Paula Carrier is a diplomat in her own culinary right. An Englishwoman employed as the chef at the US Consulate General in Florence, she has stayed steadfastly at the stove for eight years while consul generals and their families come and go. Equally unchanged is Paula’s hunger for culinary knowledge, drive to please all palates and zest to nourish the many mouths she feeds.
How do you cook for the family’s needs at the Consulate?
On a daily basis, I cook for the Consul General and her family. When we were able to have events, I catered for those. In the past I’ve catered for up to 250 people for the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas. I am generally on my own in the kitchen, but for big events I hire extra staff, waiters, kitchen help, dishwasher and a maître. I’m the event organizer really: I plan the menu and then pass it by the Consul General to see if they like it—and try to persuade them to like it if they’re not convinced!
Do they give you requests or do you recommend ideas?
Everyone’s different. What’s really nice about my job is that the consuls have all travelled so much. They often like to have food from where they have just been or food that reminds them of home. Our current US Consul General Ragini Gupta loves her Indian food. She was also in Jordan, so I make quite a lot of Middle Eastern food. I’m learning new things all the time. When Abigail Rupp was here, I learned to cook Russian and Georgian food, given her previous postings. Today, I cooked two Chinese dishes, Thai and Korean.
Is there much call for Tuscan dishes?
Normally I don’t actually cook that much Italian food because when life is normal, the Consul and their family go to a lot of formal dinners. This time round, they haven’t been able to go out much, so they want more Italian food. This week, I’m making crespelle alla fiorentina and lasagna.
What’s your absolute favourite recipe?
My chilli con carne. I’ve worked on it for years to get it just right! The secret is that I use more than one chilli.
Do you remember ever having any strange requests?
Going back a couple of CGs, Abby had a great sense of humour and she liked quite kitsch food. One day, she came down with this 1970s recipe for a cheese ball, which perplexed me. She was quite entertaining to cook for in that respect.
How did you become a chef?
I’m not a trained chef; I didn’t go to cookery school; I’ve always just used my passion. When I was at school and university, I learnt by working in pubs and restaurant kitchens. I opened a food and farmers’ market shop in Devon, selling only local produce and making my own food. When I moved to Italy, I met a local French-Greek-Jewish chef who took me under his wing and became my maestro. We started catering small private events together, offering a wide range of ethnic specialties. After that, I worked in various trattorias and learned how to make proper sugo from the nonne. Eventually, I was offered a job at the Four Seasons, which took things up a notch.
Has anyone ever commented about the fact you’re a British chef in Italy?
It was very hard coming here as a female British chef in Italy. Once I was at a posh event and a half-American, half-Italian guy came up to me and said, “I think English food is terrible.” So, I asked, “When was the last time you went to England?” And he said, “Oh I’ve never been.” In England, we have a bad rep, but if you want really good food, you go to country pubs, which are like Tuscan trattorias, where you get quality produce. When I lived in Devon, in the southwest of England, I was one of the co-founders of the Slow Food movement there. All the produce was free-range and organic. The cows grazed on the grass near the sea, so the meat was amazing. I know a lot of people at the central market in Florence, which is where I source my meat.
Meat cuts are different from Italian cuts. How do you manage these differences?
You just have to guess! They’re different to English cuts, too, and of course the Tuscan names are different to Italian names, so I usually just ask my butcher which cut I need, depending on what I’m making.
You’re a British chef at the United States Consulate. How did you get the job and have you ever been asked about this curious fact?
I get asked it a lot and the first thing I say is that’s actually ruining my English! [Laughs.] Also, being married to an American, my English has gone out the window! [Laughs again.] I was approached when the chef before me left abruptly, they asked me to do a couple of small lunches, which I did and it went down very well, then they asked me to join them. I had all the experience and they realized I had good organizational skills as well, which you need if you’re going to be doing big events.
What do you prefer to cook: starters, mains, cakes?
That’s a tricky one. I’m not a baker. I make cookies, but I just like to make things taste good. That’s why I love the job. There are two parts to it: the family cooking (healthy one-pot dishes) and banquets (making things look beautiful).
The Consulate has its share of famous guests like Tom Hanks and Ron Howard. What did you cook for them?
I came up with the menu when they were here shooting Inferno. They wanted to have a private dinner with the Ambassador and asked if there was a restaurant where they could keep out of the public eye. I recommended that they came here, given the security and the setup. I made them a parsley soup with truffled creme fraiche, followed by guinea fowl in a chocolate sauce with rösti potatoes and panna cotta for dessert. Tom Hanks didn’t have wine; he had beer. He actually asked me what it’s like to be a British chef in Italy!
When you’re home, relaxing, what do you like to cook?
A chilli is always a good thing, once you have prepared it you can just leave it in the pan for hours. In normality, I love to go out and have someone else to do the work for me!
Recipe: Consulate chocolate chip cookies
A visit to the US Consulate General in Florence is incomplete without a chocolate chip cookie (or two) served with paper napkins printed with the coat of arms of the United States.
Makes about 20 cookies
330ml (1 1/4 cup) plain flour
1/2 tsp baking soda (powder)
1/4 tsp salt
125g (1/2 cup) softened butter
125 ml (1/2 cup) firmly packed brown sugar
125ml (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
150g (6oz) semisweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 375°F (180°C)
In a bowl mix the flour, baking soda and salt together.
In a mixing bowl combine the butter and sugars. Beat until fluffy and well blended. Beat in the egg. Add vanilla essence and mix well.
Gradually add the flour mixture until just blended. Stir in the chocolate chips.
Drop rounded tablespoons onto a lightly greased or baking parchment-lined baking sheets, flattening them slightly with the back of the spoon. Space well apart, as they spread.
Bake until the cookies are lightly browned, 10-14 minutes, depending on your oven. Cool on wire racks. If you like your cookies chewy, bake at 325°F (170°C) for 9-12 minutes.
Cool on baking sheets for about 3 minutes before placing them on wire racks.
Eat while they’re still warm for the true out-of-body experience! They freeze well in a ziplock bag.
This article was published in Issue 277 of The Florentine.