It was a pleasure spending the day with the KA team chatting about food, preparing fresh, local dishes and munching the afternoon away. Full interview below.
KA INTERVIEW – VOL. 5
1. How did you get into creating food as a profession?
I studied theatre in university and thought it would be my life-long career. My first job out of school was at a film production company and I fell head-over-heels in love with it. I was soon traveling across Europe and ultimately called Amsterdam home for 2 years. Its there where a world of food opened up to me like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The restaurants were thematic, the decor was bold, the food was innovative and the people were open to new flavors. It was a life changing experience and I somehow knew food would one day be my path. I then spent time in LA where it reinforced my passion. These 2 cities made me realize that food is more than simply eating. Theatrics can be involved in enhancing the dining experience and I wanted to create these types of moments.
2. You think of yourself a “food stylist”, tell us more.
Food is what I use to create my art. Like a painting or a piece of music, I want the presentation to stir an emotion. You may like it, you may not, but at least it got you thinking. How can you not look at a dinner party or cocktail as a piece of theatre? You have live performers presenting an experience in front of a live audience. We communicate in speech and use music, food and drink to enhance the experience. I offer a momentary suspension of disbelief and food styling is absolutely necessary to accomplish that.
3. Your dad: we love him, made pastry with your name on it (for the KA shoot) and he bakes with you (did we mention he is 84), how amazing is that!
My earliest memories involve Francesco and my late mother Yolanda cooking massive feasts for family and friends. These were no ordinary meals; suckling pigs adorned with palms twisted into crowns with bright apples and clementines crowding each platter. Yards of freshly made fettuccine bathing in bowls of various sauces. Seafood of every variety emerging like Neptune from the paella pan. My dad still bakes his own bread, rolls his own gnocchis, makes his own wine, grappa, cheese, salumis, pickled vegetables, jams. He still cultivates his hobby farm, which he’s had for 35 years, hunts mushrooms regularly and plays in a marching band. He’s a hunter, fisherman, cook, farmer, jeweler, saxophone player and artist in his own right. He survived one world war, a depression and immigration to 2 countries. At 84, he still plays his opera records, reads historical biographies and cooks for his best friend – the priest – once a week. They don’t make them like this anymore.
4. Does your Italian roots flavor your style of cooking?
Yes. I have Italian soffritto in my blood. However I also have Argentine influences as my parents lived in Burzaco for 17 years and my brother & sister were born in Bahia Blanca. Meats and soups are strongly influenced by the Argentine cooking styles. I grew up in a family where everyone cooks out of love, not necessity. We all have the same basic cooking foundation but each have their unique signature flavour. Although I wasn’t much of an eater as a child, I still appreciated the act of cooking. I loved the aromas wafting from the kitchen, the music playing in the background, the pots humming on the stove, the wine always close by. It all goes back to theatrics. Going to the farm or market was introduced to me very young. We knew our purveyors by name and visited them religiously. Our cold room was always stocked with fresh produce. In the summer we would offer bags of our own produce as gifts. It was not only a lesson in food but a lesson in relationships and appreciation.
5. When you were creating food for the KA shoot, you were stressing the importance of home grown ingredients right from your garden, why is that?
I know how much work goes into cultivating a garden. My in-laws have been working our urban garden for well over 30 years and it’s spectacular. The soil is rich and the crops are plentiful with so much color and beauty. I buy seeds from our local co-op and every year we introduce something new. Last spring it was black carrots. When you bite into a tomato that you planted, watered and picked, you can taste that effort. When I explain where the radishes, carrots, beets or beans came from and how they were patiently cared over all season to ensure a healthy harvest, people’s eyes widen and heads tilt ever so slightly. Who can’t appreciate eating chemical free produce? It’s so basic but foreign for many. I encourage people to shop at one of Montreal’s many farmers’ markets. I feel people ask far too much whether something is organic rather than asking if it’s local. Isn’t that a better question? And I still don’t understand why we’re so dependant on Chinese garlic. Quebec produces some of the most fragrant and flavorful garlic in the world and yet we choose to buy mesh bags of the lack-luster variety. This summer, go on over to the market and buy a big wreath of Quebec garlic and hang it in a cool, dry place. You will have local garlic all winter long.
6. Ok, if you told me I would love to eat or even look at raw onions I would tell you, that it wouldn’t happen. But I am now a full convert, how do you make even onions taste so good?
My family lives on a simple principle; Pane e Cipolla Campero. As long as we have love, bread and onions is all we need to survive. I let Vidalia and red onion slices marinade in olive oil and sea salt for about an hour. I then dress a rustic Italian loaf half with the onions and let the oil soak into the bread. The onions mellow but still pack the right amount of punch. Rip off a piece and enjoy with a full-bodied red. Or a nice cold beer.
7. Your personal style in fashion (full on gown and rain boots anyone!) is so free and exciting, does your personal style reflect in the way you cook?
My fashion and design style cannot be separated from my cooking or food style, they go hand in hand. I like bold contrasts and subtle complexities in both food & fashion and I never follow rules in the wardrobe or the kitchen. I go with what I like and how it makes me feel. I turn to classic films, Sofia Coppola, bookstores, my husband, furniture designers, thrift shops, nature and my own home for inspiration. I love mixing and matching styles from different eras. I adore everything deco and glam but have a soft spot for rustic and whimsy. I can go cheap and cheerful or haute couture. It all depends where I am. Right now I’m feeling edgy and hard. I grew up around a lot of rock music and biker Ts. I can be spotted wearing a Jack Daniels cutoff or a Stella McCartney dress. I gusti non si dicutono; tastes are not to be judged.
8. You do a lot of cooking for the movie productions here in Mtl., that must be so demanding. What is it like?
It all started with Academy Award winner Eiko Ishioka. The late Costume and Artistic Designer was in Montreal working on The Immortals. Her assistant and my dear friend was tasked with finding meals that would fit within very strict restrictions. I was called in to interview and soon I was cooking specialty meals for 32 crew-members a day. It’s a hectic run which usually lasts 3-5 months but I love the adrenaline rush. The day starts at 7 a.m. in my home kitchen. I put the kettle on and make my way down to the garden to ask what it has to offer. I fill my basket with a variety of tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, carrots, celery, peppers, zucchini, dill, parsley, chives, mint. By this time my assistant has arrived and starts the diligent washing process. It takes time to wash and prep all the vegetables and I’m very arduous about this task. I get started on soups, salads and mains. By 10:30 a.m. the main haul is done and then its time to work on the finishings – edible flowers, chopped herbs, seared lemons, roasted nuts. We use reusable BPA free plastic containers so that’s a lot of washing and drying. Figure 2 per person everyday. We then pack individual salads, dressings, soups, mains, breads and sides and print out the menu. By 11:45 a.m. it gets picked up and clean up continues. By 1 p.m. I start my sprint around town to stock up for the next day while returning calls from the morning. I’m back by 3 p.m. and get to work on catering proposals, menus and detailing for upcoming projects. I have supper with my husband around 8 p.m. and jump back on my computer to answer emails until midnight. And do it all over the next morning.
*The latest production was Mirror Mirror starring Julia Roberts.
9. Do you ever have down time?
I do. I try to balance my time but it’s hard. I find myself going full throttle for months then a dead stop. I’m forcing myself to appreciate the down time, reenergize and refocusing. I’m usually juggling at least 3 projects so I never stop the creative process.
10. What is the trend, new for weddings in 2012 is it heading more towards “real” food?
Real food is here to stay. People are more engaged in what they consume and they’re starting to demand better. I’m doing a lot of family style dinners at weddings this year. Large pewter platters with roasts and vegetables rolled out and served table-side. It’s quite an impression when your meal is being carved and plated right in front of you. I’m introducing more vegetable alternatives like Swiss chard and turnip. The asparagus is still a favorite but I think it needs to be shelved for the time being. I continue to incorporate a lot of local cheeses and charcuteries into my menus and I’m noticing my out of town couples seek that out more and more. I like to create a local experience on all my menus. After all, we do have some of the most talented food artisans in the world right here in this province.
11. What would be your most fun assignment, real or imagined?
Creating a fuss-free feast like my parents used to throw on our hobby farm with tons of family and friends. Jugs of house-made wine, cold beer and mint flavored water being sipped under the shade of the tall Maple tree. Long make shift tables topped with colored cloths, jars of hand picked wild flowers and mismatched plates. Opera or classical crackling through the cassette player. Kids playing tag and racing up and down the dirt road on hand me down bikes. An oak burning fire is prepared early morning to allow for perfect coals to receive the feast of assado, Argentine grilled meats. With great patience, the coals are raked and shoveled. Once a white layer of ash has covered the bed of hot coals, the parilla, cast-iron barbecue grate, is set directly over to welcome the succession of meats; short ribs, sausage, sweetbreads, churrasco, t-bones. The sides are simple fire-roasted potatoes, corn in their husks and sweet peppers. At least 3 different salads with vegetables still warm from the afternoon sun are juggled around the table. The procession goes on for hours with meats in constant rotation. As we wind down, enormous slices of cold, juicy watermelon are gobbled up by all. Once the dishes are washed in the outside sink with hand pumped water, trays of vanilla ice cream soaked in espresso coffee called Affogato is served to adults and children alike. Once the sun starts to set, we gather around the fire and roast marshmallows each taking turns to recount our day.
12. What’s next for Nicolina?
Creative direction. I’m doing more creative directing of menus, plate presentation and event design for restaurants, caterers and photo shoots. It’s been such an organic progression for my career to head this way. I feel I am coming full circle and I’m happy where I’ve landed.
13. Who is Nicolina?
I’m me. I never had that internal struggle to find myself, I always knew who I was. I live in my head a lot but I think its essential to have that level of focus to be able to dedicate so much to your art. I’m fortunate to have a husband, family and friends who understand that I need a lot of alone time to be able to do what I do.