As part of our I Work in Food! series, we are shining the spotlight on Olivia Spadavecchia, the editorial mastermind behind the region’s prominent Gourmet magazine. Olivia tells us about her journey in food, how she got her job and provides really useful insight on food writing in the region. In this interview, she shares more about herself and her work in her very own words. Hers is a career to watch. Be inspired!
You started out in the media in South Africa, what made you move to Dubai?
Being from a multi-cultural family and with parents that have always travelled I knew I always wanted to live in different countries – I’ve always had itchy feet. I spent time in Dubai while I was a student, as my dad was working here, and it was love at first visit. I came back telling everyone I was moving there as soon as possible. I finished my degree, worked for a few years and in the interim my mum and step-dad moved over so it was just a natural progression. Dubai feels like my home now.
How does working in the media in Dubai compare with South Africa?
I covered business and industry related journalism when I was in South Africa so it was very different genres to the interior design and food writing I’ve done here. With the announcement of the FIFA World Cup and all the incredible infrastructure development ahead of the event it was an exciting time to be a journo in South Africa. The job satisfaction I have here comes from totally different places.
Looking at the industry at large, Dubai is still developing and, to date, publishing international titles has been a way for it to grow. I look forward to seeing more home-grown newspapers, more locally born magazines and TV programmes.
In general either working in Dubai or SA, you face the same deadline-driven pressure and heavy workload that’s inherent to the media industry, but coupled with the most incredible opportunities to meet very talented people, in whichever field, to constantly learn new things and travel to different places.
What are the major differences you have found between the food scene in Dubai and Abu Dhabi?
I have family in Abu Dhabi and the majority of my eating experience in the capital happens at their house and it’s always delicious! Dubai’s food scene is huge, there’s a new eatery opening every day it seems while Abu Dhabi’s growth has been more staggered. I think Abu Dhabi lacks the variety and convenience of Dubai’s food scene, but what I’m seeing increasingly is that brands are opening in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in tandem or exclusively in Abu Dhabi so it’s definitely growing. In my new role I’m looking forward to spending more time trying restaurants there.
What inspires you?
From a food perspective I have always been inspired by cooking shows and books, in my teens I’d watch a dish being prepared by the likes of Gary Rhodes or Giorgio Locatelli and think “I’m going to go make my own version of that.” I adore photography and now that food is my job, food imagery is a great source of inspiration. One picture inspires a hundred thoughts about ingredients, eating experiences, tastes, emotions and so on.
Journalism vs PR… what are some of the top things you have learnt from each?
The overriding lesson from both fields is honesty, that’s invaluable when you’re in communication industries. From PR I have learnt about managing expectations – be realistic about what you can deliver and what everyone is going to get out of the situation. There’s nothing worse than lip service. As a journalist the most important things are to listen and be observant. Do your homework and ask the right questions, and when someone has information or knowledge worth your readers knowing about it’s your duty to package that and deliver it in the best way possible. Whether PR or journalism it’s always worth putting in the additional effort and elevating whatever you do from the average. The worst thing is to look back on something professionally and not be proud of it so keep that in mind.
What is it like holding down the top post at the first English language home-grown food mag?
I feel kind of cheesy when I say it but this is my dream job! I feel like each month I’m here is getting better than the next, it’s a great deal of work but when it’s all about the things I love – cooking, eating and entertaining – it makes the load lighter. There’s pressure to keep growing the magazine and constantly improving and so we all work hard. Watching the magazine evolve and improve in the past few months has been very motivating and it’s amazing to have chefs and readers notice the development. It’s great to have someone email in and say I thought this feature was great or send a picture of a dish we inspired them to make.
What are some of the perks of the job?
I get to eat at some of Dubai’s best restaurants and that doesn’t mean exclusively fine dining, just enjoying food created by people that put their heart into what they put on the plate. I have the opportunity to interview incredibly talented chefs who I’ve been a fan of for years. And I get to meet likeminded foodies and share stories and knowledge about the food scene.
What is your typical day like?
I think about food and look at food and write about food… all day long! I get into the office, post some foodie news on Ahlan! Live and on Facebook then I visit my go-to sites for food and non-food related news just to see where we are in the world on that particular day. On a daily basis I’m putting features together, organising shoots, going through recipes and planning the upcoming issues. In the evenings I generally have an event – be it a launch or tasting or class – and when I don’t I try my best to get in a zumba class or some sort of exercise.
You are of Italian ancestry, how has your family background influenced your interest in food?
Massively! My father is passionate about food, as is my mother, they had an Italian restaurant in Botswana when I was growing up and I have really fond memories of being in the kitchen with the cooks. They’d give me mashed potato with Bolognese sauce and I can still remember how good it tasted. I’ve always felt at home in the kitchen because of this.
My family is very multi-cultural – all my aunts and uncles married people of different nationalities so we have a merger of several cooking styles and different flavours and I grew up with all these amazing influences. It opened my mind to food a lot and I became an adventurous eater early on. My family also encouraged me to be in the kitchen and my grandmother would always bring us together around the table. I grew up in an environment where food was central to family and as a result, for me, cooking and eating has always been infused with love.
How do you go about creating an issue?
We begin by looking at the month and what ingredients are seasonal and what theme fits the issue. So December’s issue is, of course, all about Christmas and festive cooking and entertaining for family and friends. We build each issue around a monthly theme and then try to relate our regular features around this. We decide on which features to buy in and which we’ll shoot ourselves with local chefs developing recipes exclusively for Gourmet. We’re always pursuing the latest news about restaurant openings, products, the hottest chefs and so on to ensure that Gourmet is at the forefront of the foodie scene every month and presents fresh, beautifully designed content that is different to other titles.
What do you think sets your magazine apart in the Middle Eastern market?
We are the ideal combination of inspirational and practical. We understand our reader so well, down to exactly how much time she spends in the kitchen, how she likes to entertain and host dinner parties. We provide content that is specifically tailored to this, information that is relevant and recipes that jump off the page and make you want to make them immediately. Our menus cover easy weeknight meals and impressive dinner parties.
We are very relevant to the local food scene while still combining international aspects that we know our readers are interested in. The design throughout our magazine is stylish and striking and I think this is a big differentiator for Gourmet. We’re also very focused on bringing the very latest news on the scene – being the first or only magazine to do so.
Are writers born or made?
They are born the day they fall in love with their first book.
Is food writing an economically viable profession in the UAE?
As a journalist I think you need to resign yourself early on to the fact that, unless you’re one of the few exceptions, becoming a multi-millionaire is not part of your career path! Look for a company that offers you room for growth related to how hard you work (and with that, more money). Also look for perks like travel, if you get to see a new country as part of your job you’ll have a fantastic experience without the fare! If you’re a foodie you’ll naturally spend more money eating out and buying ingredients and products, hopefully once you’re involved in writing about it these things come complimentary – which is an immediate saving!
Do you pay freelance contributors and if so, what is your selection process?
We like to bring different voices and perspectives to the magazine. We have a pool of regular contributors who we have good relationships with, we know they deliver good quality work to deadline and have exciting feature ideas. Anyone that is interested in writing needs to get in touch with us and then send over some ideas for features and samples of their writing. Once we see that they’re able to deliver consistently good quality work we remunerate them.
What are the main differences between a writer and an editor?
Editors need to look at the bigger picture and incorporate what is commercially beneficial for the publication as well as what it top-notch editorial content. It’s about managing budgets and resources and coordinating the production of each issue with all the team members. You’re also involved in developing value-adds for your title, like supplements or social media and events.
As a writer you focus on the particular articles or features you’re doing at a time and although you do need to plan ahead your focus is on getting the interviews and news and getting the words on to the page in time. It’s nice sometimes to be able to step away and just get lost in writing a feature rather than all the day-to-day management that goes with being an editor.
Do you cook? If, so, how did you learn?
I do and I absolutely love it! I learnt at the hands of my grandmother and my parents. My mum taught me the Italian classics (which she learnt from my dad’s gran) and I’d help her when she made handmade pasta or gnocchi, she’s an incredible cook and hostess. I was always in the kitchen watching my relatives cook, I learnt all the fundamentals from this and they always encouraged me to help and to make things myself. I remember cooking meals for my parents when I was still in primary school.
After one too many failed attempts to bake a cake, I realised that desserts are not for me. I turned my attention to savoury food and have never looked back! As I’ve got older I’ve learnt from cooking shows and books, and recently, a lot of classes – which is another fantastic perk of my job.
What is your oldest and fondest food memory?
I remember, through a combination of my own hazy recollections, my parent’s stories and photos, that I always ate at the table with the family in my high chair. My gran insisted that I eat all home-cooked food, no premade baby food. She made simplified versions of what everyone else was eating and mashed it up for me. I remember this and cherish the care that her and my mum put in to feeding me. My mum tells me my favourite way to show that I’d had enough was to tip my plate over my head. Thankfully, that’s a habit I grew out of.
What are some of your favourite eateries?
I love Thai food and Smiling BKK is my fave low-key spot to eat authentic food. I could eat their noodle soups, chicken with chilli and basil, and stir-fried morning glory at any time! I’m a massive fan of spicy food.
Pizza is another passion of mine; for take-out Rossovivo is best and for sit-down it’s Bussola. I also love a good steak and I consistently enjoy West 14th. Zheng He’s is my preferred Cantonese, Chimes and Asia Republic for South-East Asian. Shake Shack for burgers, Pinkberry for fro-yo, Okku’s scallops are the best in town. More Café makes lentil soup like no other, Loca for Mexican, Indego for refined Indian… how much time do we have?
What are some of the meals that just sing “comfort food” for you?
There are two major ones: pasta e fagioli which is an Italian soup with beans, small pasta and some kind of pork. When I was at university in Johannesburg my mum would make big Tupperwares full of the soup and drive four hours from Gaborone to bring me my fix! Nowadays my dad brings me a stockpile of a premade one whenever he travels to Italy. It is a taste of home and family all in one dish. I could eat it every day, it’s an obsession. The other is mashed potatoes with some sort of meat and gravy. If there’s mash on offer I will choose it, hands down. When I crave pasta it’s spaghetti carbonara without a doubt. It’s rich and indulgent and sometimes you just need that kind of meal. I’m a fan of soul food, real meals that are hearty and heart-warming.
What are your favourite blogs to read in the UAE?
Yours of course! Fooderati is really a great portal that brings the UAE’s bloggers together. It is one of the first tabs I open when I go online and as a result I get to check out posts from all of the local bloggers and each one offers some form of interest or inspiration. In particular I’m a fan of I Live in a Frying Pan for seeking out all the city’s hidden gems that I’m always meaning to visit, FooDiva for honest reviews and The Hedonista for stunning photography.
Any last words?
When I first applied for work as a journalist in South Africa I went a couple of months without finding anything I really wanted so I thought I’d diversify my search. I ended up going for an interview to work at a human resources company and this woman told me that if I wanted to be a journalist I had to go on 100 interviews until I got the right job and that I would get it. A few weeks later I did. At the beginning of the year I knew I had to find a way to combine my passion for food with writing, I resigned without another job lined up and a few months later this position at Gourmet came up and I was all over it. The point is that you have to have faith in what you truly want. If you pursue it with passion and commitment the right opportunities will open up. My dad has always said to me – close a door, open a gate.