Jose Antonio Ortega Bonet, founder of Sazon Goya, dies at 79

Jose Antonio Ortega Bonet, the founder of the Sazón Goya, died of lung cancer at his home in Coral Gables, Fla. Saturday morning. He was 79.

The creator of the "Sazón Goya" line of spice blends and seasonings, Ortega Bonet's products offered consumers an easy way to create unique Latin American dishes and came to exemplify the diversity of the region's cuisine. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1929, Ortega Bonet -- a.k.a. "Pepe" -- began his professional career working for a food distribution company, but soon left to start his own business, an automobile air conditioning firm.
"Though he was very young, he had a lot of creativity for business," his son Jose Antonio told The Miami Herald. "He founded the first automobile air-conditioning business in Cuba and soon had a broad clientele."

The business lasted until 1960, when Ortega Bonet moved from Cuba to Colombia. In 1963, while living in Puerto Rico, he created the company that later became Sazón Goya, a division of Goya foods. In 1976, he moved to southern Florida, where he continued to work with the New Jersey-based food company.

"He leaves behind an enormous legacy of love, effort, integrity and generosity," his son said.

Ortega Bonet can't be credited with the invention of spice blends; for decades, stores and spice merchants created common seasoning blends like chile powder and curry in order to simplify home cooking. Instead, Ortega Bonet's contribution lay in his ability to slightly increase the complexity -- as well as the individuality -- of the spices used in home cooking. While his standard flavor variety, Sazón-It!, offered a fairly generic Latin American flavor, the rest of his blends highlighted certain spices or ingredients, encouraging consumers to create flavorful meals that were personal and idiosyncratic. Thus, a Spanish cuisine fan might appreciate the saffron taste of Sazón with Azafrán, while a devotee of the flavors of tropical Latin America might be drawn to the bright flavor and color of Sazón with Coriander and Annatto.

In the grand scheme of things, Ortega Bonet's spice blends were not exactly revolutionary. However, by halving the distance between fully-prepared foods and cooking from scratch, Ortega offered a comfortable entrance point into the confusing world of gourmet Latin American cooking and helped open the door to the endless array of marinades, seasoning mixtures, and instant sauces that currently fill the rows of Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. In the process, he made Latin American cuisine accessible to a generation of cooks.

As Ortega Bonet's business grew, so did his generosity. An anonymous donor to numerous charities, he contributed to the Centro Mater Foundation, which provides care and education to underprivileged children and the League Against Cancer. In the process, he never forgot his Cuban heritage, donating money to the José Martí scholarships, which help underprivileged Hispanic students attend Florida universities.
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