In Search of Food Heroes

Food Heroes: 16 Culinary Artisans Preserving Tradition, by Georgia Pellegrini (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

I first heard of Georgia Pellegrini on Twitter. Her name appeared in a retweet from someone I was following and out of curiosity I clicked on her link, found her tweets interesting, and began to follow her.

Pellegrini was in the midst of working on a book, travelling about the country and meeting a veriety of diverse small food producers. Periodically she would blog or tweet about her adventures. One week she’d be in Seattle with Jon Rowley learning about oysters and seafood, the next somewhere in New York tasting cheese, and as her journey progressed I became more intrigued. It was the first time I had been able track an author while they worked on developing a book.

In due time, her book was published, and I received a review copy in the mail. We had corresponded a few times and I felt that rather than doing the standard book review (of which there are plenty of glowing ones), I’d see if she would answer a few questions in an online Q&A interview.

To give you some background: Georgia Pellegrini is a graduate of French Culinary Institute in New York and has worked as a line cook at Gramercy Tavern and the amazing Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Food Heroes is a series of chapters that detail the lives and work of sixteen small food producers or culinary artisans, in the USA but also in Europe, who are making a difference to the way we eat and think about our food. They are not celebrities but hard-working passionate women and men. It is an ode to “the sausage makers, mushroom hunters, cheese makers and chance takers,” she says, “who make food a craft.”

EAT: Why do we need food heroes?

Georgia Pellegrini: They remind us of those basic human instincts that we all have but, in some cases, have lost touch with. In a frenetic world where we increasingly seek satisfaction at the drive-thru, they quietly march forward with the antidote to our skewed priorities.

EAT: You went all over the country (and beyond) visiting food heroes — to a cheese maker in New York, a seed saver in Kentucky, to a potato breeder in Ireland. Was there anything in particular that surprised you?

GP: I was surprised that many of the people I spent time with once had a different career, and then one day decided that they wanted something more. They made the decision that they wanted to raise sheep instead of using their PhD in statistics; or to make really good olive oil as a way of healing after living life in the fast lane. I think that people who make these choices, in spite of the risk and uncertainty, are inspiring and very interesting to be around.

EAT: Did you find there was a common thread that joined or linked your heroes across national boundaries and language?

GP: There was a deep passion for, and satisfaction with, what they were doing. Their enthusiasm was infectious and they had a certain kind of generosity that made them want to take me under their wing and teach me everything they could. And send me off with crates of figs and bags of potatoes too.

EAT: These days the word “artisan” is being used to describe everything from frozen pizza to hand-made salumi makers in Italy. There is debate over the definition of word in the food sector – what does the term “artisan” mean to you?

GP: It’s true, there are catch phrases that companies have latched on to because they see a kind of pendulum swing in our food culture and see that people are now demanding higher quality food. I think people are smart enough to tell between what is just marketing and what is the real thing. For me, an artisan is someone who chooses to do the hard work required to live off the best their hands can produce.

EAT: What’s the biggest misconception that North Americans have about food?

GP: People get caught up in a lot of food “faddism.” Lately, they seem to be terrified of fat and carbohydrates. We become extreme eaters and take things out of our diet completely, when humans were actually meant to consume a great variety of foods. I believe fat is good, especially when consumed from wild animals. Animal fat contains long-chain fatty acids necessary for brain development. Intramuscular saturated fat, the marbling that we pursue in modern feedlot agriculture, is what is clearly unhealthy. Good food and good eating is about moderation and whole ingredients.

EAT: Did researching the book make you reevaluate your priorities?

GP: A change in priorities is actually what caused me to write the book. I was working in finance after college because it was the easiest path to take, but I was very unhappy. After a bit of soul searching I took a leap of faith and enrolled in culinary school. I went on to work in farm to table restaurants in New York and France and discovered I was much more interested in the people who were coming in with their goods than I was in peeling grapes in the kitchen. And so, on my days off I would spend time with these people, go foraging in the woods with them, or visit them on their farms. I realized that we had a similar story. Many of them had made a choice to change their priorities and do the work they felt most passionate about – not because it made them the most money, but because it was what made them happy. The great poetic justice of it all was that, while I was in France doing all of this, Lehman Brothers, the company I had worked for, collapsed. I lost the little stock I had, and I thought to myself, what if I had stayed to make more money even though I was miserable? I would have lost it all. It was a sign to me that I had gotten my priorities straight.

EAT: Which is more important: buying locally made or grown foods or organic foods?

GP: Buying locally produced foods, or even better, ones you have produced yourself, is more important. The organic stamp from the USDA has lost its meaning. The cost and requirements are not realistic for many small producers. There are some small producers who have managed to become certified organic and are selling wonderful things, but many of the people in my book had made the choice not to put themselves through it and had clear reasons why that made perfect sense. The government has distorted regulations when it comes to food.

EAT: Do you believe hunting has a rightful place in our modern society?

GP: Yes. Hunting and gathering, when done ethically, are the last natural and instinctive interplay between humans, the land, and animals. Hunting is also about conservation—a way to help animal populations that have overrun their carrying capacity as we eliminate their habitat. Hunting is an act involving all of the senses. It is part of the natural cycle of life, humans eat animals, animals eat animals and plants, plants feed from the dirt, and we turn to dirt. I think that is the part people have a hard time with—where there is the flow of life there is also the flow of death, and they have to acknowledge their own mortality.

EAT: Do you have a set of food rules you try to follow?

GP: I try to eat foods with a simple ingredient profile; and I try to cook simple dishes where the pure ingredients are allowed to speak for themselves. The number of ingredients that go into a dish at a restaurant or into a product in the grocery store has increased dramatically in recent history. Aside from the health implications, you don’t really know what you’re eating, and too many flavors can mask each other. I think our early ancestors had it right, even our grandmothers did.

EAT: Do you have a favorite food right now that you are obsessed with?

GP: Latest food fads never make it on my radar, but since writing Food Heroes I’ve been more aware of heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables and have been seeking them out. The idea that there are 180 varieties of potatoes that I’ve never tasted fascinates me. Or the experience of eating a truly good tomato like the one I did when I wrote about Bill Best in Kentucky is satisfying to me. So I suppose I’m obsessed with finding good flavor in fruits and vegetables that have lost their luster to commercial production.

EAT: You are traveling extensively. Is this to promote your book or are you working on a new project? Where have you been lately and whom have you met?

GP: It’s true; I seem to be spending most of my time on the road these days. It started with my book tour and transitioned into the research for my next book “Girl Hunter,” where I take people out over field and stream in search of the main course and then teach them how to cook it. It’s one step beyond Food Heroes, where I roll up my sleeves and get to the heart of my ingredients myself and teach people how to become self-sufficient eaters. I’ve been to west Texas on the border of Mexico hunting for Javelina, and to an estate in the British countryside on a traditional driven bird hunt, and just about everywhere in between. I have met all kinds of characters that lead very different lives, but what unites them is their love of hunting their own food.

EAT: What’s the one message you’d like to get across with Food Heroes?

GP: My goal with this book is to inspire people and take them on a journey outside the confines of cubicle life. It is also to encourage them to step off the grid, even if just once in a while, to get back in touch with their natural human roots. Whether its baking their own bread, infusing their own oils, starting a compost pile, growing potatoes in a garbage bag, or learning how to make a really good pie. I think these are some of the most satisfying things a human can do in the frenetic pace of modern times.

EAT: If you could choose four dining companions (besides your family), who would they be and why?

GP: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

EAT: Where does your love of cooking come from?

GP: I grew up on the same land my great-grandfather lived on. He called it Tulipwood and I’ve always felt a deep connection to the place. My great-aunt could name every plant growing there and I spent a lot of time outside interacting with the land around me. That instilled my love for simple ingredients and simple food. There was also an Italian woman who took care of me, she was like a grandmother, and as a child I would go to her house and sit at the end of her kitchen table and watch her cook. Every Sunday her entire family would sit together and eat for several hours. They still do and I often go back to visit.


Food Heroes: 16 Culinary Artisans Preserving Tradition, by Georgia Pellegrini (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Available in stores everywhere and on Amazon.

Visit Georgia Pellegrini’s Website:

Comments are closed.