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Maria Pia: The Italian chef and the healing art of food

Dec 19th, 2008 | By | Category: Featured Article, News

IF you could ever blink and miss something, it’s Maria Pia’s famous Wellington trattoria.

Tucked inside an orange, vine-covered house in Mulgrave St, it’s cosy, the kind of place you’d take your partner for a quiet night out if you could afford it. 

The floors, tables and chairs are wooden and so is the bar, and there are terracotta crockery and Italian goods on display for purchase. So is her recipe book. Surprising, considering that Maria Pia doesn’t follow recipes. But I don’t know that yet, of course.

I’m early for our first interview…or Maria Pia’s late. When she arrives, I’m reminded of my first host mother in Italy: her skin is clear, her face is fresh and she hasn’t nearly as many wrinkles a woman of her age should. She is bosomy and cuddly yet mobile and fit and her soapy smell strikes me as distinctly Italian.

We look at pictures of her most recent trip to her home town, Lecce. It’s plain to see she’s passionate about her land and its traditions.

By the end of the interview I know I’ll need to see Maria Pia again. She is full of information, and even though it’s normal for the interviewee to do all the talking, I feel like she’s done more talking than anyone I’ve spoken to so far. Either way, Maria (or Pia, as her husband calls her) has to go. I tell her I’ll be in touch.

Our second meeting is at Khandallah Village. Am I early again or is she late? Is there such a thing as “Italian time”? Would it be racist if there was?

It’s a beautiful day and Maria Pia appears, walking towards me. She wears a beige linen shirt, comfortable pants. We walk up the hill to her house and as we get closer, she starts to pick “weeds” from the banks. She tells me what she’s picking: puha and fennel (amongst others) for us to eat with lunch, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice.

She shows me the different types of leaves and gets me to point them out and pick them, too. This is fun (if only I could remember them all now). Not only are these wild plants good for you, but they’re free as well.

At her house, Maria Pia (I never did ask what to call her and as much as I’d like to, I’m reluctant to use “Pia” without permission) has dough resting, ready to be baked into flat bread for us to eat with the soup she is going to prepare for lunch. She talks me through everything, from blanching the greens to making Gomazio – a seasoning of sesame seeds, toasted and crushed with a sprinkling of rock salt. 

We sit at her kitchen table, drenched in sun, with her younger daughter, Dara. Everything on the table is made from scratch and we drink tea brewed from tree leaves Maria Pia picked on our way to the house. “Mum, you and your creations,” says Dara, born in Italy, but with a totally kiwi accent.

Maria Pia is a prominent chef in Wellington. She bowed out from the kitchen of her Thorndon restaurant earlier this year to focus on a new venture – Maria Pia’s Creative Ecofoods.

She wants to show people how to shop for local seasonal products within a budget and how to organise meals in order to cut down on unnecessary consumption of takeaways. Cooking classes for groups and private lessons will be offered on a means-based pricing scheme.

Maria Pia’s Trattoria opened in 2002 and is run by her husband, Richard Klein. Prior to the restaurant they owned a deli in Khandallah. Her move from “celebrity” chef to philanthropist reminds me of Jamie Oliver’s, but I daren’t make that comparison to her face. She calls chefs the “prostitutes of food” and says celebrity chefs are not truly sharing their knowledge.

She is incredibly frank, talking openly about her family and the impact her career in New Zealand has had on them. She sheds tears as she recounts her daughters’ past troubles and again when she recalls her first few years as a stay at home mother.

“Of course, we had economical problems [but] I was super happy to do it. It was the best part of my life.”

Maria Pia’s two girls are doing fine now, but the experience of losing touch with her family for the sake of a job has stuck with her.

She likens the modern family home to a hotel and says there is too much time spent out of the house, which is now a place people spend their nights and not much else,

It is Maria Pia’s passion for the environment and lament for families’ loss of connection through food that inspired her to start Ecofoods.

“You’ve lost the sense of tradition, the practical day-to-day knowledge which is to create food for yourself,” she says. “The education of real life is broken. Family is no more a family, it is sad to say.”

Her aim is to teach people the importance of preparing their own food from seasonal, local, sustainable ingredients. “You don’t have to cook fancy complicated masterpieces, just good food from fresh ingredients.”

While a lot of us adapt our lives to accommodate principles of sustainability, Maria Pia’s passion for organic produce and environmentally friendliness is a way of life.

Growing up in the very south of Italy, buying food from the source and preparing meals from scratch was, and is, the norm. “The sense of waste still doesn’t touch this place.”

She will operate week-long tours of Lecce in May and June next year to explore its culture, cuisine and traditions.

Maria Pia compares cooking to writing – as a creative process, not something to be followed from a book. She doesn’t use scales or measuring cups, nor does she follow recipes. She says the feeling of cooking is important. “If you don’t use your hands how do you know what you’re doing?”

Maria Pia wants to transfer her knowledge of food in a way that’s different to how one might learn about it at school or on a course. After spending time with her, she wants people to say “I learnt something today.”

I learnt that I don’t need a recipe to make bread and that a heavy-bottomed pan works for cooking like jackets and coats work for people in the winter.

But if I’m going to be as honest as she is, it’s not what Maria Pia taught me in the kitchen that I will remember most about her. The way she invited me into her home and shared some of her family’s most intimate affairs is something I will never forget, and something I will always admire.

TOP: Making flat bread with zuccini, pumpkin and red onion.
MIDDLE: Grinding sesame seeds for gomazio.
BOTTOM: Maria Pia picking puha from her garden.

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is a Whitireia Journalism student who wants to use her writing skills for good, not evil. Miyuki likes: food, Seinfeld and talkback radio. She dislikes: not having time to read, killing insects and the news.
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