Chefs / Interviews

Checking In with Christina Pirello of Christina Cooks

You may remember Christina Pirello from her longtime PBS cooking show, Christina Cooks. The popular food show focused on the message of wellness and healthy eating before it was trendy. It went on hiatus six years ago but new shows are now available on WHYY. Check here for air times.

I reached out to Christina to check-in and ask a few questions to see what she’s been up to during these pandemic times, what’s she’s cooking and eating, and what she’s most looking forward to when this is all over.

Philly Grub: So, what is Christina Cooks doing while staying at home right now? I noticed you’ve taken to writing quite a bit on your website and doing some Instagram LIVE videos. How is that going?

Christina Pirello: The mission of Christina Cooks is to help people understand the impact of food on their wellness. That’s why we do classes and seminars; it’s why I teach and do tv. The people who follow me are very engaged, loyal, and loving. They seem like incredible, kind, and compassionate people (for the most part).

The cooking videos and the Instagram LIVE sessions are my way of still connecting with people, still teaching them about healthy cooking and showing them how easy it is to make delicious, plant-based food at home from simple ingredients. If I am completely honest, all the writing I am doing is for me as much as it is for the people who read it. I have always found writing to be cathartic so this is my outlet as much as me letting them know that they are not alone in how they feel.

We are all feeling the pinch of the stay at home order. The good news is that my little community (as I call them) is so engaged and vocal about what I’m doing with video and writing so I would say that it’s not my normal, but I do still feel connected.

PG: Obviously, you’re still doing a lot of cooking. Where have you been shopping for your produce and groceries?

CP: Staying at home and cooking is nothing new to me. When people ask me for the best place to eat in Philly, I usually say ‘my house.’ Pre-pandemic, we shopped 2-3 times a week so that we always had super fresh foods on hand. Right now, we shop once a week and instead of hitting 3 stores in the course of a week, we go to Trader Joes or Whole Foods and to the 9th Street Italian Market for our few indulgences like great olive oil from Di Bruno’s, coffee from Anthony’s Italian Coffeehouse and the produce we couldn’t find in stores.

The good news for me is that our CSA has begun so fresh-picked produce weekly will be like heaven. We use Root Mass Farms at the Headhouse Market and it’s so exciting, even with all the restrictions to shop at the market again. 

PG: What are some of your favorite meals since you’ve been staying at home?

CP: I am a pasta addict…there I admitted it. I would eat pasta morning, noon, and night if I could. But my favorite dishes to be cooking right now would have to be soups of any kind, but most essentially lentil soups. I am also cooking Penne alla Norma a lot, baking bread and of course, cookies from my little bakery.

I would have to agree with Maida Haetter when she was asked if she liked cooking as much as baking. She said she liked cooking just fine; it was like the warm-up to the baseball game. I am crazy about baking. I guess you can take the woman out of the pastry kitchen but you can’t take the pastry kitchen out of the woman.

PG: Have you ordered pickup or delivery at all? If so, where?

CP: We normally don’t order out very much, but now to support local restaurants as we all struggle, we order once a week. Our faves include vegan pizza from Caffe Valentino’s in South Philly and falafel sandwiches from Bitar’s. I have to say that while we eat at home most of the time, pandemic or not, the world is a sadder place when I can’t splurge on dinner at Vedge.

PG: You’re back on public television again – this is exciting! What did you do when you were off the air and what was it like producing new shows again?

CP: It’s interesting, the whole television thing. We produced more than 240 episodes and the show ran in 50 countries outside the US. Suddenly, I felt like I had nothing to say anymore. I was just tired, I think. so I felt like the passion was gone. I took a 1-year hiatus that turned into 6 years. In that time I wrote a new cookbook, Back to the Cutting Board (my eighth book), built my travel business to include Spain and Ireland along with Italy and reflected on what I was doing, why tv wasn’t fun anymore. What was the point?

I was having a conversation with Rich Landau of Vedge fame and we were speaking about cooking shows and the food showcased on so many of them, the responsibility we have, as chefs to help people find their way to wellness. I then realized that I would watch cooking shows and yell at the screen about how unhealthy their cooking was. I realized I had something to say, a platform on which to say it and people who are listening. Who knows how long they will be listening so I’m back.

PG: While we’re all waiting for the world to return to normal (ugh), I know it’s hard to say what’s going to be next for you, but tell us more about what you’re most looking forward to?

CP: It has surprised me, the things I miss. I can get a bit of ‘burn out’ because we work hard in our business. But not being out there teaching has been harder than I thought, my cooking videos from my kitchen are as much for me as for my followers. I miss teaching. I’m looking forward to being in front of a classroom again both in my public classes and at Walnut Hill College where I am on the faculty.

I miss meeting my friends for an espresso at Anthony’s on 9th Street or at Java Coffeehouse on 2nd and Christian. And I miss hugging people and kissing on both cheeks to say hello and goodbye.

But the thing I look forward to the most is getting on a plane in Philly and landing in my beloved adopted city of Rome, hosting groups of tourists who will have their lives change forever by traveling with us on one of our intimate boutique tours of Italy.

PG: Any words of encouragement, optimism, and tips for healthy living and eating well during the pandemic?

CP: For me, the stay at home order is a chance for us all to re-group and take stock, if you have that luxury. For those who are essential workers, risking their lives for our safety and for those who are wondering where their next meal is coming from, my heart breaks and we donate as we can. Our business was hard hit, just like everyone else but we can’t lose hope and we can’t accept this as our new normal.

I think that if you’re at home, take stock of your wellness and create better health for yourself and your family. Now is not the time for junk food and “comfort food.” Now is the time to get off the couch and cook healthy food from scratch in your home kitchen. Now is the time to enhance your body’s ability to fight off infection, and you won’t find that in a bucket of fried chicken. You’ll find it by cooking with the best quality you can find and afford, using plants mostly in your cooking (they’re inexpensive and delicious).

Let the fear of a meat shortage work to your advantage: eat less of it and experiment with whole grains and beans, tofu, and tempeh. Plant-based eating is not for the elite or the environmentalist alone. It’s for every single person who wants to live a full, active and healthy life, now and post-pandemic. That should be each and every one of us. 

And finally, stay fit. Get outside and walk. Find an online workout and do it. Sitting on the couch, glued to a screen just makes us feel hopeless and depressed. No one is going to wave a magic wand and end this pandemic. We must stay fit, strong, and well. Not many of us can say we don’t have the time now, so cook, exercise and laugh…love each other fiercely and dream of the days when we can hug and kiss again.

PG: Thanks, Christina!

Learn more about Christina on her website and be sure to check out her latest cooking show on WHYY.

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