April 03 2016
It is said there are few things in life that are certain – death, taxes, a ubiquitous hatred of mosquitos – but none are as pleasurable as food. The production, preparation and consumption of food is one of the few truly universal human experiences. From her work with the United Nations World Food Program, to her work as a freelance photographer, to her role as Food and Drinks editor of Design*Sponge, Kristina Gill has been working with food in almost every way it can be worked with. We spoke to the culinary polymath on the occasion of her first cookbook, Tasting Rome, in which she and co author Katie Parla investigate the history of the eternal city through it’s dishes.
Name: Kristina Gill
Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee
Current residence: Rome, Italy
How do you take your coffee? I rarely drink coffee
In a few words, your style is: Still forming!
Congratulations on the new book, Tasting Rome, that comes out this month. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Thank you! When reading interviews with photographers and photo editors, you always hear about the value of the personal project. Tasting Rome started out as a personal project, quite unintentionally. Here in Rome, I spend a lot of time traveling in taxis for work, with an average trip time of 45 minutes. I got the idea of doing ‘surveys’ of the taxi drivers’ favorite dish to eat (most of whom are Roman, or have lived here over 40 years). Over two years I collected more than 100 different recipes – some were obviously just variations on a theme – and found that a good 75/80 percent of the recipes were traditionally Roman. From there I shaped the project into a proposal, which ultimately was for a cookbook about Roman food. The changing neighborhoods and people I saw while crossing town were my vision for the photography – a look at the real Rome (as opposed to the well-covered historic center that most people visit) to go with real Roman food. It was a book about Rome that hadn’t been produced.
Clarkson Potter, my publisher, is well known for beautifully photographed cookbooks and they wanted the photography to be the protagonist of this book. It was an honor to photograph Tasting Rome. My husband, a street photographer, assisted me with the location photography and for a lot of the food photography I worked with the most amazing team ever— Matt Armendariz and Adam C. Pearson of Shooter + Stylist, and their incredible team members, Lexi Smith and Hristina Misafaris. On the recipe side, it was fun for me to develop recipes even if over the course of development I tried so many versions of the recipes that for a while my husband and I hoped to never see that food again! My co-author, a local food tour guide and journalist provided the historical background and context for the book as well as recipes she gathered from her partner who is a chef here, other local chefs and bartenders she knows well. Together we’ve produced a book that covers Rome between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ that can be cooked from, enjoyed as reading material, or kept as a coffee table book. It is anything and everything you could want from a cookbook.
So, let’s back up a bit and talk about you. You’re a Stanford grad, have served in the U.S. Foreign Service and nowadays you work in Rome on issues of world food security. What are the particular food issues you work to address?
My specific portfolio focuses first and foremost on humanitarian food assistance, which is what is provided to people in emergencies such as sudden onset natural disasters like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or the earthquake in Nepal and in conflicts such as those ongoing in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Central African Republic, and South Sudan, to name only a few. In a nutshell, I make sure that my employer has the best information to make decisions on allocating money for assistance, that my employer’s policy priorities are met through the assistance provided. As a board member, there is also an oversight role.
You’re a native Nashvillian. Beyond the legendary spicy chicken, what’s food culture like there? Has it changed much since you moved away?
Legendary spicy chicken…it’s funny, Prince’s has been around forever, in the same tiny strip of stores that no tourist would have made the trek for ten years ago. The kitchen is bare. Just fryers and loaf upon loaf upon loaf upon loaf of white bread, and people preparing plates. All of a sudden, spicy chicken has become the ‘defining’ food for Nashville! (Prince’s is and remains the only spicy chicken for me, though.)
I wouldn’t say that there is a definable food culture, yet. However the food scene has changed tremendously and continues to change by leaps and bounds each year, partly because so many non-Nashvillians are moving in and driving demand and filling niches. I think some of this was driven by low rents, both residential and commercial. Talented people moved in and opened up places, something which would have been unthinkable in a bigger more developed city, like New York. There are independent restaurants opening all the time, so a chain restaurant is no longer the only option. I look for those restaurants which are trying to keep their ingredients as local or Southern as possible just to see what kind of ingenuity there is in town, as well as non-Western restaurants which have become mainstream. You can now find ramen, Italian-inspired cuisine, Mexican, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and more, all of decent quality. Unfortunately, the pizza on offer, even though baked in a wood-fired oven, just isn’t there yet! The dough falls very short. I think this speaks a bit to the food culture which is still nascent.
My favorite meal to eat when I’m home is a traditional southern breakfast with grits, bacon, eggs, and a biscuit. I make sure to get reservations for weekend brunch before my plane even hits the tarmac.
How did you learn photography? Do you think your perspective on food systems (as opposed to just hip food trends) translates to your visual representation of it?
I am self-taught, with some very formative time spent in the studio with photographer Matt Armendariz, and lots and lots of diagrams via email from Matt. I don’t think my perspective on food systems translates into my visual representation of studio food, but it definitely translates into all the other type of photography that I do outside of the studio. I’m interested in the whole story and context, not just one beautiful frame.
What do you do for Design*Sponge? How did you become friends with Grace Bonney?
I’m the food and drinks editor at Design*Sponge. I identify people for the column whose style of cooking I think would be well received by our readers, and I select the recipes, which are pitched for the column. I troubleshoot them and edit as necessary. When the person cannot provide photography, I shoot it for them. Grace and I met over email 8 or 9 years ago, as happens nowadays, and have become very good friends. She is like family to me, my wise younger sister! Whatever I’m going through, she’s already been through it and guides me to a safe landing.
Last fall you came through for us big time. I think you were the only photographer in all of Italy who was around last August, and you drove from Rome all the way to the Adriatic coast to coast to photograph Common Projects co-founder Flavio Girolami for Human Being Journal. How was the shoot?
I was really nervous – you never know what you’re in for when you go to make a portrait of someone, especially someone who is the co-founder of such an iconic fashion brand – will he give me time to work, will he be nice, will he hold it against me that I’m wearing some beat up $30 Nikes? It turned out to be my favorite shoot ever. Flavio was super collaborative, incredibly nice and down to earth, and we’re still in touch. He has been very supportive of my work on Tasting Rome and I threw away my Nikes for Common Projects. I have on a pair of white Achilles low right now.
What’s your big hope for 2016?
I’m really focused on making Tasting Rome a success right now, so my big hope is that we have a great book campaign and make our publisher proud. I should be dedicated to book promotion in one form or another for most of the year. Outside of that, my big hope is that I have more fun and see more places than I saw in 2015. I love to travel.•
Eat This: Vignarola
Kristina shares a recipe for a classic vegetable stew from her new cookbook, Tasting Rome.
artichoke, peas, fava, and lettuce stew
serves 4 to 6 as a starter or side dish
1½ cups shelled fava beans (from about 2 pounds in pods)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
3½ ounces Guanciale or pancetta, diced
2 garlic cloves, smashed
4 tender young globe artichokes, cleaned and quartered
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 sprigs fresh mint
½ cup dry white wine
Water or Vegetable Broth (recipe follows)
1½ cups fresh or frozen shelled peas (from about 2 pounds in pods)
4 spring onions or scallions (white parts only), thinly sliced
1 small head romaine lettuce, shredded crosswise into ½-inch strips (4 cups)
1½ tablespoons lemon juice (from ½ lemon; optional)
Step 01: Fill a medium bowl with ice and water. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil over high heat. Blanch the fava beans in the boiling water for 1 minute, in batches, if necessary, to avoid overcrowding. Drain and immediately plunge them into the ice water bath. Remove and discard the bitter skins by squeezing each fava bean gently between your fingers. Small fava beans can be left whole. Set aside.
Step 02: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over low heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the guanciale. Cook until the fat turns translucent, then add the garlic. Cook until just fragrant, then immediately drain the artichokes and add them to the pan along with a generous pinch of salt, pepper, and half the mint, stirring to coat.
Step 03: Increase the heat to high and add the wine. Simmer until the alcohol aroma dissipates, about a minute, then add enough water or broth to cover the artichokes halfway. Cook until the artichokes begin to soften, 10 to 12 minutes, then add the peas, fava beans, and spring onions. Season again with salt and pepper. Continue to cook until the peas are soft, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, adding more vegetable broth or water as needed to keep the vegetables in a bit of simmering liquid.
Step 04: Add the lettuce, stir to combine, and cook for 5 minutes more, or until all the components are fully cooked and tender. Remove the pot from the heat, season the stew with lemon juice, if desired, and garnish with the remaining mint. Serve warm or room temperature, or even the following day.
makes 1 quart
2 cups empty pea pods
4 artichoke stems
4 spring onions or scallions (green parts only)
Set aside the pea pods, artichoke stems, and the green stalks from the spring onions from the Vignarola. Place in a medium pot and add cold water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium heat, reduce the heat to maintain a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes, then drain. No need to season with salt or pepper.
Images reprinted from Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City. Copyright © 2016 by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill. Photographs copyright © 2016 by Kristina Gill. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.