Gabriella Garajo is a Sicilian independent cook and baker from Palermo, a former manager at Villa Tasca – where she hosted illustrious Manolo Blahnik – a suggestive 16th-century hunting lodge with the most emblematic gardens of Sicilian Romanticism – where Goethe loved to spend his time and where Wagner composed the “Parsifal” in 1881. Gabriella also worked with Fabrizia Lanza at Case Vecchie before opening her own cooking studio, with recipes often drawn from grandma’s cookbooks.
Gabriella is an expert of all food things in Palermo – the stalls of Ballarò, Capo and Vucciria markets, and the monastery of Saint Catherine of Alexandria are her favorites spots where she reveals the city’s most ancestral foodways to travelers and professionals like Adam Sachs, Juliana Lopez May and Howie Kahn.
This is an extract from a short interview I had with Gabriella in the last days.
Livio: Please tell us about your visitors and client base?
Gabriella: My guests are mostly international travelers, with a deep interest in learning about Sicily’s food and wine traditions. They are curious individuals that I enjoy guiding through the city markets, to my estate in the country, cooking, and baking with me while listening to my family stories.
L: When did you see things changing after the pandemic of Covid-19?
G: It was mid-February and I was on vacation abroad with my son Ottavio. A few days off to recharge and get ready for the season about to begin and that would (normally) keep me busy until December, no-stop. With the spreading of the news about the pandemic, the first cancellation arrived before I could even realize it. It was bad. Months and months of work torn apart in a matter of days. And the bleeding did not stop. Everyone I was expecting this spring canceled, week after week.
L: What has changed in your day-to-day activity?
G: From the moment I landed in Palermo it was clear how serious things were. With my family, we decided to take shelter in our country house of Camporeale, just outside Palermo, the same place where I was supposed to host my guests in spring and summer. In the peaceful countryside, I started experimenting with new dishes and new techniques, all for my guests. I never stopped and when I did I could not believe the tragedy that was affecting me, and many of my friends, who like me, live on human relations and connections.
L: How long can you stay in business in this situation?
G: Unfortunately not much, I am a small business owner, I regularly pay taxes and I need to work. This is not only for my economics. It is so much the love for my job that being unable to work is wearing me out, day by day. I have been studying and improving, but the government’s support goes on and off and we are facing tough times. Taxes will still have to be paid. How, if I can’t work, this I don’t know.
L: What’s your wish for the years to come?
G: I am trying to be confident and hoping for an imminent recovery when flight connections between Sicily and the rest of the world will be open again. People are afraid, but everyone wants to go back to living. My client’s safety will be my primary concern, that’s for sure.
L: What have you learned from this experience?
G: I invested all of myself in my passion for cooking and I learned never to take anything for granted. I am expecting a new wave of “competition” – unfair and unprofessional – but I will continue to work with dignity and respect for my guests and my value propositions. My heart and soul will always be with me in everything I do. This is my significance and why I exist.
L: Are you expecting help from the state?
G: I never believed in the help from the state. I don’t expect anything. I can only hope for a miracle, but without illusions. I better go bake a Tiramisù… you are all welcome to join me ;-))).
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