Tasting The World In Her Kitchen
Posted on June 30, 2015
Gabriele Galimberti, ITALY
Photographer, Author of In Her Kitchen
There is a reason why comfort food is called, well, comfort food.
It is food that makes you comfortable at a time you need to be; arousing feelings of nostalgia, familiarity, your forgotten childhood — resulting in a symphony of warm and fuzzy emotions with every bite.
So, what happens when a person, who hardly ever left his Tuscan hometown and was very attached to the comforts of a traditional Italian household like a proper Italian boy, must leap outside his comfort zone to explore the world as a couchsurfer and (literally) live on and off the couches of total strangers for two years?
In Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti’s story, he goes to his Grandma Marissa and she makes him his favourite ravioli. (As a matter of fact, he would then go off to meet other grandmas in different cities, where they not only feed him, they would also teach him how to cook their own favourite recipes and help him create a best-selling cookbook.)
An excerpt from the Introduction of In Her Kitchen best sums up how the idea behind the book was born:
In her mind, anywhere further than thirty miles from home was a strange and foreign land. Then, finally, she asked me her first question. It was then that I realized what her true concern had been all along. “But, Bagonghi,” she said, “what are you going to eat? Who’s going to make food for you? […]”
I burst out laughing and, without pausing to think, I said, “Don’t worry, Nonna. The world is full of grandmothers who know how to cook well. Just like you, they’ve always cooked for their grandchildren with love. I promise you I’ll go and eat in their homes and, to prove to you how well they’ve treated me, I’ll bring you pictures of the dishes they make for me, and copies of their recipes, too.”
I had the privilege of catching Gabriele for a quick chat to discuss his book and his experiences as a professional nomad, couch surfer, and recipe collector.
So, what exactly is it that you do for a living?
I am mainly a photographer. I studied photography, and began my career as a photographer about 15 years ago as a commercial photographer. It was only a few years ago when I decided to make a transition and combine my love for photography and travel, through these projects.
When did you start travelling?
My love for travel began in 2007. Before this, I hardly ever left Italy. Maybe sometimes, I would visit other towns and cities with family, or on school trips but that was about it. In 2007, I finally traveled outside Italy to Texas, USA, and it was not even for work. It was for love. I fell in love with an American girl, and for about two years I would visit her. It was on these visits that my taste for travel and adventure was born. Our relationship ended but my love for travelling was just about to begin. After we broke up, I decided I wanted to continue travelling around the world, but I had to find a way to fund these trips and support myself.
With the work that you do, how do you pack and what do you usually bring along with you?
I have definitely learned to travel light and I learned this from experience. When I was new to working while travelling, I would pack quite heavily. After several years and several countries, I believe that, unless you are actually in the middle of nowhere (like on a desert in Africa, or out at sea), you can always find what you need in the places that you visit. These places will always have shops for food or supplies that you might need, and you can just buy these things when you need them there, instead of carrying so much things that you might not even need.
What equipment do you usually take with you?
While working on In Her Kitchen, I had with me:
1 camera (a Canon EOS 1)
1 lens (2470)
2 small speed lights
2 light bouncers and diffusers
And a 13” Macbook Pro
Let’s talk about In Her Kitchen and your experience while working on this project. I’m sure you are always asked if you had a favourite grandmother, or perhaps a favourite country, or recipe. Could you think of any that stood out or made quite a memorable impact?
Yes, it is very difficult to actually say there is one particular grandmother or one particular recipe that is my favourite. They are all very different, their stories are all different, and each one is special and significant and unique. But next to Italian food, Asian food would probably be the best for me. I do have to say that Italian food is the best in the world. (Laughs) But, yes, I do love Asia. I love the food, the flavours, the ingredients that are used. I particularly like Thai and Japanese cooking. In the book, I featured two recipes from the Philippines actually; one was of a coconut-milk soup in the beautiful island of El Nido, in Palawan. (Editor’s note: locally called Kinunot sa Pagi, the dish is made with stingray or local shark.) The grandmother prepared this soup with shark, caught on the island by local fishermen. She (the grandmother) showed me how to cook it from scratch in her kitchen. The soup was very delicious and the flavours were so interesting.
On the other hand, there were some recipes that I did not really like but were very memorable. There was a dish of bugs and caterpillars in Malawi. The grandmother was very sweet and cooked and prepared the dish well and it is probably enjoyed by many, but I honestly really couldn’t enjoy it. Another was a dish made of Iguana from Cayman Islands. It was cooked with beans and tomatoes, and it probably didn’t taste so bad, but I had watched the grandmother (a very nice and sweet old lady living in George Town) cook and prepare the dish from scratch, with the Iguana still fresh and warm on the table, and I just couldn’t seem to find it appetising.
How long did it take to work on this book?
I was working on another project actually. I was travelling all over the world for two years, to report for a magazine (La Repubblica) about my experiences while finding free accommodations and being hosted by strangers via the website, www.couchsurfing.com (now a widely popular global community for adventurers and travellers). Nearly all the grandmothers I had met and featured in the book are grandmothers of my hosts and contacts from Couchsurfing, and I was privileged to be have interviewed them during my stay in their respective countries. That’s about 60 countries and more than 60 grandmas (58 were featured in the book). So, 80% of the work was during my two years of travelling to report about Couchsurfing, and the other 20% was for another year after.
Could you describe your experience learning how to cook from all the grandmothers?
They treated me like their own grandson or nephew, especially when they learned about my inspiration for the book and that it was a tribute to my grandmother. Each of the grandmothers had welcomed me into their own homes, taught me from their own kitchens, and we would cook and eat what we cooked, for lunch or dinner, with their families. It was very nice and comforting.
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in your experiences of traveling the world with your lens?
Well, travelling comes with various challenges such as the small logistical or technical stuff that you eventually get used to or master. But there are a few things that I would consider challenging and sometimes still do try to deal with.
One would be learning to be (and stay) comfortable with loneliness. 90% of the time I travel alone and my trips are for very long periods at a time. Yes, I do meet a lot of people along the way, and through my work, I get to connect with them and reveal an intimate look into their lives. But I still set out and go through the journey and my work alone. It is different from my experience when I was working as a commercial photographer; I was constantly surrounded by people and had to work closely with a team. But, the rewards are very different, and I know this feeling of loneliness just comes with the entire experience and I just have to grow more comfortable with it.
Throughout my experiences of couch-surfing in several countries for a period of two years, I definitely learned to be more tolerant of people and differences, to adjust and adapt and not be so picky about certain things like food or where I sleep. When you do Couchsurfing, you live with different people in their homes that might be very different from what you know or are used to. And they are your hosts so you must learn how to adapt. Before I started travelling so much, I was rather picky about food (I had only really known and preferred Italian food, for example.)
Other things like language and communication differences were actually quite manageable. English was spoken or understood in almost all the places I visited so we managed to communicate and understand each other without much struggle.
What else did you learn while working on the book?
Well, for one, I did learn how to cook. (Laughs)
So, what do you usually like to cook?
I really enjoy cooking now, and especially letting my friends try and taste the different recipes I’ve learned from all over the world. It is considered exotic, and most of them enjoy the food I prepare and let them taste. Cooking for my family, on the other hand, is a bit more challenging. Especially for my grandmother. She has lived 80 years of her life without ever leaving Italy, so I understand the only food that she knows and likes is the food that we have back at home. Food here in Tuscany is very different from the exotic flavours I try to cook and let them try; it is mostly pasta and a lot of meat, like steak.
For food, what is Tuscany best known for?
Tuscany is known for very good olive oil and wine. I believe the best wine in Italy is found in Tuscany. It is also known for very good cheese, especially Pecorino (Pecorino Toscano).
What advice would you give to those who dream and aspire to travel the world, and particularly those who yearn to work while travelling, but somehow just can’t seem to make that “plunge” yet?
Perhaps the one thing I can say is to simply never give up. Just don’t give up trying. Yes, it is hard and will be hard. When I decided to shift from commercial photography and work on my photography while travelling, I had to really find a way to fund my travels and support myself and survive in the process. When I was starting out, I really had to build on my experience and my portfolio or none of the publications that I would approach wanted to invest in me — I had little experience to show them. So for two years, I had to invest in myself and building my professional experience and portfolio, which also meant investing a lot of money and a lot of time. Many times it would be very challenging, combining the challenges of traveling to unfamiliar places and being in uncomfortable situations, and encountering rejections. A lot of times I had thought about giving up, that maybe making a career out of traveling and photography was simply impossible. But I simply kept trying, and kept going. I love travel and photography that I said to myself I would make it work.
And here you are now. Everywhere.
So, what’s up next for you?
The next book to be released is actually the Couchsurfing Project, sometime in September. It was the original project and the one that started the others (In Her Kitchen and Toy Stories, another collection of intimate portraits around the world, this time on children and their relationship with their toys and the objects they surround themselves with.)
In this heart-warming book trailer, Gabriele proudly shows his Grandma Marisa what he has learned from his adventures around the world and cooks her signature ravioli dish. Enjoy.
In Her Kitchen was awarded “Cookbook of the Week” in the first week of January 2015 by Yahoo!, as well as the James Beard Award in April 2015. It is available online on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound. See more of Gabriele’s projects around the world on his website www.gabrielegalimberti.com.
Part of a series of interviews on the theme of FOOD