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SPOTLIGHT SCENE: Cooking in Manhattan (#StayHome Edition)

Cooking in Manhattan

Fabulous Fashion. Italian cuisine and reality chef. Esquire in New York City. These phrases may seem unrelated to one another but what do they all have in common? Well, they all describe this powerhouse; who happens to be someone who I call friend and whom I have know for almost 15 years! I am so proud and honored to feature no other than Miss Serena Palumbo-Weiss to be our very first ever featured guest in The Spotlight Scene (#StayHome Edition).

I met Serena through a common friend of ours in a party during our heydays in New York City and we quickly bonded as we share the same interests except that she is a very good (actually no, I am sorry...) she is an exceptional cook and I am just an exceptional fan of being a consumer of good food-- which still has a correlation. I will never forget the day when she invited me one day to come for dinner at her Upper West Side apartment and even told me to invite some friends (a bunch of French guys who literally came and raided her kitchen afterwards). That night, I came earlier to have some "girl time" before the guests arrive and I witnessed a true perfection in the kitchen: Serena in her apron, covered with flour marks doing gnocchi by hand. I was gobsmacked because I wished I have those skills but also amazed at her passion for making food with love. There I knew that this woman is not to mess with-- especially in the kitchen!

Years later, life happened and we moved on with our lives and yet every time Serena and I get a chance to escape our busy lives and meet up in the city, even for lunch, we take the opportunity to do so. It is indeed a "no brainer" not to feature this one special lady and without further ado, here's a look at my little catch up chat with our Spotlight Scene star, Serena:

The Parisian Panda: So for all The PP followers, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Serena: First of all thank you for having me on your website! We have been friends for a long time and I have been following your adventures and it’s great to be a part of it. I was born in Salerno in Southern Italy. I am an only child and spent every summer of my childhood on the Amalfi Coast. As dreamy as it sounds I was always very driven and learned from my parents’ incredible work ethic: the slow pace and the easy living never really matched my choices. I studied really hard even when I was already getting good grades and everybody was telling me to take it easy. I was lucky to travel a bit with my family and I knew that there was a bigger world out there and I had to get ready! After I graduated law school in Italy, I started working at a US law firm and from there my career took off and I moved to the next big adventure, coming to NY. I landed in 2004 and I have a “coming home” feeling, so I never left. It wasn’t always easy and it definitely was a lot of work but I tend to think that life always prepares you for your next chapter, so I’m still here.

PP: Have you always loved to cook? Who taught you? Did you ever want to pursue cooking as a career or did you always want to be a lawyer?

S: Cooking was never the focus as I grew up. Food was all around me because it is a part of the culture, but teaching me how to cook was never forced or imposed. As a toddler my mom would make gnocchi and have me play with the dough. When they say that it is transferred from mother to child they really mean it organically.

Serena cooking

"As a child grows in Italy, or quite frankly in any Italian household all over the world, you observe the gestures, the movements, sometimes you participate, like for fresh pasta, but you really learn by taste and repetition."

Cooking pasta

There are so many recipes where I can’t really tell you the exact quantity of the ingredients but I can teach you the method and explain what you are looking for, and that will yield a delicious dish.I would say that my most direct cooking influences are my mom, Vanna, and my Nonna, Maria. I have experienced the process with them and they were patient enough to let me mess up the kitchen for years. I might add that they also taught me the importance of cleaning up so now, as every other Southern Italian woman, I am a clean freak. It’s official, I am turning into my mother!

A generation of Italian Women passing down tradition (L to F): Serena, with daughter, Erika, and mother, Vanna.

Three generations of Italian women

But career wise I wanted to be a journalist. I was absolutely fascinated by the work of an investigative journalist. I went to law school because at that time, the most accomplished journalists in Italian media had a legal background. Little did I know that I would actually move to NYC to be an attorney.

PP: How was your experience at the Food Network (Who pushed you to audition, time at the show, what are your take aways from it, did you regret the experience? etc. or Would you do it again?)

S: My adventures in front of the camera started a bit earlier than Food Network. I have always had little side jobs when I was studying. In Italy I was an extra in a soap opera shot in Naples, where my law school was, then in Rome and NY I was an extra on several productions.

My series Cooking in Manhattan was created in 2008 together with my husband Kurt who is my executive producer, director and camera man.

I received an email from a casting director and went for the audition to be on Food Network Star. At first I wasn’t really convinced I could do it but family friends and colleagues all persuaded me to give it a go. I was really surprised when I was selected and got tickets to go to LA and shoot the reality show. It was a great experience and I learned a lot about reality television and how media really works. I was the only contestant of the 12 finalists without a culinary education and also the only one who was not a native speaker. I have been speaking English from a very early age but the accent definitely got in the way at times causing some pretty hilarious situations. I survived the eliminations challenges much longer than expected: none of the other contestants thought I would be used to waking up early to go to a market or standing up to cook and serve food every day...

"...but I am a hustler by nature and I’m also a corporate attorney who has survived life in some of the toughest law firms, so I knew I would be alright..."

I am very glad that I participated and I would do it again if work and family commitments allow me to take some time off.

PP: So now, let's talk about something that we both enjoy; fashion! What are your fashion go-to tips and must haves or dos?

S: I’m Italian so I love fashion but my style has evolved a lot over the years. I was very minimalistic in my early 20s, due mostly to a reduced budget and the education expenses but over the years I have developed a taste for craftsmanship.

My personal rules are as follows: I don't buy fast fashion regardless of the price because of its quality; I shy away from very flashy outfits especially when it comes to my field (looking professional is a must) but doesn't have to be boring; Invest in quality tailoring; A good accessory makes an outfit fun and lastly; High heels must be comfortable!

(PS: Her husband, Kurt, pictured below is a very tall guy!)

Weiss family picture

PP: So tell us how does a powerhouse like you cope with the pandemic? How does a career woman and a homemaker at the same time make it work? Any advice and tips for women like you?

S: This pandemic has been an experience like no others. It’s not lost on me how lucky I am to be able to work from home and connect with my colleagues all over the world. It’s very humbling to see so many people struggling with the pandemic, with their jobs and taking care of their families. My husband and I have been working from home and our daughter has been e-learning. Her school pivoted very quickly and they have created a very nice routine that keeps the children busy for most of the day. We still have to monitor her and check that she does all the assignments but the biggest drawback has been that she misses her friends and teachers. So far, I have learned to make lots of fun arts and crafts as well! As far as work is concerned this is a wakeup call for the people who thought that working from home was a day off:

"I work more than ever before and often; the hours are even longer because I start very early! I try to stay mentally and physically healthy by working out and getting some me time, even if it’s just half hour."

PP: Last but not the least, as an expert and skilled cook that I know you are, any famous Italian recipés that you would like to share?

S: I have been test driving a new focaccia recipe and the family is my guinea pig. They absolutely love it!


Ingredients and Procedure:

* 4 cups of all purpose flour

* 1 1/4 cup of warm water (as warm as your faucet goes, not too hot)

* 1/2 cup of olive oil plus more to grease the baking sheet

* 1 tbsp of instant yeast

* 1 tbsp of sugar

* 1 1/2 tbsp of kosher salt

* 1/2 cup of instant mashed potatoes cooked with 1/2 cup of water (or half a cup of mashed potatoes)

garnish of your choice such as olives, tomatoes, onions or mushrooms and plenty of parmiggiano

- Mix the warm water with sugar and yeast and let stand for 10 minutes, until you notice that the yeast has foamed at the surface.

- Pour the flour and the mashed potatoes in the cup of a stand in mixer and mix on low.

- Add the oil and the yeast mixture to the flour mixture and mix with the hook attachment for about 5 minutes.

- Add the salt and mix for additional 5 minutes, then grease the bowl and cover it with a kitchen towel.

- Let the dough rise for about 1 hour, then grease the baking sheet you will use for cooking and place the dough in the baking sheet. Add the garnish and cover with a kitchen towel again for 1 hour.

- Preheat the oven at 400F and drizzle some oil on the focaccia. Cook until golden brown at the top. Let it rest for 5 min and serve with a nice olive oil and a cheese or charcuterie plate.

Thank you so much Serena for sharing not only one of your Italian recipes but for also opening up about your colorful life with us. This is indeed a testament to anybody that as long as you have the willpower and determination to reach for your dreams, anything is truly possible especially in the concrete jungle of New York City. Plus, it does not hurt that you don't only look and dress good but also cook exceptionally! Bravissimo!

To learn more about Serena, you can watch her cooking escapades and share delicious Italian recipes in her Youtube cooking page, Cooking in Manhattan. You can also visit her website and her Instagram page by clicking on each hyperlink. Until then, Arrivederci!

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