. You grate the yucca and squeeze the juices out of it. I was an eyewitness as a child, and I did the whole process as an adult. You use all kinds of primitive utensils to make the bread, it's like a gigantic tortilla. But I created a recipe using a food processor, a very simple recipe that you can do in your own kitchen. These were projects that took weeks to refine. The book was originally three times the size!" (Cocina weighs in at over 800 pages.) Presilla tells stories in the book, like the chapter on meat that waxes gloriously about roasting a whole pig- but while there are instructions for pit roasting she also gives a recipe for a leg of pork and suckling pig in the oven.

The recipes in Gran Cocina are from her restaurants. "You go to my restaurants," Presilla says, "and you eat this book. In Hoboken I have two restaurants (Zafra and Cucharamama) and one store. In the restaurants I'm everywhere, I can walk back and forth from one to the other."

Presilla says that what she loves about the restaurants is to create dishes that people like and come back to, "to create an environment for eating, so it's everything." Her restaurants have a lot of objects that she's collected from her trips to Latin America. She thinks of serving food in a way that involves all the senses.

This book, she claims, has been the organizing principle of her life. "I have basically created three businesses from this book — it is my bible. This book has been my university of food. I'm still learning." She credits her James Beard award to Gran Cocina and sees the book as "a new beginning that will bring new opportunities."

Gran Cocina has a link to a website. There will be a bibliography, continuously updated, a glossary, and what she think is the most exciting--sources. "I am terrified of books being outdated when sources no longer exist. The world is moving too quickly; this will have photography, links to purveyors. The website will be constantly updated. It will make the book alive."