Cristina Catese is an Italian chef from Rome, living in Warsaw. Certified in Italian and international cuisine, she runs cooking workshops and cooperates with multiple restaurants in Poland creating menus and special events.
How did it happen that you came to Poland and why did you decide to stay?
About twenty years ago my boss in Rome sent me for three weeks to Paris where he was planning to open an office. I was supposed to see if I could live and work out there. I remember this like it was yesterday. It was July and I was wearing a long, green hippie dress, white panama hat and my favorite Chanel sandals which cost me a fortune. For the entire time it was pouring rain! It was raining so heavily I had to eventually throw out my beloved shoes. When I was back to Italy I told my boss – absolutely no! I cannot live in Paris, it’s cold and so gloomy! Few months went by and a decision was made at the company to open an office in Warsaw. This time everything was fixed and there was no trial period – I was coming to Poland to stay. I thought to myself – ‘I’ve never been to Poland, it will be a good challenge and interesting experience’. Besides, everyone had been saying how charming and fascinating Poland was. So I got on that plane. I vividly remember the moment the plane’s door opened in Warsaw and I experienced what’s it like to feel -28 degrees. Again I said – no! There was no way I was going to stay here. But three days later I met my future husband and that’s how it all started. As it happens, later on love came to an end but my career and attachment to Poland remained and now this is my second home.
20 years in Poland, no wonder your Polish is so good! It’s very impressive.
I still make a lot of mistakes but it’s because your language is really difficult. Polish people on the other hand have amazing talent for Italian! I see it a lot. Three months of learning and there you go – speaking Italian!
You come from such a majestic and romantic city. How is it for you to live here?
Warsaw is beautiful and entire Poland is such a beautiful country! I travel a lot for business and I experience this beauty all the time. I cooperate with multiple restaurants in Poland and run a lot of workshops. The more I travel, the more I love it here. Besides, Poles simply love Italians and this gives me such a wonderful feeling. People here can be distanced at first, but once you get to know them they are very open and fantastically cordial. With time, living here became easy also when it comes to Italian food. Before every time I was visiting home I was coming back with suitcase filled with Italian ingredients. Now everything you need for proper Italian cuisine is here. I don’t have family in Poland anymore – my son and his wife live in Cameroon. We all travel to Italy a lot and that’s where we usually meet. But I do have a lot of fantastic friends in Poland and a really great connection to my former mother-in-law.
You are very creative. Aside from being a chef, you paint, create collages and mosaics, sew, arrange decorations and even design toys.
Yes. And I think every chef carries this kind of creativity inside. That’s how it is in Italy. The preparation of meals itself is an artistic process and the composition of a plate – its esthetics, is so important! Cuisine combines the taste and the beauty. That is why Italian chefs are very often involved in art and fashion projects.
Italian cuisine is simple on the one hand and very meticulous on the other…
Exactly. It’s simple, but never obvious. We use small amounts of ingredients but they need to be of the best quality, always prepared and mixed with great attention and in the right proportions. And also – there is no one and only carbonara or lasagna. The recipes vary depending on the region of Italy and even though those differences may seem insignificant to someone inexperienced, they are very important in our culture. Nowadays chefs have a great responsibility to educate. Food in general became a serious matter also in the context of health and natural environment.
You teach Poles how to cook Italian. What are the most common mistakes that we make at cooking or in our general idea of Italian cuisine?
It’s something that happens actually everywhere. The first dish that comes to minds when talking about Italian cuisine is spaghetti a la bolognese, which is really funny because it’s something that only tourists eat. In Italy we don’t really eat that. The most popular is lasagna and next – hand-made tagliatelle or fettucine. Of course there is codified recipe for ragu from Bologna, but the truth is that ragu is prepared differently by every single family in Italy and every one of them will tell you that theirs is the real one.
It is hard to imagine preparing any Italian dish without olive oil. Is there any ingredient that you find essential in Polish cuisine?
I would say butter and cream. And it’s a good thing if you don’t use it to excess of course. Dairy products in Poland are fantastic. Polish milk for example is very high quality.
Do you cook Polish dishes? What are your favorites?
I love pierogi (especially with cabbage and mushrooms), paszteciki (the best with barszcz), sorrel soup and of course żurek, gołąbki, and a classic – kotlet schabowy with mizeria and mashed potatoes. Once a month I just have to go to bar mleczny for one of those. It’s like a ritual to me.
Italian women are known and admired around the world for their strong character, personality and temperament. What do you think about Polish women?
They are fantastic – beautiful, talented and very independent. Polish women mastered multitasking and are able to control a lot and handle a lot. They are very strong.