Do not take no for an answer when it comes to your well-being. No matter what diagnosis or expectancy you are given, it is ultimately up to you, not the doctors, to decide whether and how you will live with your illness.
As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Riolo.
As an award — winning, best-selling, author, chef, television personality, and educator, Amy Riolo is one of the world’s foremost authorities on culinary culture. She is known for sharing history, culture, and nutrition through global cuisine as well as simplifying recipes for the home cook. A graduate of Cornell University, Amy is considered a culinary thought leader who enjoys changing the way we think about food and the people who create it. Amy is a food historian, culinary anthropologist and Mediterranean Diet specialist who makes frequent appearances on numerous television and radio programs both in the United States and abroad, including Fox TV, ABC, CBS, NBC, The Hallmark Channel, Nile TV, The Travel Channel, Martha Stewart Living Radio, and Abu Dhabi Television. She also created and appeared weekly in cooking videos entitled “Culture of Cuisine” which air on nationally syndicated news shows on 28 different channels across the United States, totaling a reach of over 300 million people. One of her videos reached a record of four million hits.
Amy is the brand ambassador for the Pizza University and Culinary Arts Center and Ristorante d’Amore in Capri, Italy. In 2019 she launched her private label EVOO, pesto, and vinegar as part of the Amy Riolo Selections Italian imports collection. She is a Chef/Instructor for the Casa Italiana Language School in Washington, DC. as well as Italian Sensory Experience, a company which she leads Eno gastronomic tours in Italy with as well as Indigo Gazelle Tours in Morocco and Greece. Her work has appeared in numerous print media including USA Today, Cooking Light magazine, The Washington Post, CNN.com, The Wall Street Journal, Parade Magazine, Gulf News, The Jerusalem Post Magazine, Popular Anthropology Magazine, Ambassador, The Examiner, The UAE National, as well as hundreds of other national and international newspapers and magazines.
As a respected culinary diplomat, Amy has created menus, culinary ceremonies, and educational seminars for diplomats, international chefs, and world leaders, earning her the title “The Cook to the Kings” by a Cairo newspaper in 2008. She speaks English, Italian, French, Spanish, conversational Arabic, and is studying Greek. Amy’s gastronomic diplomacy events include the “Exploring Italy’s Influence on Cuisine and Culture’ in July 2015 which was sponsored by the International Visitors Center of Los Angeles and the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce West. In September 2015, she presented “Culinary Diplomacy: Building Bridges through Global Cuisine” for the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy. Amy also chairs the Global Culinary Initiative program for Les Dames d’Escoffier. She is also the author of a noted culinary/cultural blog known for promoting little known facts about global cuisine and the people who create them. Many of Amy’s books, recipes, and podcasts are used by universities and corporations to promote cultural pluralism. Amy has worked with museum curators and events coordinators to create culturally appropriate receptions and culinary components to exhibits. In one of her favorite media interviews, Amy was asked by CNN.com to create a fantasy wedding meal for Prince William.
Amy is frequently asked to lecture and give demonstrations on The Mediterranean Diet, culinary diplomacy, diabetes-friendly eating, and cuisine and culture at medical conferences, book fairs, universities, culinary symposiums, museums, embassies, and fundraisers on over three different continents, and five states in the USA. Last year her live audiences alone totaled 18,350 people. With the addition of podcasts, her popularity and viewership has grown immensely.
For more information on Amy Riolo and to view television appearances, visit her website, amyriolo.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Yes — I grew up in an Italian-American family in Jamestown, New York. We moved to Maryland when I was in middle school and I went back to New York State for college to attend Cornell. I then worked in DC for a while before moving to Rome, Italy. I came back to the DC area and became legally disabled in 2004 and I was pretty much bedridden until 2007 when I got a clear bill of health and began my second career in the culinary world.
Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you became disabled or became ill?
Yes, I had stage 3 Lyme Disease which affects your central nervous system. I had suffered for many years — honestly, since childhood. My parents always tried to get me the best medical care, but I was consistently misdiagnosed. Later I learned this is common with Lyme Disease because it manifests itself differently in different people. I suffered with chronic pain, stiffness, migraines, and many other symptoms my whole life, and I just learned how to deal with it and live my life around it, but in 2004 I had over 50 medical symptoms, and I couldn’t function anymore.
I was finally diagnosed correctly by an amazing doctor named Dr. Norton Fishman. I was taking IV’s, antibiotics, multiple nerve and pain medications, plus supplements, but they weren’t enough. We added in supplemental treatments such as chiropractic care, neuro-biofeedback, mind-body therapy, and more. Each day it was a major struggle just to get out of bed — sometimes it took 3 hours — and I used to have temporary paralysis spells that would come out of nowhere and stop me in my tracks.
What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?
Honestly, I tried everything that I could in addition to everything I mentioned above, I also took supplements, prayed, meditated, and hoped for the best, but the odds were not good. Someone in my therapy group was in stage 4, and he passed away. I believed that was where I was headed. The medical community said that the best I could hope for was to be asymptomatic but that the illness would always show up in my blood work and could show up again at any time.
I wanted to keep going but I couldn’t so I just prayed for relief. I did what the doctor(s) told me and hoped that relief would come, even though I didn’t know how. A mental shift occurred when my doctor recommended that I saw Mind/Body Therapist Kathleen Ammalee Rogers. At first I was reluctant to go to see her, because I felt that my mind was healthy and anyone who was experiencing what I was physically had the right to be upset. Dr. Fishman reassured me that she could help me deal with my symptoms so I gave it a try.
I have always been a persistent person, and I knew that there was no magic cure or “fast track” to normalcy, so I tried everything I could. When I stepped into Kathleen’s office I had a great feeling, and I knew after one session that she would help me feel better. What I didn’t know was how much, or that she would change the entire course of my life, help me achieve dreams that I didn’t even know that I had, and empower me to live in a different way.
Each week, Kathleen helped me clear away a different physical symptom that had been disabling me for years. I was amazed as symptoms that no doctors could treat could be cleared out of my body. Each week, she led me through guided visualizations and gave me meditations, assignments, and verbal affirmations to complete. Within a few months I was feeling so much better that I was convinced that we can change our lives with our thoughts and that positive visions do really create positive outcomes. So I resolved to continue this treatment in order to be unstoppable.
After about a year into my treatments with Kathleen, I was doing much better, but still not able to work or live the life that I wanted. She told me to go home and think about what I would do if I was not sick — if there was nothing stopping me. For the next week, I asked myself that question over and over again. The only two answers I ever got were “cook” and “write.” That might sound perfectly normal for an average person, but for someone too physically sick to feed themselves (I used to have hallucinations when I would hold a fork to my mouth), and too mentally disturbed to write ( I had lost the ability to read and organize my thoughts), cooking and writing may as well have been the most difficult tasks on the planet.
When I told her about my revelations the next week, Kathleen urged me to imagine myself well and doing those things as if I was living in a dream world. She told me not to mention or think about my diagnosis, and only to act and feel as if I was already a successful cook and writer. To make a very long story short, two years later my Lyme Disease test results came back negative and I embarked upon a new career as a food writer. Since this was a new career for me, I had to start from scratch and build myself up.
Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability or illness ?
I am now an award-winning best-selling author of 9 books (with many more on the way). I have my own line of Amy Riolo Selections Italian culinary products, am a world renown chef, Mediterranean lifestyle ambassador, cuisine and culture expert, and TV host. I lead culinary tours to Italy, Greece, and Morocco and work and travel extensively in the Mediterranean region. I just finished shooting a pilot for my own television show.
I was awarded the Wise Women 2015 award from The National Organization of Italian American Women and the Milton F. Clogg Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Culinary Arts.
As a respected culinary diplomat, I have created menus, culinary ceremonies, and educational seminars for diplomats, international chefs, and world leaders, and earned the title “The Cook to the Kings” by a Cairo newspaper in 2008. That year I was asked by CNN.com to create a fantasy wedding meal for Prince William. Basically everything in my bio that appears online happened after I was diagnosed and healed myself from what is believed to be an “incurable” or “chronic” illness.
What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?
- Do not take no for an answer when it comes to your well-being. No matter what diagnosis or expectancy you are given, it is ultimately up to you, not the doctors, to decide whether and how you will live with your illness.
- Never give up. Hope and help come out of the most desperate places so always keep the faith.
- Envision yourself happy and healthy as much as possible or at least comfortable because it helps.
- Do not let your illness define you. Don’t talk about it with people if you don’t have to — don’t use the diagnosis name or give power to your symptoms.
- Affirm over and over to yourself “I am happy, healthy, and free” no matter how you feel.
- Adopt the mentality that the illness might be good for you. There is a famous Rumi quote that says “the wound is where the light enters,” and I believe this whole heartedly. Illnesses are just our bodies speaking to us and asking for our attention. When they get the attention they deserve, and we learn the emotional or psychological lesson we need to learn, they can heal for good.
- Give thanks for your illness and make peace with it. I know it sounds crazy, but this is a crucial step to heal. When I first got better, I was furious that I had spent so many years being sick, and it actually prevented me from moving forward. When I sat back and reviewed my life, however, I realized that if it had not been for the illness I would never have been able to embark upon the career and work which are my true life’s purpose. So I became grateful and never had to look back again.
- Go easy on yourself and do and think things which give you “ease.” The word disease is often spelled dis-ease in healing communities to emphasize the important role that ease has in our wellness. Surround yourself with what and whom you love as much as possible. Sounds, scents, tastes, textures, and sights that give you joy will help your health overall.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
Yes, definitely, my medical team consisted of Dr. Norton Fishman, Kathleen Ammalee Rogers, Dr. Beth Tedesco, Dr. Mary Lee Esty. I am also thankful to the Divine for my destiny and all of the helpful friends, family, teachers, and inspiring people I have met along the way.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Yes, each of my books has a health slant which inspires people to use various ingredients or recipes for better health. I also give back in terms of my time, energy, and products to many organizations. I participate in several benefit events and presentations each month. I spend a great deal of my time supporting philanthropic efforts. I am a member of Cornell Club DC, Les Dames d’Escoffier (Global Culinary Initiative Chair), Slow Food DC, The National Organization of Italian American Women. I mentor culinary students, teach children’s cooking classes, and participate on panels for charity events. One of the highlights of my volunteering career was chairing the Baltimore Luxor Alexandria Sister City Committee which enabled me to obtain a grant to provide clean drinking water for a village outside of Luxor, Egypt.
Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with physical limitations” and why.
- People with physical limitations are not weak. They are often stronger in terms of emotional strength because they have had to deal with limitations in other areas.
- It is better to look at the person — and not their illness. Try talking about other things that bring them happiness instead of just what ails them.
- They do not want to be that way. A lot of people think that those with physical limitations discuss them for pity or for attention, but that is not the case. If you are a friend or family member show support, and change the subject to something positive if you can.
- Learn from their emotional or mental points of view. Most people who have physical limitations are more developed in other areas and you might learn something from them by exploring these.
- They do not need to be told what to “cut-out” of their life. So many people give well-meaning advice to people with illnesses. “If you’d just cut out sugar or wheat…etc.” But this is wrong on so many levels. If someone has any discomfort at all, our job is to help them feel better, not take away whatever gives them pleasure. I remember when I used to be misdiagnosed — someone gave me a book about how to live with fibromyalgia. It instructed readers to cut out ¼ of their life, how to make the bed differently, etc. It was the grimmest thing I ever read and made me want to give up. Instead of doing that, try to infuse fun new things or things that they already love into their world so that their quality of life will be better.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“Don’t get lost in your pain, know that one day your pain will become your cure.” ~ Rumi
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
Martha Stewart — obvious reasons. 🙂