Giovanna Eusebi reveals how to value food and make it a priceless bond in relationships.
Food evokes emotion. Ingredients are only a small part in the story of every plate, and a dish can transport you to a moment in time. At my saddest and most challenging moments food has been my greatest comfort.
My father inherited the Italian rituals of food and family. Food tied him to his heritage and eventually defined him literally and spiritually. Cooking was not just a meal; it was an event. As an accomplished cook, self-taught and a greedy reader of every cookbook, he educated me on the great chefs of the day: Elizabeth David, Franco Taruscio, John Tovey and the Roux Brothers.
His preparation was meticulous. Every carrot baton and diced onion was cut to mechanical precision.
His food was made with love; the flavours of a simple sugo were elevated to Michelin proportions. My father’s secret was using the very best ingredients. He taught me that great food takes time and preparation and those memories last longer than one meal. I can still smell the aromas of his sugo, which would get more and more intense as the day went on.
In later years, when I returned to take over the reins of our family deli, he never left my side. Our background music at the counter was Dean Martin, or occasionally his signature whistling. There were more customers in the kitchen than at the counter. My dad would sit on a wooden stool with a red leather covering, storytelling, and reminiscing.
Nestled on the stove between the giant pots of sugo would be a Moka pot. He loved people and people loved him. Saturdays were always busy, and we would not move from the counter, making coffees and cutting cheese and Parma Ham for our guests. His wit and one-liners were legendary. I remember one Halloween he was asked what he was dressing up as. Without lifting his head he replied ‘the invisible man’!
I would not change the last day with my dad for anything … We spent it in the back kitchen together. Strangely no one came into the shop that afternoon. Our last dialogue was uninterrupted for hours.
We spoke about family, and he reminded me, as he did every day, of how very proud he was of his children. I spoke of all the mistakes I had chalked up but in his ever-non-judgmental way he reassured me everything would be fine. My dad encouraged me to be bold, chase my dreams – he believed in me as only a parent can. He left at 5pm as he was going for a curry with my brothers, nephew and uncle. I hugged my dad for the very last time. His death from a heart attack that evening broke all our hearts.
The shop never felt the same for me again. I would look at the empty chair and still be startled by his absence. The music now brought a waterfall of memories and I longed to hear his whistling.
In such times faith is a great comfort and family is more important than ever. But I found to my surprise, food also took on a special significance …
In the shock, my friend had gone into the shop the day after my dad died and saved some of the food in the freezer and tidied up. Weeks later, while sorting the fridges, I came across a tub of my dad’s sugo. I sat on his chair and held it under my nose. It was literally my last spiritual meal made by my dad. He was a lovely man of quiet, deep faith. That sugo was his final gift to me, made with his love.
For my mother, food, faith and family were the greatest comforts in her life when she left Italy. Growing up on the land, good ingredients were abundant. Breakfast was fresh figs, grapes, and cactus fruit picked from the tree in her garden. If she wanted salad leaves, she stepped outside to cut chicory or dandelion greens.
Nature reminded her that no two days were the same and to take each day as it comes.
This became a mantra that became her religion when in her mid-thirties and then later in her early-fifties, cancer came knocking at the door.
Food was now the currency for her recovery. Her diet was mainly vegetables, fresh herbs and bone broth, and drinking the cooking liquor from boiled greens, chicken and sage. Nothing was wasted: stalks, stems, roots from veg and seeds dried and replanted. Peelings and coffee grains used to feed her plants.
To this day she abhors processed food. The ready prepared salad bags are, she exclaims, ‘full of pesticides,’ and the fruit is ‘pumped with chemicals’. According to my mum, if you have flour and water you have life. She is a genius at making a meal out of nothing.
Even after long working days, our meal was on the table, cooked from scratch. She insisted that we eat together as the table is where the family talk.
She has travelled a long way from her carefree days in Italy and her journey has taught her to value the simple things in life like health and family. For her, riches are measured in time spent with her children and grandchildren.
Food has nurtured my life. There is a fragility about food, you eat it in a moment and then it is gone; however, the memory stays with us for longer. A mother’s nurturing, a father’s love, a grandmother’s moment of shared happiness are forever embedded in all our hearts through each dish. Food brings us together and mealtime preparations should be one of inclusion, love, and nourishment.
More importantly, whom you are eating with should be treasured. Hospitality is about being the best human being you can possibly be. A table should welcome diversity and there are no outsiders. It is a place that should give you a sense of being in your best home, regardless of which house, restaurant, city, or country you are in. No one is an outsider as we all belong to one human family.
The philosophy that we teach our staff is that each guest who walks through our door deserves authenticity, generosity, and kindness. They arrive as a customer and leave as a friend.
Over the years, I have been privileged to witness the magic of everyday things.
Love stories unfold at tables before my eyes, and I observe multiple permutations of what love can be.
I think of the elderly gentleman, who after 50 years of marriage, still holds his wife’s hand intently between courses. Every meal together for them is savoured like the first. Although Alzheimer’s is eroding his memory, these moments at the table with his wife assure me that this memory will always be in both of their hearts.
The moments when our restaurant can provide a sanctuary is perhaps the greatest privilege: the man battling a difficult illness, for whom these ordinary moments at a table with his family become extraordinary. We look after them not because our livelihoods depend on it, but out of genuine warmth and to shine a bright light, even momentarily into a time of darkness.
Food, faith and family are sacred. Food is humanity’s simplest creation. A powerful symbol of God’s love on all tables on all four corners of the globe. It knows no borders uniting humanity, regardless of culture, denomination, or country.
Now … it’s time for dinner.
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