I have many passions. Food is my main passion, but not my only one.
People say that if you do what you love, it doesn’t feel like work. That is true, but you must have a drive. What drives me to food? My creative side.
Eating fabulous food, in Italy, made with prime, simple, and high-quality ingredients, created a flavor “rolodex” from which I draw constantly. It is a gift to know what flavors go well together, but it also comes from trying so many different flavor profiles. It comes from having one’s mind and palate open and being willing to experiment. One gift I received from my mom’s DNA: I can smell a dish and tell what ingredients are in it. I can tell if tomato sauce has salt in it or not by just smelling it. I am very grateful for this talent, which has come very handy in my 29-year career in food service.
Probably, I would never have become a chef, or owned a restaurant, had I not left Naples for America. Why did I leave that complicated goddess of a city laying with her curves along one of the most beautiful bays in the world? To understand the reason, you must understand Southern Italian society and the chronic unemployment malaise we experience. Since the Middle Ages, you were born into your career. If your father was a butcher, you became one; the same went for the blacksmith, the village “doctor,” and so on. Anybody else had to find his/her way. Women, they just needed to find a husband to support them. This is still true in Naples, Italy. If your father is an attorney, you become one, too, and continue his legal firm legacy. Your path is already laid out for you. If your family owns a business, you have the choice to work there, and your employment is pretty much assured. The rest of us hunt for jobs. I tried a couple of careers before moving to America, but nothing fit me well, and I could understand that the ceiling was always going to be in my face. My parents were professionals, but did not own their own business, they always worked for another person. So, there was no legacy to fall into.
I would not have been able to shine and make my way as I did in America, had I stayed in Naples; or, perhaps, I didn’t even try. Honestly, it was so long ago. All I remember is that Naples felt like a tight dress I couldn’t take off fast enough.
Once in America, I tried getting into an office career, since I spoke four languages fluently. I found out the hard way that, where I was living, others got the jobs for which I was aiming. I was trying to belong in a foreign country, and I volunteered in different organizations trying to make friends and feel useful. After a few months in America, I was invited to join the foreign wives club at Camp Lejeune, and that is where I finally felt that all was not lost. The group met once a month with a potluck dinner cooked by each of us for us. We talked about our respective countries, and the women who had been in America the longest helped the “newbies” like me. The club was chaperoned by the base’s general wife, who happened to love Italian food and Milan. One day, she asked me if I would cook a whole meal for her and her family at her house. I honestly must give her credit for putting me on the career path on which I have been for the past 29 years.
Once I realized people enjoyed the authentic Italian food I was preparing for them, I decided to become professionally trained in the art of cooking. I attended culinary arts school, then finished up a bachelor’s degree in food service management, and I never regretted it. These degrees allowed me to elevate my career into teaching culinary arts and pushed me into pursuing a master’s degree. The first degree taught me the techniques of cooking, the second taught me the business side, while the master’s degree in liberal arts with a concentration in gastronomy allowed me to understand the reasons why we eat what we eat.
Teaching culinary arts was a blast, and it allowed me to impart my knowledge to others. There is no greater reward than that spark in a student’s eye!
I love cooking and creating new recipes. Opening my own restaurant and being able to use my recipes, my family’s recipes, and the traditional Neapolitan cuisine that is hundreds of years in the making (if not thousands) has been the culmination of a career dedicated to food.
Now that you know why I became a chef, stay tuned for more on how I entered the male-dominated world of Neapolitan pizza.