Chef Pam’s Bella Cucina…
By the age of 3, Pam Buono was “making cookies, raviolis – the whole bit” with her great aunt. “I grew up in a traditional Sicilian household where we always had Sunday dinner,” says the founder of Chef Pam’s Bella Cucina. “I helped my mother and father cook.”
By age 16, she was serving as a chef ’s apprentice at Boston’s prestigious Parker House Restaurant, where she spent six years developing her culinary skills. “This was before women were in the back of the house,” says Buono. “I mean, it’s a man’s business. It was rough.” To emphasize her point, she says she worked for three Gordon Ramsey-type chefs during those years.
Not all men, however, were disparaging; her father and the neighbor across the street, who happened to be the executive chef at the Parker House, supported her culinary pursuits. The neighbor also ran a catering business, and when he had a weekend event, he would ask her father what she was doing. “He knew I could handle it,” she says, “and he wanted me to help him cater.”
Buono completed all of her academic work at the University of Massachusetts, but it would take several more years – following marriage, family and life in between – before she completed her formal culinary education.
While teaching cooking classes at That Kitchen Place and offering private cooking lessons, Buono says her late husband encouraged her to get her degree. “When I started classes, my instructor said, ‘You could be teaching this,’ Buono recalls. “When I told him where I had apprenticed, he asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ She graduated from that culinary program in 2004.
Buono specializes in Mediterranean and Southern Sicilian Italian cuisine. Today she teaches cooking classes at Sizzles Kitchen in downtown Redding and continues to teach private in-home classes to small groups. “People are usually interested in learning how to make homemade pasta – ravioli, fettuccine, tortellini,” she says of the private class requests, “and there’s a big interest in learning how to make cannoli.” Gluten-free cooking classes and recipes, including those featuring pizza and pasta, are also available.
In addition to Italian cuisine, Buono specializes in dishes of Syrian, Greek, Persian and Moroccan origin. Her three-hour classes include written recipes, a cultural presentation, information on spices and recipe longevity. Class participants can either engage in hands-on cooking or simply observe if they learn better by watching rather than doing in the moment.
Buono travels to Sacramento a couple times a month to shop for specialty Italian ingredients and says finding Middle Eastern ingredients locally is similarly challenging. “I’ve had to change some of the recipes to make it easier for people to make them with substitutions,” she says. “I don’t like to order online, but sometimes I have to.”
She cites Barberry as an example, which she describes as a small sour-tasting berry (think unsweetened cranberry) about the size of a currant that is used in traditional Iranian dishes. “There’s no substitute for that,” she says. “They’re either good or they’re dry, so ordering online is a gamble.”
A recent catering event required the chef to prepare a popular Syrian cake recipe that called for orange blossom and rose waters, and saffron, all of which came from the specialty shops Buono sources from Sacramento.
Though she once catered events for upwards of 50 people, these days she prefers to keep it small. “Twenty-five is about my max,” she says. This gives her time and space to make and package her marina and tomato-eggplant-olive sauces, Sicilian fig jam and Italian biscotti, which are sold through Sizzles Kitchen and online at chefpamsbellacucina.com.
“Everybody’s into microwave stuff out of a box and fast food. I don’t want to eat that,” says Buono. “I want to prepare beautiful cuisine in a beautiful kitchen. I want people – when they hear the name Bella Cocina – to feel a sense of family, heritage and cooking from the heart.”•
Article written by:
Claudia Mosby is a Redding-based freelance writer. She is the founder and director of The Expressive Spirit, a wellness company in Mt. Shasta offering spiritual direction, arts and nature-based activities and consultancy for grief and loss.