Welcome back to the “Our Italians” series of interviews. In these we focus on food artisans, experts and producers in Italy or abroad. These passionate individuals are committed to sharing the best in Italian food, wine and traditional products, through family-owned businesses and small scale enterprises, and we’re here to introduce them to you.

Our Italians - Chef Mario Traina

Today we meet Mario Stefano Traina: gastronome, cook, and educator extraordinaire. Mario is the Director of Studies at Piazza Dei Mestieri in Catania, Italy. Piazza Dei Mestieri is a foundation created to offer choice for students with difficulties in finding success in a traditional educational setting. The focus of the foundation is on training and empowering young people by assisting them in creating opportunity in their own life through vocational training, despite the environmental challenges they have endured. Much of this success is due directly to Mario who has taken his own experience, love of cooking, and immense heart to help his students believe in their ability to be who they want to be. Meet Mario.

CM:  Where are you from? Who and/or what encouraged your career in the culinary arts?

Mario: I am from Catania however I recently found out I bring with me a lot of thrilling Turkish blood and a precious bit of African. I feel it and I love it.

Our Italians - Chef Mario Traina from Catania

I remember preparing afternoon tea for my old aunts when I was 7 or 8.  So odd… afternoon tea in Sicily! I would spread butter on toast and add jam, then flash cook these in the toaster. All the butter would become shiny and the bread crisp. Something happened in my mind in those moments as I surprised others, offering something they had never seen before.  It thrilled me.

I always loved to taste everything, fearlessly.  Both my nonnas are glorious cooks and this was the real trigger.  I realised I could build new foods by looking at recipes in books and by just sitting under my nonna’s armpits. “Assittatu suttta a ’scidda da nanna” as we say!  I started absorbing every soffritto, every fried eggplant and and my nonnas’ techniques.  I could smell what was on the pot by just walking in the door at my house. I found myself replicating everything inviting my relatives to my house to cook like my grandmothers and managing whole private events in my living room, with the help of my mother, my first and most beloved sous-chef. It was magic. It’s still that way. Totally.

CM:  How has your career developed?

My career path is quite unusual. I studied law for 4 years while I was still working like crazy in the kitchen. There are some 15 lawyers in my family. It was the most logical path for me to follow. Then I realised that was somebody else’s vision. I quit university and left to cook in professional kitchens. I was 22, had accumulated decent experience but needed to work professionally.  One of my friends, Chef Angelo Treno from Al Fogher in Piazza Armerina, told me of a new university where they studied food. I joined the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, and graduated in 2008. It changed me profoundly. I started understating the extremely deep value of food and all of its interaction in life. I am the University’s Ambassador now. The legacy I keep alive with the work we do is crucial for every cook of the future.

Our Italians - Mario Traina

CM:  Describe how your interest in teaching began?

Mario: I developed an intense love for education during my university years and wrote an experimental thesis about Edible Education.  After graduating I worked at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, then joined several other schools and educational groups. I then worked in several restaurants.  Finally I landed back at a school. It had been ten years since I had started working on educational projects. I believe it’s a majestic field which needs an incredible amount of support from other institutions, something which is currently lacking.

CM:  What is it about your work that inspires you?

Mario:  The idea that the world holds an infinite amount of wonders and we can find much joy in helping others discover them.

CM:  Describe the students with whom you work. What does it mean for them to complete your program? How have their lives changed?

Mario:  I have the privilege of working for a foundation that helps kids in great need reach new levels of wellness. They endure all sorts of difficult challenges such as criminal backgrounds, medical issues, poverty, deep cultural gaps and social alienation. Gastronomy is used as a tool to clean out the dirt from these jewels, help them see clear in a life which hasn’t been kind.  The discovery of one’s potential is a reward. Completing the program gives kids the opportunity to obtain an official title, a diploma. New job opportunities open up, which make the kids more self confident and proud.

Our Italians - Mario Traina's students

CM:  What has been the most challenging part of your position?

Mario:  I was never trained to be an educator, so I had to develop my own methods.  To work in a school isn’t necessarily about teaching others. Your first student is looking at you at the mirror! It took me a very long time to grasp that teaching is not rigid at all.  For instance, it is important to focus on the main objective behind the practical action. I had a student who could not hold a knife properly, even watching me doing it several times. I realised his issue was not simply holding a knife. The problem derived from intense stress he felt from being in a closed environment with people who he felt judged him. So the goal became building self confidence. Once he established better connections with his classmates and saw other students dealing with the same issues, he became so smooth and natural in slicing an onion, just like an experienced chef!  Being a teacher has been my challenge and my joy.

Our Italians - Mario Traina, teaching

Another challenge was the background diversity between me and my students. I had to reevaluate everything I knew. This was a completely different set of human beings I was dealing with, with different names and appearance, speech, customs, and intellects. I was a foreigner at the beginning. Like the white man discovering the Americas, I had to be studied and accepted. Learning the rituals took time before I was recognised as an equal, as one of them.

CM:  What has been the most rewarding part of your position?

Mario:  What the students become at the end of the course is my reward; different, free, mature individuals. Not all of them obviously, some are very difficult cases and we have to work more in order to help those individuals properly. Some students are now recruited and appreciated by reputable companies. They have jobs. They are self confident. They have overcome many issues in their lives. This is my reward. I have seen growth and students reach very high goals. And the most surprising fact is that they are coming from a society that never expected such results from them! I was taught by life that miracles can happen very easily.  I built a family out of a school group, with students and colleagues. This is a miracle. It’s at the base of our job.

Our Italians - Mario Traina's students

CM:  What lessons do you believe food teaches us?

Mario: Food is the essence of life. Life is a form of existence. A fun one.
So it must be built solidly on a fun element. If food is fun, all comes natural. All is one.

CM:  How have your students affected your life? What have you learned from them?

Mario: I can say I am the person I am now mostly thanks to my students. Age is an interesting topic. I like to interact with people of all ages but when it comes to kids there is incredible emotional value. They’re pure, wild and free. They learn to get just enough balance and wisdom. We should all retain our youthfulness.

Our Italians - Mario Traina

CM:  Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Mario: I think I will be closer to the soil, the earth. I will be reconnecting more with nature and primordial practices. Food will be my world but I will enter it from the back door, quietly.
You’ll know I’m home when you will smell frying eggplants.

Thank you Mario. Stay tuned for more “Our Italians” interviews.

Images courtesy of Jay Cavallaro – Linda Sarris – Elena Groza