Cristina Bowerman is a talented chef with a passion for travel and innovative cooking. After living in the United States she returned to her native Italy, keen on inspiring a new generation of female chefs and leading a fresh, modern era of Italian cooking. At ‘Glass Hostaria’ in Rome Cristina Bowerman earned a Michelin star for her creative plates that are rooted in Italian tradition and ‘contaminated’ with international flair.
You became a chef in a peculiar way. How come?
First I was fascinated by foreign languages. I studied five and am fluent in three: Italian, English, French; but I can speak a bit of Spanish and German. I was born and raised in a village in Puglia, Cerignola in the province of Foggia, and grew up in Bari. I went to law school because I wanted to have a college degree with a wide horizon, and so I studied international law.
“My goal was to learn to think and speak like an American, because that would open my mind.”
What happened next?
When I graduated in 1990, I went to work for a very well-known law firm for a couple of years. Working is part of who I am. But then I needed a break, so I went to the United States for a long trip, a month and a half by myself. I bought a round trip ticket, Rome – New York – San Francisco – Rome. I travelled and felt a kind of weird comfortable feeling in the way I approached the States, as if I had been living in America in another life. It felt right to leave Puglia and move on. My official excuse was an involvement with the University of San Francisco. I moved, first to Oakland and then San Francisco. My goal was to learn to think and speak like an American, because that would open my mind. I did all kinds of jobs. I wanted to learn how to live by myself. I think that to live by yourself is the ultimate resolution. For the first couple of years I didn’t really miss my country.
Then for ten years I got involved with design, and I discovered a creativity that I did not know was in me. I became a graphic designer and the company I was working for paid for my college, but I never graduated. After ten years in America I was living in Austin, Texas, and that is still my residence today. I liked it because somebody offered me a job there and I am a kind of nomad.
At what age did you start cooking?
I always cooked, since I was a kid. It is the ultimate freedom. In the kitchen you do what you want. I started to cook for friends as a hobby. I like cooking and went to the Cordon Bleu College in Austin. At the age of 32 I decided to change career. I put money aside and gave myself ten years. If I could make it, that would be great. After graduation I wanted to open my own restaurant in Austin, but I needed an edge to convince investors, so I went to Italy to learn how to make fresh pasta in a professional environment. After six months I was offered a job in Rome. I took it. I said, “Let’s try.” I ended up meeting other people and taking 50 percent in a company that managed a restaurant and a catering situation. The catering was so successful that the kitchen was not big enough. After three years we got a Michelin star. We started in 2006 and had the star in 2009 for the restaurant ‘Glass Hostaria’ in Trastevere. In 2011 we decided we wanted to target the medium part of the market, because ‘Glass’ is high end, so I wanted to make an approachable high end food. In 2006 I made a ‘panino’ in ‘Glass Hostaria’.
What is it?
A licorice panino with a foie gras escalope and a fake mango ketchup with rice chips. It is the way my cuisine should go. At ‘Glass Hostaria’ even though it’s a top restaurant there are no table cloths and it was the first restaurant in Italy to be like that. It was clear to me the direction that my cuisine should take.
“Mine is ‘contaminated cuisine’.”
What is your cuisine?
A way of expressing culture, social values, a way of being an entrepreneur. Mine is ‘contaminated cuisine’. It basically means that the main body is of course Italian, ‘contaminated’ by all my trips and my readings. I really do think that if you open arms, body and soul you can absorb the best of other people’s culture. When I see a pizza I see culture, mozzarella, the people who make it. I see the people picking the tomatoes. If you see that you have the power to diffuse culture.
What do you do?
‘Contaminated’ means that for example in my menu now I have tapioca, coconut, shrimp and radish as appetizer. Or I have ravioli stuffed with liquid 60 months aged parmesan cheese. Or for instance, in Israel, where I spent a few days for the International Week of Italian Cuisine organized by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I did ‘duck confit’, traditionally French, like a carpaccio marinated with exotic spices. And those things combined with Grana Padano and Castelmagno cheese, all into a risotto with berries.
Is your cuisine light?
Very light, because I use very little frying, long cooking, no fat – even for risotto. One of my main goals is risotto with no fat, no butter, no cheese, no oil. It’s overcooked rice that you think is creamy, and you can blend in tuberous roots like Jerusalem artichokes or celeriac, but no fat. Personally, cheese and vegetables are my taste. I could live on vegetables and cheese. In my cuisine I use a lot of olive oil. I have a bakery where I only use olive oil.
“Through food you penetrate minds.”
What about the sweets?
They are not really sweet. Right now I have a dessert made only with cannellini beans. In Israel I could not use any dairy, so we did a chocolate mousse with water and soya milk.
Do you have a special dish?
No. I don’t. My restaurant ‘Romeo’ allows me to have a wide variety of stuff. I have a bakery, a deli, a restaurant, a pizzeria called ‘Giulietta‘ next door, and ‘Frigo‘ is our ice cream place. This allows me to cover all kinds of stuff.
You experiment and you change, am I right?
Yes, a lot. For instance when I was in Jerusalem I tasted things that I had not tasted before in my entire life. One is sahlab, a drink made of rice flour.
Are you cooking yourself?
All the new recipes, I do myself. I am very present and I work every day at ‘Romeo’ and ‘Glass’. I move around Rome on my bike or walking.
Cuisine is more and more important today. How come?
Because it is not food, not cooking, but something else. Through food you penetrate minds. In Northern Europe, in Spain, food has changed the economy, the way people approach life. It has given us women a way to reach equality.
But there are many more men chefs?
Yes, it’s true, people imagine a chef as a man. When they find themselves in front of a woman they are surprised. But people are more exigent today. People go to the restaurant. Going out is in our regular habit. Good food ingredients are very important.
Is Rome a good place for a restaurant?
‘Romeo’ was created with the idea to also go elsewhere. The States will be the easiest way for me.
Are you looking to do that now?
I am looking for investors, but I have to consolidate the ‘Romeo’ concept first. I offer Italy: bakery, deli, restaurant, ice cream and pizza.
Your cuisine is essentially Italian isn’t it?
It is ‘Italian contaminated’. I can of course do traditional cuisine.
What about diet?
People are obsessed with diet because they don’t eat well, and they spend too much time on social media and they don’t move around. I walk a lot to keep in shape. You can go to ‘Romeo’ every day and have simple food. ‘Glass’ is more sophisticated.
Are you pleased with your life choice?
Yes, and I want to complete my project for my restaurant.
Do you consider Italian cooks very good nowadays?
Yes, we are in a shiny moment. I think of Carlo Cracco, Massimo Bottura, Mauro Uliassi, or Corrado Assenza…… they all express Italian culture through food.
Is the wine as good as the food?
Excellent wine, and excellent winemakers. I think of Arianna Occhipinti, who produces organic wine in Sicily, or Alessia Antinori’s organic wine in Tuscany and Lazio. Nadia Zenato produces Amarone in Veneto, and Elisabetta Foradori is producing Teroldego in Lombardy. All these and many others are very good examples.
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