Kitchen story: Mara Roche

Posted on September 1, 2022 by Sonoma Valley Sun


By Natasha Earl —

Founded in 1982 by Joseph and Genevieve Roche, the Roche Winery and Vineyards now flourishes under the ownership of the family’s second generation.  Mara Roche, nicknamed ’Aunt Momo,’ is the eldest of her siblings who help operate the winery. But it is Mara’s aptitude for cooking that stands out. It has not only enhanced her family’s business, but it has also led to a small business of her own.

Her passion emerged early on when she began to help her mother and grandmother cook their family’s meals. Once a teenager, Mara advanced to working in the winery’s kitchen, helping their French chef prepare small bites to accompany wine tastings.

“I will always see myself as a product of the wine industry because I am. But I also see myself as a product of the food industry because my mother wanted me to be,” said Mara. 

But Mara’s ascent into the culinary world wasn’t immediate. Mara’s mother, an avid cook herself, had long advocated for her daughter’s enrollment in culinary school. On the other hand, her father felt that a bachelor’s degree was critical to any subsequent career. In the end, Mara chose the academic route and was soon headed to Cal Poly Pomona University. 

Mara returned to Sonoma four years later, equipped with a journalism degree and an ambition to work at a local newspaper. But Mara’s dreams of becoming a journalist dissipated when she discovered that the newspaper industry wasn’t in the healthiest shape.

So, soon after her return to Sonoma, Mara began to work for the Roche Winery as a shipping coordinator. She worked her way up the ladder to Tasting Room Manager. By her mid-twenties, Mara had assumed a role previously held by her mother, the winery’s Culinary Director. 

“In high school, I really wanted to be a chef, and my mom knew that,” said Mara. “The only way she could communicate with me was through talking about food. Even up to her last days, we would always ask each other what we ate after going out. We would get into what we liked about the dishes, what was different, how they could’ve been better, or if they were just perfect. That was our little love language.” 

With her mother’s wishes close to her heart, Mara carved a new path for herself 20 years later, one where she continued helping out at the winery but simultaneously worked as her own boss. With help from her sister Carrie, the two opened Aunt Momo’s Catering in the fall of 2019. 

For the past year, Mara has worked out of the commercial kitchen at the Moose Lodge in Sonoma. Aunt Momo’s Catering operates primarily as a platter-delivery service; the two sisters deliver pre-prepared appetizer and dessert plates to customers’ homes for parties and large gatherings. 

Despite an accelerating business, Mara was forced to shut her doors when Covid hit. “I was in business for three months, and then, just like that, I was no longer in business,” she said with clear disappointment. 

But Mara’s close ties with her family and the Sonoma community helped her through many of the financial and emotional burdens brought on by the pandemic. When she could no longer experience the joy of cooking for others, she leaned on friends in her culinary circles who shared a similar sense of loss. 

“Like most people in the hospitality industry, I went on a really downward curve emotionally because I had just started this company, and then the state shut me down,” said Mara. “But helping my family grow the grapes got me through a lot of my stress. And I had a really great support group with a bunch of chefs here in town. Many of us went through our savings just trying to keep our businesses alive, so we all started texting and checking in on each other.” 

Although Mara was able to revive the company following the statewide shutdown, she now finds herself short of staff, a hurdle the entire industry is experiencing. Most of the day-to-day operations are carried out by herself and her sister alone. 

“Anybody who cooks professionally eventually wants to do that crazy thing called opening up a restaurant, but do I want to do that now? No,” says Mara. “I can barely handle the success of the catering company. Maybe if I had a staff of 20, I might think about it, but our staff only consists of two right now.”

At the same time, each sister seems to enjoy the other’s exclusive presence in the kitchen. In fact, their opposing personalities help to keep each other in check: “I’m the dreamer. I’m the one who says oh, look at this great idea! We’re gonna put this on our menu! Carrie’s the one who looks at the numbers and says no,” Mara says with a chuckle. 

While Mara does most of the talking, Carrie often interjects with simple but confident remarks, adding in forgotten details or cutting her sister short when she believes Mara to be “rambling.” 

Watching the pair work side by side in their kitchen, this same dynamic is on display. While Carrie stands quietly by the sink, concentrating on her task at hand, Mara can hardly stand still as she hurries from one task to another, all the while crafting detailed responses to my questions. 

Behind the scenes of her catering business, Mara runs a food blog called Aunt Momo’s. She first got the idea when several winery club members began asking her for recipes. 

Perhaps more than simply a way to share recipes with the public, Mara uses her blog to pass on anecdotes of her childhood, using recipes as a platform to connect food enthusiasts between families and across generations.

Over the years, Mara has relied on friends and family to help ensure her success, whether that be her friends’ emotional support, her sister’s willingness to collaborate, or her mother’s unwavering confidence in her dreams.

Mara has worked tirelessly to feed her community by cooking for local nonprofit events and food banks. During the 2017 wildfires, she provided food to her friends, many of whom endured the destruction of their own kitchens and homes. 

“I realized that when you grow up in Sonoma as a kid, you really hate the fact that everybody knows who you are. I mean everybody. And then, I lived in these big cities during college, and I realized that I missed this town. I missed how this town takes care of and watches out for everybody. I think that’s why I’m going to stay here.”


Natasha Earl, a second-year journalism student at Northwestern University, is The Sun’s summer intern. 

3 thoughts on “Kitchen story: Mara Roche

  1. What a wonderful article. Both Mara and Carrie are two very special ladies and loved by many of us.
    Thank you for covering their business and sharing such a great story!

  2. It’s a pleasure to read a story about a female entrepreneur who openly shares the emotional, not just the financial, toll of making it through challenges like the pandemic. Well written!

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