How did you make the decision to move to Sicily?
I like to believe Sicily chose me. I was just finishing up culinary school in NYC and wanted to go work abroad. A mentorship association I belonged to was offering scholarships in Spain, France, and Italy, so I sent in my application and my mentor in Sicily selected me! She ended up being the one-and-only Fabrizia Lanza, the most incredible culinary anthropologist with a cooking school on her family’s wine estate and I ended up coming here for just three months in 2011 to be her assistant. When the founder of the school, Anna Tasca Lanza, passed away in 2010, her daughter Fabrizia sponsored this scholarship in her honor. A woman I so sadly never had the chance to meet somehow laid out a whole new path for my life. Fabrizia was the key to everything, a love affair with the place I proudly call my home, an exciting food/wine paradise, and my adopted family here in Sicily.
Tell us about you and your company.
These days, I am a private chef who organizes culinary tours in Sicily. Each year, I design a limited list of weeklong tours available to solo travelers and small groups. In the spring, I co-host two programs in Sicily and the island of Pantelleria along with Peggy Markel’s Culinary Adventures. In summer, I lead tours for small groups of friends/family on sailboats and catamarans, also working as their private chef for the week in the Aeolian Islands. In October, I have a highly-coveted natural wine tasting program on the volcanic Sicilian island of Pantelleria in the deep south, near Tunisia. Outside of these programs, I host cooking lessons and chef-led market tours in Palermo, I’ve written two books, I cook for music writing retreats and artist residencies, and assist a few small family-run businesses here with their marketing and social media.
Walk us through a market tour in Palermo.
I lead 2-hour food tours in Palermo’s 1,000-year-old outdoor food market in Ballarò. This is a chef-led adventure, not a city tour (although I can also set them up for my clients). Small private groups can book this experience (in advance) year-round. It’s a lively arab-style market with surprises around every corner. Fishmongers display huge swordfish on marble tables, fruit vendors build mountains of cauliflower, they sing, they dance, a delicious yet unknown street meat is carefully pulled out of a secret covered basket, sometimes a butcher walks by with half of a pig on his shoulder, there’s music and chaos, and plenty to eat; it’s absolutely wonderful. Nothing brings me more joy than walking through “my” market, feeling part of this community, and charming the hearts of the vendors. I love sharing my daily life with my guests. Watching them eat a spleen and lung sandwich for the first time is a close second. Everything is included in the price of the experience from breakfast to samples of local specialties (Bronte pistachios, Modica chocolate, seasonal fruit that they might not recognize, Sicilian olives and caper berries), hefty portions of typical Palermitan street food (fluffy sfincione, deep-fried panelle fritters, octopus salad, grilled intestines, beer-battered cardoons, and ricotta that puts to shame that stuff you call ricotta at home), and always something to sip on. At the end, I offer to send them off with recommendations for lunch but no one has ever needed food after one of these tours… usually just a long nap.
What was a memorable experience that you had with your clients?
Last year’s Vino Volcanico natural wine tasting program on the island of Pantelleria was the best of the best. Sixteen women flew all the way to this far-flung volcanic island in the middle of nowhere to spend the week with me. We were hosted by my friends at Le Case del Principe in traditional dammusi houses where we cooked together and dined each night on our private terrace overlooking the sea. I was truly overjoyed to see them bonding with one another, embracing the wild unknown of the island, and appreciating the passionate work that goes into making food and wine in such an off-the-beaten-path place. We took the island by storm, making friends everywhere we went and were even spontaneously invited to participate in the harvest and crush grapes with our feet. Something I created set the scene for a truly magical experience for all of them! No wonder this program completely sells out every year.
What is your go-to restaurant in Sicily that you go back to again and again?
I have an endless list of personal favorites in nearly every nook and cranny of the island but I am also a creature of habit. When it’s up to me, there are secret places in each town that I absolutely cannot miss when visiting. In Trapani, there’s a small side-of-the-road fish shack on the coast where I stop after a day at the sea. In the south, my “treat yourself” Michelin-starred restaurant meal is La Madia by Chef Pino Cuttaia. In Ortigia, I max out my credit card with natural wine bottles that are hard to find at home. In Palermo, I play “first lady” and dine often at my partner’s osteria. On Mount Etna I eat where the winemakers eat. A tried-and-true restaurant list is one of the most requested items when guests sign up for my personalized consultation services.
What has been your most memorable meal in Sicily?
A memorable meal for me is completely based on how I feel and who I am with. For the 25th anniversary of the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School (my home away from home), we set one huge long table set in the middle of a vegetable garden for journalists, authors, chefs, friends and family. Elizabeth Minchilli wrote a beautiful post about this meal.
Something you wish people knew before going to Sicily.
Those who are flexible and open will have the time of their lives here. If you’ve traveled in Italy before but haven’t headed this far south, get ready for something new. A holiday in Sicily is an adventure. If you get it, you’ll start planning your next trip before you even leave.
What’s the best way to get in touch?
Follow: @thecheekychef on Instagram
Everything you need to know: www.lindasarris.com
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