I was never Little Miss Outgoing. You know, the one to step into a party, chat up a whole slew of people with ease and walk out with a crew of new friends. I was shy and awkward in social settings and in my head far too much. I was thinking about how easy it was for people, how much they all had in common and wondering what everyone else was talking about. In a crowd full of people, I always found myself lonely or isolated. Yes, I had “friends” at these events, or perhaps I should say I knew lots of people, but ultimately I felt alone. Even as an adult I am usually the first to leave a party, feeling mildly defeated. Separately, I was never much of a planner — never militant, organized and pragmatic with regard to scheduling. I work best under pressure and at the last minute. So where do I thrive? I’ll tell you — I am simply always better one on one.
Nowadays, or really in the past three years, I have thrown in the towel on hoping to “connect” at an event or at a party. It is in the kitchen where the true magic happens. This is the place where a stranger becomes a friend and it is likely the only place where my words flow out honestly and joyfully. Perhaps it is because the kitchen is where I feel most like myself, where I am not trying to be something I am not. It is also where a shared passion is celebrated, and where the fast pace prevents my mind from intervening.
Three weeks ago I went to Los Angeles to film an exciting project and while there I had the swoony opportunity to cook with Chef Nina Clemente at Di Alba, an eatery by Nina and restaurant group The Smile. Located in the Arts District, Di Alba serves Italian-inspired fare like focaccia by the slice, salads and pastries. Before I walked into Nina’s kitchen, we were only Insta-friends. True to form, our date in the kitchen came together just two days prior to my leaving for L.A. You know my mind was like, “Athena, you are such a mess. Why didn’t you plan something in advance? There are so many incredible people on the West Coast to shoot with.” And then my good ol’ Instagram feed began singing the tune of Nina Clemente. Lightbulb! An email to Carlos Quirarte from The Smile, an intro to Nina and boom, a shoot was scheduled. And then mega boom, a friend was made.
Let me rephrase — when I say friend, what I really mean is long-lost soul sister. Oh no no no, that awkward Athena stutterer, the one who can never quite find her words — that lady was nowhere to be found. Nina and I instantly fell in love. First she fed me the most delicious focaccia with citrusy shaved brussels sprouts, a poached egg and the spiciest infused oil. Then we went around the world of conversation from the L.A. famers’ markets to mommying to ‘80s NYC to how Nina found her way into food. She talked me though how she made fresh ricotta that morning and where the light was best to shoot our dish. This was all within five minutes of my stepping foot inside Di Alba.
And then our swoon-fest courtship came to such a screeching halt that there were practically tire marks on the concrete floor where I was shooting the ricotta and the ingredients for our dish. Yes, that’s right, the food was spread out on the floor. (This is completely normal to anyone who works in food or is photographing food — the floor is the sweet spot.) But what wasn’t so sweet was that the screech I mentioned was courtesy of the HEALTH DEPARTMENT! For Di Alba’s first-ever inspection!
Here is where the real frenzy set in. We went from literally being frozen, like, “is this really happening?”, to ricotta off the floor and into the garbage and hair pulled back and wrapped in a scarf. We thought we were fast-paced before. Well, now we were in fight-or-flight mode. Oh lord, oh lord, I just could not be the one responsible for anything less than an “A”. I scurried away into the corner, quiet as a mouse, while Nina and Matt and the entire kitchen staff went through what felt like a 15-hour-long inspection. When they emerged from the kitchen, sweat beads ever so slightly revealing themselves, they paused – the anticipation killing me – and then beamed that they got an “A”!
Nothing like a little drama to build a fast friendship. Not only did we get to recount the entire episode and laugh about the hilarious timing of it all, we also now got to spend the entire afternoon together as opposed to just a mere few hours. Now, four hours into our day together, we finally got into the kitchen to make Nina’s absolutely delicious roasted asparagus and radicchio salad spiked with crunchy pistachio, refreshing mint and the most pillowy dollops of fresh ricotta. (recipe below!) Oh, and we most certainly needed to remake the homemade ricotta that got tossed out, which I will admit, I was quite happy about. Love learning something new, and I might add, from the most patient and warm, and charismatic teacher imaginable, especially after she was thrown for quite the loop! When Nina and I exited the kitchen we had smiles plastered across our faces and at almost the exact time, we squealed about how we feel like family, like we’ve known one another for a lifetime. Now THIS is how I build a deep-rooted friendship. Who needs a party, anyway?