Expert Interview Series: Gwen Pratesi of On Traveling, Culinary Delights, and The Necessity Of Simple Pleasures

Gwen Pratesi is a nationally recognized and award-winning travel and food writer that informs, educates and entertains her readers on and in other magazines and outlets around the world. You've talked about being a latchkey kid, preparing meals for...

Travel and food

Gwen Pratesi is a nationally recognized and award-winning travel and food writer that informs, educates and entertains her readers on PratesiLiving.comand in other magazines and outlets around the world.

You've talked about being a latchkey kid, preparing meals for yourself and your mom when you were young. You continued to plan elaborate dinner parties, as you would grow up, for friends and family. Why are you so passionate about cooking for other people? What are some of your favorite things to come out of these gatherings?

I've always spent time in the kitchen as a way to relieve stress or channel my energy and thoughts into making something creative and delicious for others - and myself. Good food brings people together (around a table) and there's no better reward than having guests share a meal together for hours and tell you how much they've enjoyed your cooking and the company.

You've also talked about how you were discouraged from attending culinary school, as it was hard for women to become a chef in the '70s. First of all, do you regret that you never went down that road? And, secondly, how much has things changed for women in the culinary world since when you first got interested in cooking?

I regretted it at the time since I was unsure of the direction I wanted to go after being so focused on the desire to become a chef. I did go to college and found a career I enjoyed, but find it interesting that our business has now cycled back around to the culinary industry. After working with many chefs over the past 7 years, I do not regret the path I took. Today's restaurants are incredibly demanding and the work is very different from other industries and the days are long and stressful. I think I've ultimately ended up where I belong; traveling and cooking wonderful meals for family and friends while writing about it and sharing my passion.

To answer your question about women chefs, yes, there are many excellent women chefs doing great things in the kitchen now and their presence is everywhere in the culinary industry, including on television, online, and in cookbooks and magazines, so things have definitely changed since the late 1970s.

Your husband Roger was diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer, in the first few years you were married. You again took comfort in cooking, during those hard times. How did the uncertainty of the future inform these dinners and gatherings? How can the little things help, in hard and dark times?

Roger was diagnosed with colon cancer that had metastasized to the lung. There's no question it was a lot to deal with. Planning dinner parties and cooking for friends was helpful for both of us. Roger enjoyed spending time at a home we had in the North Carolina mountains and playing golf with his friends and it was a great place to entertain. We believe that sharing good times with those friends played a large role in his recovery. He believes that a positive attitude is the most important part of getting through anything, especially a disease like cancer. Continuing to cook, entertain and be with friends, stay active, and focus on what was good rather than was wrong, we think, was one of the important differences in the healing process and getting through cancer. So many people diagnosed with cancer immediately become fearful and resigned to a bad outcome. Roger never did. It was always about dealing with it and looking forward to each new day and to the time it would no longer be in our life.

During one of Roger's breaks from chemo, you were able to sneak away for a quick trip to Europe. Where did you go? What were some of your favorite experiences of that trip? Also, how do you feel that seeing new sights, remaining lively and active, affected your husband's recovery?

We took a 2-week trip in 2005 from Paris, France to Siena, Italy and it was spectacular. I originally planned for part of the trip to be in Switzerland, but incredibly, it was the same time that Hurricane Katrina happened in New Orleans and the towns in Switzerland where we scheduled to go were also flooded and the rail lines were out to do landslides. I remember watching all the devastating news from both New Orleans and Europe on television, and at the last minute, altered our travel plans.

During the new itinerary, we visited Paris, Strasbourg, Avignon, the South of France, Florence, and Siena and smaller towns along the way. We traveled by both train and car. Seeing the city of Paris at night from the top of the Eiffel Tower was pretty spectacular, but I also fell in love with Strasbourg, and marveled at the beautiful city of Siena and the stunning mosaic floor in the Duomo. I think this trip was great for both of us and Roger did well until the last few days when he caught a flu bug in Siena. Any time you can travel and experience the world, especially when going through an illness, it's uplifting and inspiring and good for the soul. I think it also keeps you alive in spirit, even though it may be physically exhausting at times, and that is very important when dealing with cancer.

In October of 2009, around the time was being founded, you and your husband flew to the south of France. What was it like, visiting France, after having wanted to go to school there? Did it feel that you had "arrived", somehow, or that things had come full circle? How did that trip to France influence your culinary passion?

We flew to Nice and stayed three nights prior to a cruise and divided our time between the hillside town of Vence and Eze, overlooking the Mediterranean. Those beautiful destinations and the places we visited in that region along with the scenery were breathtaking. Since it was the second trip to France, I would say that the first time we traveled there in 2005 had more of a feeling of "coming full circle", but all of the trips to France have influenced my culinary passion and French cuisine is still my favorite to prepare and eat. I love the simplicity of the ingredients along with the fine-tuned methods and techniques that create wonderful and timeless dishes, such as Coq au Vin and Sole Meunière.

What were a few of your favorite meals that you had, while you were in France? Can you recommend a few ways where Americans can find authentic French ingredients in the States, especially without breaking the bank?

The two dishes mentioned above, Coq au Vin and Sole Meunière are two of my favorite French dishes and I love to order them in France, especially in a classic French bistro. During our last trip to Paris, we had a wonderful meal at La Regalade Saint-Honore. The food was beautifully presented and so flavorful and we enjoyed chatting with an interesting couple next to us at dinner. Two of the things we crave and are worth traveling to France for are the French baguettes and dairy products, such as their butter and yogurt. There really is nothing else like it.

The good news about most of the traditional French dishes is that they are made with basic and easy to find ingredients. Some of them are more time-consuming to prepare because flavors are layered in, such as with Coq au Vin, but the preparation becomes as much enjoyment as the final dish. We always buy the best ingredients we can source. The manner in which an animal is raised and harvested or the way vegetables are grown will have an impact on the product produced and therefore, on the dish you prepare.

Of course, purchasing better ingredients can be more expensive, but in the end it's worth it. Better tasting and healthier food is more satisfying and nourishing and you tend to eat less of it, so the cost almost works out to be the same, if you think about it. If you encounter an unusual ingredient or a unique pan that's required to make a French recipe or another dish, you can order a lot of items online and avoid chasing all over town to find it. And if you want to make your own French bread at home (and this is the closest thing to what we've had in France), teach yourself to make authentic French bread with a Passion for Bread, a book by French Master Baker Lionel Vatinet of Cary, NC. You'll be addicted.

When you started in 2009, you didn't have much of a clear direction for the blog, apart from sharing your passion for cooking. How did you find your "voice", and your personal place in foodie culture? What have been a few of the major differences while writing about food and building your blog with a clear direction and focus?

I think you find your voice the more you write and build your niche and brand. We started as a food blog and then began interviewing farmers and chefs, which led to culinary travel, where we are today. Creating culinary tours with our small business, On The Road culinary adventures, and being a finalist in Journalism with the James Beard Awards were two things that helped get our name out there and created more opportunities. Now, we not only write for our own site, but have several large outlets where we are regular contributors and freelance for other publications and our work is around culinary travel and general travel stories, so the focus has migrated over the years from writing just about food to experiencing food and culture through travel.

You travel extensively, writing and researching Where have been a few of your favorite locations that you've visited, and why?

We love Quebec City. It's a short trip from Atlanta and feels very French and international without having to take a long-haul flight over the pond. There's so much to do there and the city is beautiful. The food is also fabulous and we love the change of seasons and how each season offers a different travel experience. Their winter carnivals are so much fun. Just be sure to prepare for the cold temperatures!

For other favorite destinations - I was enchanted by several ports of call on a recent Windstar cruise from Lisbon to Dublin. The coastal walled city of Saint-Malo in France was spectacular as was the Asturias region of Spain. We also enjoyed our travels through Ireland and Northern Ireland. The scenery is breathtaking and so different throughout various parts of the country. There are lovely manor homes or castles to stay in and the food at these higher end establishments was very sophisticated. Of course, the people were lovely and the Guinness is not-to-be-missed, especially the freshest pour of all at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.

How would you say visiting the locations where food is grown and produced influences the way you enjoy and appreciate food? What about the way you write about it?

As I mentioned earlier, the way animals are raised and harvested and the methods that are used to farm vegetables and produce, have everything to do with the taste of the product. That in turn, will impact the food you cook. Taste celery grown by conventional methods and then compare that to organically grown celery - there is no comparison in taste. If you were to feed a child celery for the first time and they ate the bitter regular celery, they'd probably spit it out, never eat celery again, and rightfully so. I believe that a lot of people don't like certain foods because they haven't had a decent version of it. If I get very fresh locally caught fish, it's wonderful, but if you buy farm-raised fish imported from some foreign country that has been sitting on ice in the grocery, it's uneatable, in my opinion.

The more you learn about your food, the more you realize that the ingredients in most supermarkets may look like the product you want, but oftentimes don't taste the way they should. So much food is modified to produce large amounts and to make shelf life longer, especially when shipping from overseas. Until you've tasted a ham traditionally smoked and cured in the Friuli region of Italy, or know the difference that the time of harvest and location where its grown impacts the heat of a pepper, or eaten a mango direct from a tree in Nevis (if you can get one away from the green monkeys), you won't understand how wonderful food can be. Also, one of the most important things we've learned is that there are numerous varieties of the products we buy at the grocery. Most of us buy garlic, but did you know there are dozens of different garlics, yet supermarkets sell all of it as "garlic" despite the fact that different varieties have different flavor. Some varieties can be very bitter and will ruin a dish, so you need to taste your ingredients before adding them to your cooking. The best chefs understand this and that's why so many of their dishes taste different than many people make at home. It's easy to get passionate about ingredients because there is a significant difference and sometimes, the cost is not that much more, especially when you don't have waste because the food is so good and more satisfying.

With so much uncertainty and heaviness in the world, these last few years, why is it particularly important for people to take time out and appreciate their loved ones and their lives with simple pleasures and pleasant moments?

Recent research says that experiences are more satisfying than the things we own and we couldn't agree more. Take time to explore the world. Once you get a little older and start a family and have a career, life's commitments make it more difficult to spend the time and money to travel. Of course, that's why people enjoy traveling once they've retired and their children are older, but for many, their physical health may become a limiting factor.

When you're at home living the normal day-to-day life, cooking and entertaining are the best ways I know to appreciate the simple pleasures of life. Pull out a cookbook (I still prefer real books), select a few recipes, shop for great ingredients and good wine, and take up residence in your kitchen and create something wonderful. If you have young children or teenagers, teach them kitchen skills and how to create beautiful food. It can become a family tradition at a time when traditions seem to be lost, yet traditions are so critical to family life in that they last a lifetime. Invite family or friends over for an impromptu evening of excellent food and wine. The memories from a special evening creating great food for others, or with others, will be memorable.

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