I recently met an enchanting woman named Gina Stipo at the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) Conference. She told me of her culinary adventure and the evolution of her career. Her story began with a trip to Italy. Well, let me ask Gina to tell you her story in her own words:
“About 10 years ago, I was driving down a two lane road through some of the most beautiful scenery in Tuscany. It was a road I knew well for I’d driven it every day over the past two years. It led from the small rural town where I live to the medieval city of Siena. Looking at the golden rays of the setting sun pouring over the green fields of winter wheat, I shook my head in disbelief, exclaiming out loud, “Holy Cow!! I’m actually living my dream.”
I live and work in Tuscany, teaching cooking classes, leading culinary and wine tours and sharing what I’ve learned about regional Italian cuisine with visitors from all over the world.
If I had gone to the library to consult a book on “How to Live and Work in Italy,” I’d still be sitting there, frozen under the avalanche of information on work permits and visas requirements. But I followed a path and, like Alice, fell down a hole into Wonderland.
My passion for good food, prepared with loving care and shared in a convivial setting, was instilled at an early age. I grew up in an Italian-American family on the east coast. We also lived in Verona, Italy for four years. I went to college; I worked in corporate America. The excellent salary I made went towards traveling, throwing dinner parties, eating in top restaurants and drinking fine wines. But it wasn’t enough.
When I was 36, I received a small inheritance from an aunt–enough to pursue a dream and change my life. I wasn’t in a serious relationship and I didn’t have kids. “If not now, when?,” I wondered.
I quit my job, sold my house, put my stuff in storage and took off to Italy for six months. After attending cooking school in Bologna, I traveled around Italy, watching the seasons change. I was blown away by the elegant simplicity of the food and how the dishes changed as the months went by. The cuisine of northern and central Italy was unlike anything I’d experienced in my southern Italian family upbringing.
I was fortunate enough to spend the last two months of my sojourn on a rural estate, Spannocchia, where I worked in the kitchen in exchange for room and board. Situated deep in the wooded hills south of Siena, it was my first exposure to Tuscan cuisine.
I loved the simplicity of the dishes: the strong flavors of rosemary and sage, the reliance on what was growing in the garden in the late fall, the celebration of harvest, wine, and new olive oil. I worked with their Tuscan cook to formulate her recipes in English.
When I returned to America, I started culinary school at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York. An internship with Odette Fada at San Domenico restaurant continued my education in regional Italian cuisine. I worked in restaurants, making $8 an hour. It was a pittance of what I’d made in my corporate job, but I was so much more fulfilled.
In the spring of 2000, I returned to Spannocchia for a visit. The owners, who by now were my friends, asked me to stay for the season. I jumped at the chance, planning to return to the “real world” at the end of the year.
Immersing myself in Tuscan culture and traditions, eager to learn as much as possible, I yearned to share my experiences with people who shared my passion. The visitors to the estate were the perfect foil. At the end of the year, rather than move back to the U.S., I stayed and found my own apartment in town.
Never before had anything felt so right. I learned that when you encounter road blocks, you don’t beat your head and work harder to overcome them; you look for the road that is wide open and sunny, and walk down it.
In 2001, I built a website, choosing the name, Ecco La Cucina, which means “here’s the kitchen.”
I applied for and received a visa and went through the bureaucratic nightmare of filing every year to renew my permit to stay. I am now a permanent resident.
What began as simple classes teaching pasta has grown into culinary workshops on Tuscan cuisine; week-long culinary tours throughout Italy; market visits and winery tours. My sister has become my partner in the U.S., and we make a great team.
By showing up, working hard, developing relationships and giving people value for their vacation dollars, I’ve built a solid reputation and a strong business. Life in a foreign country wasn’t always easy, but what I’ve learned is immeasurable.”
I keep saying to you, dear reader, ICDT–I Can Do That! If Gina can do it, so can you! But you must create your own adventure, your own path.