Interview with Chef Cristina Bowerman of Glass Hostaria – Rome, Italy

September 2012

Nicholas Rummell: You’re not afraid to get new and fresh with Italian cuisine. Do you feel Italian cuisine gets pigeonholed into rustic, traditional dishes? Are Romans adventurous eaters, or traditionalists at heart?
Cristina Bowerman: Romans are traditionalists at heart. It is like security for them; they feel safe. When I first came to Rome, I had no clients and people were looking at us as a very strange restaurant in one of the oldest quarters of Rome. They looked at us like “what are these stupid people doing here.” But my respect for the tradition is great. I studied Lazio traditions.

NR: But things have changed for you now, haven’t they?
CB: We have some people of the neighborhood who come in often [for dinner]. I rolled out a red carpet for my first client, who was from the neighborhood. They were very mean to us initially. They called the police to check up on us, to see if we could have the tables on the sidewalk. They hated us. People [in Rome] consider the streets an extension of their houses. They feel they are the proprietors of that particular area. [But] we are among the very few restaurants that really obey the law. There are no people screaming drunk outside. [So] they are starting to respect us, and now they use us as a model. “You see Glass? They don’t give any alcohol to drunk people!”

NR: Do you draw a lot of your inspiration from other cultures?
CB: I’ve been here [in Rome] for seven years. I was born in Puglia, where raw fish was served first, or so says history. My life took a turn when I moved to the States. I went to San Francisco and worked at Higher Grounds [a coffee shop]. I was influenced by a lot of cultures: Vietnamese, Chinese … living in California, dealing with natural, organic food. I carried that with me when I moved to Austin, Texas. I lived there for nine years. There are lots of foodies in Austin, and also a huge Vietnamese and Mexican influence. I’ve always been open to other cultures. Clearly I’m curious. The first thing I do when I hear about a chef is try to learn about their cuisine.

NR: What is the future of Italian cuisine?
CB: That’s a hard question to answer. One of the people we use as a reference is Massimo [Bottura]. He has finally stated that cooking is not just a couple of hands over a stove. It is what you eat, what you buy; it is a reflection of your culture. Having traditional dishes perfected by the use of modern techniques is what Massimo does, and we should follow and support him. I’m a great supporter and I love him. [Davide] Scabine is another. I’ll be there [at this year’s International Chefs Congress to see him. We see each other at every single convention. He’s a genius. He’s been pushing the envelope of Italian cuisine for more than 12 years. Tourists that come over here [to Italy] look for something that doesn’t exist anymore: people playing the guitar outside, and the red and white tablecloth. That cuisine is gone.

NR: What drew you into the kitchen, and what kept you there?
CB: I studied foreign languages, and then graduated in law. I went to San Francisco to keep studying and was hired by a company there because I knew Italian and English. The catering business The Two Skinny Ladies was a hobby. I always thought I could not work as a professional because I was a woman. But then it hit me. I was reading an interview about [Juan Mari] Arzac’s daughter [Elena]; and I thought that she went to school, so I better go to school. So then I graduated in culinary arts.

NR: You’ve staged or worked at a number of U.S. restaurants. Which made the biggest mark on your cooking?
CB: All of them. I worked at Driskill Grill, then came to Italy and worked for a Michelin-starred restaurant. [Josh] Ozersky and [Mario] Batali also helped me get stage at Katz’s, RUB, and Dickson’s Farmstead Meats in New York. They told me all their secrets. When I came back to Italy I did not want to do the traditional pastrami. Instead of a brisket, I did a veal tongue. That is the dish of my heart. There is a big Jewish area here in Rome, but nobody does [pastrami] right, and I’m a huge fan of the pastrami sandwich.

NR: Have you dabbled in other off cuts?
CB: I am the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Rome with an offal menu; we have veal heart, sweatbreads, tongue, and ribs. I still have a hard time trying to sell brain, because the texture is really odd. It’s the idea of it—no pun intended. I tried changing the shape of brain to “hide it.”

NR: How do you focus your cuisine?
CB: I worked as a production manager for years, so I try to keep a style uniform throughout the dishes. I’m here every day at 10 or 11am, and [I’m] always putting myself under scrutiny. I want scrutiny of new dishes. When we first opened, I saw the menu had gotten out of hand. Living in the States for 15 years, and then living in Rome where I’d never lived before, I saw no common thread [for my inspirations or philosophy]. You just need to learn how to smooth the edges.

NR: How does art influence your cooking and plating?
CB: I’m very proud of my experience as a graphic artist. I am going back into primitive materials in terms of dishes, trying to make plating as light as possible. French traditionally was very heavy plating, very constructed. Now we’re trying to go back to basics. I’ve never really liked the overly constructed plates. I never use nail polish, never use makeup, and my dishes reflect who I am. If I could use a stone plate or wood, I would. I try to remain as flat as possible to enhance the food.

NR: What is next for you?
CB: Traveling to Japan and Vietnam are my next steps. This coming winter I might go. Glass House will always be me. It’s my baby. When I’m no longer here it will close. I also have plans to open a bakery/deli/restaurant with Roscioli in Rome in a few weeks. The dream is to open a restaurant in the United States, but there is plenty of time to do that.