“I would like to teach people how to nourish themselves. I know it sounds a little cliche, but most of my students honestly don’t know what to eat. In addition to the basics of choosing nutritious food, many people are very far removed from their senses. Intelligent doctors and lawyers will ask me “how do I know if there is enough salt in my food?” (While they are tasting it)! Our industrial food industry has put “experts” in charge of people’s palates, and therefore in charge of their bodies, health, and happiness. I would like to start a movement which teaches people how to listen to what their bodies need, and their senses crave so that they can take back the pleasure of eating again and be in control of their health. Once that is accomplished, I would like to transmit the joy and therapeutic benefits that cooking and baking can give. I would like to inspire people to really enjoy cooking, baking, and sharing food with others — so much so that it becomes an integral part of their life — the way that it is in the Mediterranean region.”
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.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What inspired you to become a chef?
Food was always a central part of my life. I grew up in an Italian-American family where cooking, baking, growing produce, and picking fruit made up the happiest of times. When I was a teenager, I was given the responsibility of cooking for my family and not too long after my mom was diagnosed with diabetes — so I had to make our food fit into her meal plan — and I wanted it to taste good at the same time, so that everyone could enjoy it. My dad and I used to watch National Geographic together, and that is what led me to pursue my interests in food history and anthropology. As an adult, it became clear that the only things I really wanted to do were cook and write, becoming a chef was the only way I could think of to fuse those two passions.
What has your journey been like since first stepping foot in a kitchen?
I guess it has been a homecoming of sorts, because that is where I feel the most comfortable. I have had the pleasure (and challenge) of working internationally, so even the professional kitchen which is not yours can be welcoming and I have had the good fortune of collaborating with many amazing kindred spirits around the globe. The kitchen allows you to teach and learn at the same time- which always inspires me. When I started, it was difficult for me to get work, both as an educator and a writer because everywhere I applied already had an “Italian chef”, so one day one of the editors at Cooking Light magazine dubbed me a “North African Specialist” because I had spent so much time in the region. I began focusing on that type of food, because no one else was doing it, that allowed me to grow professionally, and then I came back to the Mediterranean and regional Italian food which are second nature to me. Now I am comfortable in kitchens around the Mediterranean, Italy, and the entire Mediterranean region.
Do you have a specialty?
Yes, the Mediterranean Lifestyle — the cuisines that span from all of the countries that touch the Mediterranean Sea- from the South of France to Italy, Greece, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, etc….
What drew you to that type of food?
As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in an Italian-American family, and spent time living in Italy — so that is my “home cuisine” — my step grandmother was Greek — so I learned to cook and bake Greek food from her. As an adult I began spending a lot of time in Egypt and then went on to write Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Italian cookbooks. Nowadays, I like to promote our own home region of Italy (Calabria) and the notion of the ancient Magna Grecia and the entire Mediterranean in terms of both diet and lifestyle.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef?
There are many — one of them happened when I was doing restaurant consulting in Egypt. In the beginning of my time there, I was concerned that I might not be taken seriously because I am a woman. So I used to be overly direct and serious in giving direction to the staff. I swapped out the corn oil that they were using for high-phenolic extra-virgin olive oil. One day when I went into the kitchen I saw the chefs were storing it above the stove and I was concerned that the oil would be ruined. So I made a firm point that “the oil must be kept away from heat.” The next day I went in to work and found it in the refrigerator. I laughed so hard — and from that moment I learned to take myself a little less seriously.
What is your definition of success?
In the larger sense, I think it is to know that I am making a contribution or a difference to someone. Being able to travel, learn, and teach at the same time. Leading culinary tours allows me that pleasure. It gives me great satisfaction that people would spend their time and money to travel with me overseas.
What failures have you had along the way?
When I was publishing my second book, Nile Style: Egyptian Cuisine and Culture, my proposal was rejected 50 times! Many publishers felt I was too new an author to write about an unfamiliar cuisine.
How have they led you to success?
Yes. I just keep going and don’t give up unless I don’t believe or want something anymore. I also continued to grow my platform so that I would no longer be considered a novice author, and promoted Egyptian cuisine on social media and at cultural events to create interest that I could document. In the case of the book, the 51st publisher did publish it, the book went on to win the World Gourmand Award in Paris, was re-printed , and enabled me to present at the National Book Festival and The Library of Congress as well as many institutions and embassies in the US and Egypt.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Yes! Next week I will release a new book Creating a Cookbook: How to Write, Publish and Promote Your Culinary Philosophy — available on Amazon. I also am writing an expanded edition of my Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook with The American Diabetes Association which should be out next month. I am also about to lead 2 culinary tours to Italy this fall and am planning custom tours to Morocco and Greece in the Spring. I also have a new series of cooking classes which I’ll be teaching at the Pizza University & Culinary Arts Center and Casa Italiana in the DC area.
What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?
- Be sure that you like the environment you will be working in — work in a professional kitchen to make sure that the atmosphere and pace are right for you
- Being a chef isn’t about knowing it all — it’s about making the best with what you have and doing what it takes to get the job done — if flexibility isn’t your thing, this probably is not the right profession for you
- If restaurants aren’t your thing — nowadays there are more non-restaurant jobs available for chefs than ever — there’s private work, corporate work, media, communications, etc — so again, determine what kind of environment you thrive in and take it from there.
What is the key to creating the perfect dish?
I believe, like the Sufis and the Egyptians, that the “breath of a chef” meaning their soul, shines through their food. If you are not into what you’re making, or don’t feel like being there, it will show — if you are in a great place emotionally and energetically, your food will speak for itself. One of the things I enjoy most about cooking is that if you love to do it, you can enter the kitchen with a less than perfect mindset, then allow yourself to get lost in the process and the sensory experience of cooking with the food can actually help lift your mood. So, the most important key is mindset and emotions. After that I would say the quality of ingredients, then the technical skills of a chef married with the desire to please those you feed.
It is said that food is a common ground that brings people together. As someone who makes food for a living, what does this saying mean to you?
Of course it does. In my work, I have always focused on the history and culture of food as a means to introduce a new cuisine. Long before culinary diplomacy was a term coined by the State Dept., I began lecturing at embassies and cultural centers to explain how the foods of various countries shaped their cultures. I have also been invited by many state-sponsored International Visitors Centers to speak about various communities and their cuisine. I recently created a lecture called “From Palace to Street: Iraqi and Ethiopian Food and their Impact on World Cuisine” I use food as a means to draw parallels between cultures, but at an even more simple note, just to create a meal that you know your loved ones — family and friends will enjoy and remember is one of the most satisfying privileges on earth.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- That there is only 1 “box” for each type (ethnicity-wise) cuisine in the US — I know it sounds harsh, but it is true. When I started people didn’t want another Italian chef, so they didn’t hire me. They did not factor in the experience, language skills, or unique types of recipes I knew. They just assumed that all Italian chefs were the same and they already had one. I think that still happens a lot — in the cookbook world too. So, I tell people to not let their ethnicity be their only distinguishing factor — you could do Chinese food for example — but is your specialty dumplings, healing foods, from a certain region, vegetarian, etc.
- That there are other outlets to income than working in a restaurant — I would have entered the professional realm much earlier if I knew that you did not need to be a restaurant chef to be a chef.
- That cooking is a professional job. When I was growing up, all girls were expected to cook. It was a natural act, like breathing. I never knew that I had a special talent or passion until much later in life, when I met people outside of my family who did not. I thought cooking was “what girls did” and if someone had told me that it could be a career — and not just in restaurants — I would have done it much sooner.
- The importance of a good staff. I consider my team to be every bit as important, if not more, than my own ideas, skill, and talent. Without a good team it is impossible to tell your food story — no matter how great you are. Part of you greatness has to be in developing and fostering the best team possible.
- How fun and rewarding working overseas would be. When I used to tell people I was doing restaurant consulting in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, or about the type of lessons I do in Morocco — they are scared for me. They actually say “aren’t you scared…you are a woman?” But I have always been blessed to have really amazing people in my sphere. In the kitchen you have to prove yourself quickly, and cooks — regardless of language and culture- will usually appreciate someone who takes it upon themselves to travel around the globe to share their knowledge. I developed beautiful friendships and professional partnerships over the years.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would like to teach people how to nourish themselves. I know it sounds a little cliche, but most of my students honestly don’t know what to eat. In addition to the basics of choosing nutritious food, many people are very far removed from their senses. Intelligent doctors and lawyers will ask me “how do I know if there is enough salt in my food?” (While they are tasting it)! Our industrial food industry has put “experts” in charge of people’s palates, and therefore in charge of their bodies, health, and happiness. I would like to start a movement which teaches people how to listen to what their bodies need, and their senses crave so that they can take back the pleasure of eating again and be in control of their health. Once that is accomplished, I would like to transmit the joy and therapeutic benefits that cooking and baking can give. I would like to inspire people to really enjoy cooking, baking, and sharing food with others — so much so that it becomes an integral part of their life — the way that it is in the Mediterranean region.
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 with whom you would love to cook for and why?
It is an honor and a privilege for me to cook for others, and it would not give me more pleasure to cook for one human being over another. I am grateful for the clients and loved ones that I cook for on a regular basis. I have had the opportunity to cook for many world leaders, as well as the opportunity to create menus for them. I enjoy planning the menus of politically important and historical events because I believe that it allows me to “set the stage” for the discussions that follow.
Originally published at medium.com